Legendary basketball coach Marv Harshman, 93, is a Hall of Famer after 40 seasons at Pacific Lutheran, Washington State, Washington.
TACOMA — Marv Harshman sat in a wheelchair in his room, wearing a gold University of Washington sweatshirt and talked basketball for 90 minutes. The time went so quickly, I wished we’d had the entire day.
The truth is, you could go a day-and-a-half, not a mere hour-and-a-half, and barely address Harshman’s basketball legacy.
Harshman is the last living member of the West Coast’s most remarkable group of basketball coaches.
If you sculpted a round-ball Mount Rushmore of Pacific Coast coaches, Harshman would be there with UCLA’s John Wooden, California’s Pete Newell, and Oregon State’s Slats Gill and Ralph Miller.
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Even this season, you couldn’t attend a Washington basketball game without thinking about Marv Harshman. When he wasn’t present, there was a sense of his presence.
You could see it is in his former protégée, coach Lorenzo Romar, who is doing in the 21st century what Harshman did in the 1970s and ’80s — making Huskies basketball important again on Seattle’s sports landscape.
You could see it in assistant coach Paul Fortier, another former player for Harshman, and like his former coach, a teacher of big men.
Harshman now lives in an adult family home in Tacoma, near the Narrows Bridge, but he also still lives on in Edmundson Pavilion.
At age 93, he slumps a bit in his wheelchair and struggles occasionally to remember the name of a former colleague. But his blue eyes are still as sharp as his wit. His voice is head coach-gravelly and I willingly would trade hairlines with him.
His life has spanned the game. Harshman has lived to see every great player. He has played against and coached with and against many of them.
Pretty much everything that is good about basketball started with Harshman and his generation.
“I was the rookie of the group when I went to Washington State,” Harshman said Thursday. “And the old-timers really took me in.”
As a young coach at WSU he lost a game to the Newell-coached California Bears. “They just kicked the crap out of us,” he said, smiling.
After the game, Harshman was sitting on the stairs in Bohler Gym, his face buried in his hands. Newell, who was at the top of the sport, sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around Harshman’s shoulder.
“Listen Marv, you’re not doing anything wrong,” Newell said. “You don’t have the personnel right now. Just keep believing in yourself.”
“That made me feel a little better,” Harshman remembers 53 years later. “Those coaches treated me really well. I think part of it was because most of them came up the hard way and I think they recognized that it wasn’t too much fun being a young coach. So they gave the young coaches a break. We appreciated it, but they didn’t give us a break on the floor.
“This was a time when basketball really jumped ahead out on the West Coast and it was because all of the guys got together and worked together and recognized, ‘We’re going to be really good. We’re going to have a good league, great competition and publicity that we never had before.’ It was fun matching wits. There were some great coaches in the league. There was just more camaraderie back then.”
Harshman remembers early in his WSU days, running into UCLA coach Wooden in Los Angeles on a weekend before the Cougars began practice. They talked briefly, then Wooden invited Harshman to an early Bruins workout.
“I think most of the coaches thought coach Wooden was stuck up. But I was lucky enough to get to know him a little bit when I first got to Washington State,” Harshman said. “At that practice he really did go through the whole process of how you put on your uniform. I never saw a coach do that before.
“As I grew to know him I found out that when the games were over he preferred spending time with his family, instead of with the other coaches. It was more important for him to be with his family than to be with a bunch of guys grabbing a beer. When I figured that out, I grew to respect him right then.”
The Harshmans and Woodens became lifelong friends. When they were in the same city, Marv and Dorothy and John and Nell often had dinner together. Harshman was the first winner of the John Wooden Keys to Life Award.
Harshman won 155 games coaching at Washington State, then made the improbable jump across the state and won 246 more games at Washington. Before all of that he won four consecutive conference championships at Pacific Lutheran.
He was the head coach of the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 1975 Pan Am Games in Mexico City, won two Pac-10 Conference coach of the year awards and was the 1984 Kodak national coach of the year. A year later he was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
He was so well-liked and so respected that he was able to make the move from coaching WSU to Washington without people in Pullman feeling as if he was traitorous and without Huskies fans feeling suspicious.
“I never had a team where I tried to get the players to hate the other team,” Harshman said. “Maybe that’s some of the reason. I took the (Washington) job because there was a little more money and it was better for my family.”
