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Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2008

Author’s family tries to save university’s wrestling program

February 23, 2008

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Former University of Oregon wrestling coach Ron Finley, front, waits Feb. 16 with members of the team to ride on the latest incarnation of author Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus, Further. Kesey's spirit has joined efforts to save the sport from being dropped by the university.

Former University of Oregon wrestling coach Ron Finley, front, waits Feb. 16 with members of the team to ride on the latest incarnation of author Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus, Further. Kesey's spirit has joined efforts to save the sport from being dropped by the university.

— Before Ken Kesey wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," or stocked a psychedelic school bus with LSD and the Merry Pranksters to look for America, he was a wrestler.

He might never have written "Cuckoo's Nest," the 1962 novel that launched him to stardom, if he hadn't dislocated his shoulder wrestling for the University of Oregon.

The injury kept him out of the draft, allowing him to go to Wallace Stegner's writing seminar at Stanford University, where his job at the local veterans hospital gave him the setting for "Cuckoo's Nest" and the prototype for mean Nurse Ratched.

So when his alma mater decided to eliminate wrestling at the end of this season, it went down hard on the Kesey family farm.

That's where Kesey is buried alongside his son Jed, the victim of a 1984 van crash during a University of Oregon wrestling team road trip. It's also where Furthur, the bus made famous by Kesey's 1964 odyssey and Tom Wolfe's book "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," awaits restoration.

"I know what Dad would do," said 46-year-old Zane Kesey, who also wrestled for Oregon. "It's just the kind of thing he would step up and attack when he sees something that's wrong, when it's something he's already shed so much soul for."

So last weekend, wearing his dad's American flag shirt, Zane Kesey fired up a newer version of Furthur (named Further), called on Oregon wrestlers and alums to "Get on the bus," and with original Merry Prankster George Walker at the wheel roared through the Eugene campus.

Loudspeakers blared "Save Oregon wrestling," drums beat, a brass bell clanged, and wrestlers handed out fliers as they circled McArthur Court, the aging arena where Ken Kesey wrestled from 1955 to 1957, posting a winning percentage of .806 that stands seventh all-time at Oregon.

The '60s-style act of taking it to the streets did not immediately get the university to change its mind about wrestling. But the Kesey family is not giving up.

"One thing about wrestlers is if they get on their back, it's not over - it just got interesting," said Zane Kesey, whose father died in 2001. "You get fierce."

Head wrestling coach Chuck Kearney suggested that if Oregon had not had a wrestling team back in the 1950s, Ken Kesey might not have attended the university.

And the course of literary history might have been different.

"Had he gone to Oregon State and wrestled, would he have written 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and 'Sometimes a Great Notion' and all the great things he did?" Kearney asked. "It was a combination of this campus, this university, the education he received here and the sport of wrestling that came together and made him what he was and, in my mind, made the impact that he made."

Athletic director Pat Kilkenny made the decision to eliminate wrestling and bring back baseball, which he said could become a moneymaker for the university.

"Is this a final decision?" Kilkenny said. "It's America, so there are always opportunities to make changes. But our strong belief is our analysis was significant and powerful and conclusive, and we don't think this has changed since last July to today."

For wrestling enthusiasts, the solution might be to run out the clock.

Ron Finley, an Olympic wrestler and head wrestling coach at Oregon from 1970 to 1998, has gathered pledges of $2.3 million so far for the team, scholarships and a new practice center.

"Kilkenny says it's not coming back," Finley said. "He'll only be here a couple more years anyway. If it has to go away a few years, we'll keep fighting, get it back some way."

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