Remembering Final Four forefathers: “Moon” Mullen

The first Final Four was played in 1939, at Northwestern’s Patten Gymnasium, just in time for James Naismith to witness that great leap forward for the game he invented. He died seven months later.

There were but eight teams in that first NCAA tournament and only two regions — East and West. Taking the long train ride from the upper left corner of the country, Oregon won that first tournament. The Ducks still await their second trip to the Final Four.

Ford “Moon” Mullen, a reserve guard on the Oregon team nicknamed the “Tall Firs,” the last link to that first championship, died Feb. 27 at the age of 96.

“I guarded the water bucket,” Mullen used to joke. He made a single free throw in Oregon’s 55-37 semifinal victory over Oklahoma and did not score in the 46-33 championship win over Ohio State. A two-sport athlete, Mullen was a major leaguer for one season (Philadelphia Phillies, 1944) before settling down outside Seattle as a high school biology teacher and coach.

Mullen wore his humility like a favorite sweater, often made uncomfortable when anyone tried to bookmark him as a notable historic figure. “I called it his humble stumble,” said his son, Ford Jr.

He was of an age where one of the first skills he taught his son was the two-handed set shot — and from a time that made him cringe at some of the princely sums being paid professional players these days.

With Mullens’ death, the oldest living member of a Final Four champion is Ed Jones, 92, a forward on Wisconsin’s 1941 team.

The history he chose to write had little to do with basketball, however. There was more important work to do. Jones flew B-17s in World War II and returned to Wisconsin to earn his Ph.D. in plant pathology. As a professor at Cornell, he pioneered research into developing disease-resistant potatoes.