He was making $18,000 at Washington State. Washington’s athletic director at the time and a friend of Harshman’s, Joe Kearney, bumped him up to $21,000.
Harshman coached at Washington for 14 seasons. He should have stayed longer, but at age 67 he was forced into retirement. Harshman’s record his last two seasons at UW was 46-17, going to the NCAA tournament each year.
But besides wins and losses and banners, coaches are judged by the branches on their coaching tree. Harshman’s includes former Michigan State national championship coach Jud Heathcote, an assistant under Harshman at WSU, and Romar.
He said he saw coaching possibilities for Romar almost immediately at a junior-college game while he was recruiting Romar.
“He was a coach on the floor,” Harshman said. “I went to his house after the game and he said things and did things the way I thought a point guard should do them.”
While recruiting him, Harshman teased Romar, saying he’d always wanted to coach a player that the fans could get behind. “When they announced your name at the game tonight, ‘Loorrrrenzooooo Roooommar!’ I thought with a name like that we can get some of the students to come out.”
Harshman first noticed Heathcote as a high-school coach.
“He was really hard on his players,” Harshman said. “But I think underneath, his players got to like him because they understood that if they didn’t live up to what he expected, they weren’t going to play.
“I saw his high-school teams in tournaments and he was a tough coach, but he knew the game of basketball and, really, he knew how to handle kids.”
I asked Harshman if he was tough on his players. His son Dave, who was an assistant coach with the Sonics, Michigan State and Washington State, among other stops, laughed.
“Tell him about Dan Caldwell, Pop,” Dave said.
Caldwell was a very good player for the Huskies who was drafted in 1972 and briefly played with the New York Knicks. He also was almost as stubborn as his coach. One day Marv had had enough of Caldwell’s stubbornness and ordered him to take laps around the old track inside Hec Ed.
Practice continued and after it ended, players went to the locker room, showered, dressed and saw Caldwell still puffing around the track. Harshman had forgotten about him.
“Hey Dan, you can leave now,” Harshman yelled to Caldwell as the coach headed for his office.
Even now, Marv laughs as he tells the story, his affection for Caldwell obvious.
I pointed to the picture of Harshman’s late wife Dorothy on the wall above his dresser and asked him about her role in his coaching career.
“She could tell what should be done in basketball better I think that some of the assistants,” Harshman said. “And she had an eye for people and I think it was through her that I accepted a couple of (players) that were good for me to have that, maybe I wouldn’t have taken otherwise.”
Harshman still watches a lot of basketball and admitted he still wishes he could spend time in the gym. He believes the game has gotten too physical, especially in the post. And he believes players dribble too much.
“I recognize a lot of the overall quickness and up and down and fast play of a lot of the good teams,” he said. “But I always thought you could get the ball up the court faster with a pass than a dribble. A lot of players run, but without a lot of purpose.”
It can be argued that the growth of the game in Western Washington, from the grass roots up, began when Harshman came to the Huskies.
He coached a long line of NBA players, including Steve Hawes, Romar, Charles Dudley, Louie Nelson, Lars Hansen, Caldwell, Peter Gudmundsson, James Edwards and Chris Welp.
And, of course, Detlef Schrempf.
“It was probably fortunate that he didn’t think he knew as much about basketball as he actually did,” Harshman said of Schrempf. “I was amazed how much he had learned from when he came here from Germany. In one year he went from what I thought was a suspect to a prospect.
“I’ve never had a player, I don’t think, that wanted to learn as much as Detlef. He wanted to learn everything about basketball. He was the best, I think, I ever had.”
Harshman talked on the phone with Wooden just a few days before Wooden’s death. Wooden told Harshman that he’d been feeling better recently.
On this sunny Thursday morning, Harshman, who has struggled over the past 18 months with a series of health issues, was feeling good.
And on this day, all of his passion for basketball was as healthy and as obvious as it was through all of those seasons on the Washington bench.
“I always thought my strongest area was teaching,” Harshman said. “I thought I knew everything there was to know in the game, but I wanted my players to know everything in the game that they might run up against.
“But I was always proudest, I think, of the fact that I never did anything that was illegal in the game.”
Harshman won the right way. And he won a lot. And when we talk about this great explosion of basketball talent in Western Washington, let’s not forget where it all started.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org