Legends of the Valley
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Len Casanova, 96, still has plenty of fire, friends and fantastic stories
EUGENE ÑÊFifty years after his arrival in Eugene, 35 years after he stepped down as University of Oregon football coach and 30 years after he retired as UO athletic director, Len Casanova can still rise to the occasion.
The scene: The 96th birthday party for Casanova last summer at the appropriately named Casanova Center. The setup: Longtime friend, and fellow UO administrator, Herb Yamanaka hands him a beverage. The response: Classic 'Cas.'
'We usually give him apple juice,' Yamanaka says. 'For his birthday, we filled a cup with Jack Daniels.
'He takes a drink and kind of blinks his eyes and says, 'What was that?' Then, he hands me the cup and says, 'I'll have another.' '
During a season in which the Duck football team was No. 2 in the country, the revered patriarch of UO athletics celebrated a half-century of service.
A half-century, starting in Eugene during the Korean War, when Harry Truman was president. Casanova put UO football on the map, leading the Ducks to three bowl games, including the 1958 Rose Bowl. He compiled a record of 82-73-8 in 16 seasons (1951-1966).
He schooled assistants John McKay and John Robinson, who later became highly successful head coaches at USC, and George Seifert, who won two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers. He coached such great players as Bob Berry, Dave Grayson, Jack Patera, Mel Renfro, George Shaw, Bruce Snyder, Willie West and Dave Wilcox.
'He was the kind of man you wanted to play your best for because you knew he was such a dedicated coach,' says Joe Schaffeld, who played for Casanova in the 1950s and later coached the UO defensive line.
Home from the office
Today, Casanova uses a walker and rarely leaves his west Eugene home. Until two years ago, he would attend every Oregon game, home and away. He attended only one game this year, against Stanford, and he had to watch it on TV from an office couch rather than in person. He was just too tired to stay at Autzen Stadium.
Nearly every morning, his wife, Margaret, calls Yamanaka or Director of Athletics Bill Moos in the UO office because Cas wants to help out at something, even though he hasn't worked in fund raising or special projects in three years.
'I say, 'Bill Moos doesn't expect you in today,' ' says Margaret, his wife of 38 years.
Yamanaka, who met Casanova in 1952 and has worked with him since 1960, says of the UO legend: 'He still cares very deeply about athletes. He'll call me in the morning and say, 'Herb, I can't come into the office because I'm not feeling very well.' '
But, as Moos points out, 'he has good days' and Casanova often displays the warmth, caring and sense of humor that marked his stay at Oregon.
'I told him I haven't seen him around the office, and 'I'll have to give you a pink slip,' ' Moos says. 'He flashes that smile and says, 'I've got tenure.' '
Casanova still has 'fire' in him, says his wife.
'He says he's going to live until he's 103,' says Margaret, 86. 'I told him, 'Don't count on me living until then.' And I'm in pretty good health.'
Visiting with Cas, you ask in a really, really, really loud voice about the stories. He recalls many and sometimes repeats them for you two or three times without prompting. He'll light up a cigarette, throw down a shot of Jack Daniels, watch his favorite program, 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' and shoot the bull with former players for hours when they come to visit Ñ Wilcox, Schaffeld, Doug Post, Darrell Aschbacker, Rich Schwab, to name a few.
You realize: It is something precious to grow old. 'At 96,' Casanova says, 'you should be able to do what you want sometimes.'
Stories and glories
To know Casanova the man, read the stories:
• 'He really cared about people,' Yamanaka says. 'On Wednesdays, he would leave at noon and not take lunch. He would go to the hospital and visit people who didn't have visitors. And just hold their hands. Religiously, until he couldn't do it anymore.'
• Margaret met Casanova in 1963 and married the 'eligible' bachelor. 'His (first) wife died in 1960,' she says. 'I was a rabid football fan.' The two have not been apart since, although she went to the Fiesta Bowl. 'At first, he didn't like it; he didn't want me to go.'
• In 1955, kids were burning effigies of football coaches, and some UO students got around to doing Casanova. Not angry, he found out the name of one of the perpetrators and sent him a letter saying all would be forgiven Ñ if the culprit donated money to the athletic department. Cas received a check, and he and Portlander Phil Lowthier have been friends ever since.
• Look it up. Casanova still holds the record for longest punt in NCAA history, 93 yards, when he played for Santa Clara in 1924. 'Can't go any farther and stay on the field,' he says. 'On the next play, (the opponent) threw the ball for 40 yards on us.'
• Casanova loved being the underdog. He can recall the day his Santa Clara team beat Bear Bryant's Kentucky team. 'We weren't even supposed to be on the same field,' he says. Same sentiment in the '58 Rose Bowl against Woody Hayes' top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. 'We lost 10-7 and missed a field goal by a couple of feet,' he says.
• Casanova never hated Oregon State, coached by Dee Andros. He disliked the Washington Huskies and coach Jim Owens. 'In one game, the ends wouldn't pay attention to the ballcarrier. They went right after Berry and cheap-shotted him. He said it was the dirtiest team he played against.'
• He remembers attending a Texas movie theater in the 1960s, and management would not let the Ducks in with Mel Renfro, a black. 'We walked out,' Cas says. 'They wouldn't let us stay in the hotel, either. We moved out.'
Casanova was elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1977. The university named the Casanova Center after him, even though the Oregon State Board of Higher Education usually names buildings after people no longer living.
Moos had a shrine installed just inside the Casanova Center's doorway with pictures, stories, trophies and facts about the man.
'I've never heard anybody say anything bad about Len Casanova,' Moos says.