Legends of the Valley
Ex-hoop coach Valenti remains a vital figure at his beloved OSU
CORVALLIS Ñ Paul Valenti arrived on the Oregon State campus in the fall of 1938 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old freshman from Larkspur, Calif. Except for a 3 1/2-year stint in the Navy during World War II, he has never left.
That tells a lot, but not the entire story about the commitment and dedication Valenti has to his alma mater.
Now a spry 81, the longtime basketball coach continues to serve as coordinator of the athletic department's jobs program for its athletes.
He shares an office with Mike Corwin, associate athletic director, in Gill Coliseum, inside which he has worked since its inception in 1949. He's the only original Beaver still employed in the building.
This was the world Valenti knew when he came upon the scene in Corvallis more than 63 years ago: Oregon State University was Oregon State College. The basketball team played its home games in Langdon Hall, then known as the Men's Gym.
Slats Gill was in only the 10th season of his 36-year run as head basketball coach, on his way to a 599-win career.
It was the year of Orson Welles' 'War of the Worlds' broadcast. Hitler stood over a cringing Europe as a world war loomed. Howard Hughes flew around the world in 91 hours.
A loaf of bread cost a nickel, a movie a dime.
They were simpler times, and college-town Corvallis was the perfect spot for Valenti, who fell in love with the place and the basketball program on a recruiting visit during his senior year in high school.
'I spent three days in Eugene visiting with the (University of Oregon) people, but I liked the atmosphere in Corvallis a lot better,' Valenti says. 'It was completely different. I felt more at ease, and I was comfortable with Slats.'
A demanding mentor
Valenti was the top scorer on the freshman team, then wound up as a 6-2 starting forward on the varsity. During his three years with the varsity, the Beavers went 64-29, winning Pacific Coast Conference's Northern Division titles twice.
After his stint in the service, Valenti returned to the OSU coaching staff, serving as freshman basketball and baseball coach. He coached baseball for 15 years and tennis for five years before the program was eliminated in the 1970s.
But basketball was where Valenti made his mark. He coached the sport at OSU for 25 years Ñ for 19 years as an assistant to Gill, then six as the Beavers' head coach, from 1964-70.
Nobody was more loyal to Gill, his mentor and his role model.
'If I hadn't gotten into Slats' program, I don't think I would have made it academically,' Valenti says. 'He was very demanding, a very consistent person. He wanted you to appreciate your basketball and that it was a privilege to play, and that we had other responsibilities, too.'
One of the stars of Valenti's first freshman basketball team was Bill Harper, who later served as assistant coach during Valenti's reign as head coach.
'I had just come out of the service myself,' Harper recalls. 'When you're in the service, you're used to being laid into pretty good. I thought after having to listen to those drill sergeants, college basketball would be a piece of cake.
'Then I ran into Paul. He was tough on the bench, very, very disciplined. But he treated all players the same.'
'A basic tough guy'
In 1956, Valenti recruited a JC guard named Jimmy Anderson, later to be an assistant under Gill and Valenti and then Ralph Miller's successor as head coach from 1989-95.
'You couldn't help but like Paul,' Anderson says. 'He was so sincere, and he was a very driven coach, a no-nonsense type. He was a basic tough guy. Defense, ball control and work ethic were his trademarks.'
Valenti was a competitor, too. For years, he partnered with Anderson for regular noon pickup games at Gill.
'We won like 5,460 in a row,' Anderson says, perhaps embellishing their streak a little. 'The day we lost, we said, 'Too old, let's quit.' '
Valenti's second season as head coach, 1965-66, was one of the best in school history. Using ball-control offense Ñ the Beavers never hit 80 points all season Ñ they finished 21-7 and upset UCLA to win the AAWU (Athletic Association of Western Universities, which preceded the Pacific-8 Conference). OSU lost to Utah in the Western Regional finals that year.
It went downhill from there. After three losing seasons, Valenti resigned in 1970 with a 91-82 career record.
The late '60s were changing times, when freedom of expression was foremost, and a coach's rein on players was loosening. The fast-break offense was attracting players, and opposing coaches were using Valenti's old-school approach against him in recruiting.
'I had the reputation of being a hard-ass proponent of control basketball, but I wasn't going to change my philosophy,' he says. 'I could see the way the winds were changing, though. And I didn't want to put Oregon State basketball in a hole.'
For years an associate athletic director, Valenti is now a part-time employee who helps OSU athletes secure part-time jobs. It isn't lucrative, but to Valenti, that isn't the important part.
'I like to be involved, to be around the kids, around the department,' he says. 'It gives me something to do.'
Valenti was never in the coaching business for money, anyway.
'My final year as head basketball coach, I made $18,000,' he says. 'Slats' highest salary was $19,500. I think Ralph came to Oregon State in 1969 for $21,000. That was before the days of TV and shoe deals, public appearances, summer camps and all that.'
The Valentis, Paul and Fran, come in a package deal. Always have. They've been married 56 years this month.
'Sit there and count, 'One, two, three É' all the way to 56,' he says. 'That's a long, long time. She's been great. I'm a lucky man.'
Few octogenarians are in Valenti's shape. After two knee replacements and with an irreparable right shoulder, tennis and golf are no longer on the menu, but he swims every day for exercise. He traveled with his wife and two daughters to Italy last fall.
Valenti has achieved his successes despite a serious stuttering problem.
'The thing that helped me was, we had fun with it,' he says. 'I never let it bother me. The little success I had as a player and coach gave me more confidence, and I got away with it. It has helped me a lot more than it ever hurt me, because it made me work a little harder at things.'
Valenti knows there will be a time when he must retire for good. He hopes that isn't any time soon.
'I'll continue to work until I can't handle it, until I start to get a little goofy or something,' he says with a smile. 'It's been my life. Oregon State is still a great place to go to school, a great place to work. It's been a blessing for me and my family.'