Valenti leaves mark at Oregon State
Former head coach still lives and breathes Beaver sports at 92
Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum is named for Paul Valenti’s coach, Amory T. "Slats" Gill.
The coliseum’s court is named for Ralph Miller, the equally legendary coach who succeeded Valenti.
But the program, literally for most of its 111 seasons, has in one way or another been associated with Valenti.
A player, an assistant, a head coach and for decades now an elder statesman, the 92-year-old Valenti has been called the greatest living ambassador of Oregon State athletics.
“It’s been amazing for me to get an opportunity to know Coach Valenti,” current Oregon State men’s coach Craig Robinson said. “He’s been a wonderful resource and it’s great to have his perspective on the program.
“He’s still very sharp. He’s 90-something, but if he forgets things, they’re not very important things.”
Until recently, Valenti still kept an office and regular morning hours in Gill Coliseum. Though the years have slowed his pace, he still attends most of Oregon State’s home basketball, football and baseball games.
“You can’t be a ‘dead fanny,’ ” Valenti said, a lilt in his voice. “You’ve got to keep active and appreciate what you have and what you’ve had. Just keep going, you know?
“I’ve had a great family life. My wife [Francine] and I have been together for 66 years. You can’t get it done unless you have good people around you.”
The son of Italian immigrants -- his father Jim was a furniture maker and his mother Constance served for a decade as a lady-in-waiting to the king and queen of Italy -- Valenti grew up just across San Francisco Bay from the city in Mill Valley, Calif.
While growing up, being an icon for a Division I program was not the career path most predicted Valenti to take. His high school coach told him he would never make it.
Now, Valenti can understand what his coach meant in a way.
“I wasn’t a great student to start with,” he said. “There were a lot of questions whether I would make it. I surprised a heck of a lot of people. But I got in the right program with Slats Gill, a real disciplinarian and a real demanding coach. I hung in there and was able to make it.”
Valenti arrived in Corvallis in 1938, a recruiting win for Gill against rival coach Howard Hobson at Oregon.
Valenti led an undefeated freshman team in scoring, then lettered three years on the varsity from 1939-42, with the Beavers winning Pacific Coast Conference North Division titles his sophomore and freshman years.
A four-year stint in the Navy followed, but aside from that, Valenti never left Corvallis. He served as Gill’s assistant for 19 years before taking the head coaching job in 1964 when Gill retired after 36 seasons.
The Beavers’ record under Valenti today doesn’t look that distinguished (91-82). But his tenure was indelibly marked by two exceptional achievements.
Under Valenti, Oregon State signed its first African-American basketball player, a 6-foot-5 forward named Charlie White out of Monterey (Calif.) Junior College. Gill had never recruited a black player, a fact that came to stigmatize the program in a way.
“We had a reputation for being sort of prejudiced,” Valenti said. “He [Gill] wasn’t, he just wanted the right person.”
Valenti and White were the right fit for each other. White went on to earn All-America honors in 1966, leading Oregon State to one of its greatest seasons ever.
“He and I got along great,” Valenti said of White. “He was tremendous. We still keep in touch once a week.”
Along with an undersized center, Ed Fredenburg, the Beavers went 21-7 and won the Athletic Association of Western Universities (a precursor of the Pacific-8 Conference) with a 12-2 record.
|1966 OREGON ST. NCAA TOURNAMENT RUN|
|Regional Semifinal -- Oregon St. 63, Houston 60|
|Regional Final -- Utah 70, Oregon St. 64|
It marked the only time in an 18-year span from 1961-62 to 1978-79 that UCLA didn’t win a title while sharing a conference with Oregon State. The Beavers went on to the NCAA tournament, knocking off Houston and Elvin Hayes 63-60 before falling to Utah 70-64 in the West Regional Final.
“People didn’t like to play us because we played such sound defense and took care of the ball,” Anderson said. “We were such good passers. Playing against us you didn’t get to run or get much more than one shot that wasn’t contested.”
Seasons of 14-14, 12-13 and 12-14 followed, and by 1970 Valenti had a sense that his style of basketball wasn’t a good fit with the rapidly changing times.
Keeping the best interests of the program foremost, Valenti helped then athletic director Jim Barratt hire Ralph Miller away from Iowa. During the next 19 seasons, Miller took Oregon State to four Pac-10 titles, eight NCAA tournament appearances and three trips to the NIT.
“We got along very well,” Valenti said of Miller. “He did a heck of a job. I never tried to interfere. I stayed out of the way and let Ralph do his job.”
Ever since, Valenti has been content to become part of the background fabric of athletics at Oregon State, maintaining his presence and a large measure of respect serving as a bridge between the school’s past and present.
Valenti has gone on to be inducted into halls of fame for the state of Oregon, Oregon State athletics and the Pac-12. Oregon State’s award for the player who exhibits the greatest desire and determination is named after Valenti.
“He’s had quite a life,” Robinson said.
For Valenti, his life has been about trying to give back to the school that gave him so much, the chance that his high school coach was convinced he would squander.
“Oregon State, it’s just been my life, that’s all,” Valenti said. “I’m very appreciative for the opportunities it’s given me.”