WINCHESTER — It’s been 50 years since Cy Perkins was hired to run a physical education department and create a men’s basketball program for a fledgling Umpqua College Late Afternoon.
There was no gym and the picturesque campus on a bluff overlooking a bend in the North Umpqua River was in its infancy.
Perkins was 35 when he was lured away from Sutherlin High School to lay the foundation for today’s Riverhawks.
“We had some visionaries in the late ‘60s — some of them in the early ‘60s, when they first had UCLA and Harry Jacoby hired me,” said Perkins, now 86 and living in Sutherlin. “We didn’t have a PE complex then. We didn’t have one until 1972. That was the beginning.”
The college’s name became Umpqua Community College and its athletic teams were deemed the Timbermen (and Timberwomen) until 2005, when they became the Riverhawks.
Perkins shared that his first basketball squad — recruited by fliers delivered in PE classes — fashioned a 6-6 record against intercollegiate competition; it won 13 games in the Roseburg Adult League.
“That was the beginning of our basketball program,” he said. “We would practice at 6 a.m. at the old Benson Grade School, Douglas High, Myrtle Creek, Roseburg, Sutherlin High. That was the beginning.”
Today the college will celebrate 50 years of men’s basketball. An alumni game will be held at 3 p.m., followed by a dinner at the Danny Lang Events Center on campus at 5 p.m. Both events are free.
Perkins led the team to the Oregon Community College Athletic Association championship in 1972 and the program had runner-up finishes in 1975 and ‘76. The OCCAA was disbanded after the 1983 season and UCC joined the Northwest Athletic Conference with the majority of its conference rivals in 1984.
Former coaches Perkins, Rod Snook, Donnell Morgan and current coach Daniel Leeworthy are expected to speak following the dinner.
“This alumni game and the celebration, it’s about the players,” said Snook. “It’s been a real positive thing to come here and transfer — not just the D-I and D-IIs, but all the D-III and NAIA schools — there is a large number that have gone on to transfer.”
The alumni team will be coached by Morgan and made up of mostly players in their mid-20s to mid-30s. The current UCC roster will face some of the past stars who helped the school to several NWAC tournament appearances.
Snook, the all-time winningest coach at Umpqua, guided the program for 16 years from 1986-2002. His teams made the postseason 10 times in that span.
Perkins hired Snook in 1986 as both a coach and teacher. The college had tried using part-time coaches, but that proved a misstep that was corrected when Perkins lured Snook away from Don Monson’s staff at Oregon.
“You can’t succeed with part-time coaches,” said Perkins. “They have to be with the kids all the time, they have to be available to the kids and part-time coaches aren’t available.
“We had a down year there (with a part-time coach), the one preceding there, then we hired Rod Snook and immediately the pendulum swung to the other side.”
By Snook’s second season (1987-88) Umpqua was in the NWAC championship game. He had teams finish second, third, fourth and fifth during his tenure.
“We were very successful the first five years of our program with me taking over,” said Snook, still a professor at the school.
“Cy did a great job of building the program,” he added.
Crucial to the programs success has been recruiting and that was an area Snook had plenty of experience with. He was Monson’s lead recruiter for seven years at Oregon and Idaho before taking charge of Umpqua.
Among Snook’s most significant signees were Anthony Steward, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and Morgan, who played and coached for Snook before taking over the program for several years. Morgan also led UCC to a third place finish at the NWAC tournament in 2008. He’s currently the head boys basketball coach at Parkrose High in Portland.
Current Roseburg High girls coach Rich Robles led the Riverhawks from 2009 to 2013, when Leeworthy was hired.
The Division I and II coaching and recruiting experience that Snook and Leeworthy brought to the program have gone a long way in making the Riverhawks a consistent playoff threat in the NWAC’s Southern Region, but that’s not enough for Leeworthy.
“We try and emphasize a lot of the UCC legacy,” Leeworthy said. “Overall there have been five Southern Region championship teams in 50 years and we want it to be a Kentucky or Duke of the NWAC moving forward, to have that kind of a standard of excellence going forward.”
To do that, Leeworthy has tapped into his international connections to bring players in from New Zealand and Australia, as well as signing athletes from throughout the states that adjoin the NWAC schools and the Umpqua Basin.
“When I was hired and since, we’re going against the schools in Portland, Salem, Eugene, and we needed to move in and make sure we recruited locally, but also from the outside,” said Snook. “It’s the same with Daniel now. We both have Division I and Division II recruiting experience, we had to have the contacts and understanding of how to go into all of the state, into Washington and California and the states that border us. You have to get the best local players and that’s a full-time job.”
Leeworthy’s latest UCC team reached the NWAC Final Four in March and returns three sophomores from that squad that tied for the South championship.
“It’s been a great feat to have had a program for 50 years,” said Leeworthy, who replaced Robles in 2013 at the age of 35. “I certainly appreciate everyone that has been a part of the program over the years.
“Rod Snook, he appreciated everyone that played for him. Cy Perkins was instrumental in helping get the program off its feet. It’s a monumental moment to have a program that’s been around 50 years, that is blooming and blossoming as we speak.”