At 85, Marv Harshman is retired, but he remains a basketball coach
Seattle Times staff reporter
At a coffee joint near his Bothell home, Marvel K. Harshman is doing the stuff that made him famous. Empty paper cups and paper-cup sleeves and lids — those are his post men and his wings and his backcourt guys. He swings a lid over to screen for the cup that the 12-ounce drip came in.
"I'm going to backscreen this guy to get to the post ... even if they don't switch, the guy comes open ... I take the one bounce and this guy screens down ... "
Marv Harshman at 85 is really not all that different from when he was 45 or 55, back when John Wooden, the UCLA legend, used to say that Harshman was the best basketball coach his Bruins played. He's still dialed into the game that he managed to reduce to bare simplicity during his four-decade tenure as a coach at Pacific Lutheran, Washington State and Washington, when he won 654 times.
This is the coach that the Huskies ran out the back door after the 1985 season, so they could hurry up and get to Andy Russo and Lynn Nance and the 31-58 record in the last three years of Bob Bender. Harshman coached 40 years. He thinks he could have made it 50.
"I think I could have coached 10 more years," he says. "I was offered two jobs when I retired. Joe Kearney (Harshman's former boss) wanted me to go over to Hawaii when they had all those problems. He said, 'You could go over there just two years and get it straightened out again.'
"The other one was in Denver — Metro State. I didn't want to move. I think I was a little bit, uh, down because I, you know, I would have stayed at Washington if they'd wanted me to. I've kicked myself ever since then. After about two years, I thought, I wish I'd have stayed in coaching."
But now that's water under the bridge. At 85, he can't worry about it. He's still as sharp as ever, and active. He walks two miles on a treadmill at the local YMCA five times a week, where he always gets recognized and peppered with questions about basketball.
He stays involved. He goes to the Final Four, having been to 46 of them. When asked, he'll drive over to a Washington practice and visit with Lorenzo Romar, the coach who played for him at the UW. He attends Huskies games.
He spends a fair amount of time at the school where it all started, Pacific Lutheran, because his son Dave, 54, is the first-year head coach there.
"I told him, 'Dave, you know what your problem is?' " Harshman says. " 'You've got a bunch of guys that like to play, but no one likes to compete.' There's a big difference."
His eye is as analytical as it always was, and still, there's more to give. So, believe it or not, he responds to guys who coach local grade-school teams and helps them set up fundamental things for their kids.
Like an offense. But at any level, it's basketball.
He'll putter a bit around his vegetable garden, and he and his wife of 62 years, Dorothy, the first homecoming queen at PLU, still are active in the Lutheran church. He has done a little steelhead fishing.
He spent four years on the Bothell city council in the early '90s, not because he was bored, but because a neighbor drafted him. He ran the cheapest campaign in the history of politics, spending nothing. For better or worse, he knew he'd win, because Bothell is no different from anywhere else: What citizen knows any of their city councilmen's names?
That was when, at a candidate's forum, his opponent accused him of running on his name. When it was his turn, Harshman got up and said, "Would you like me to run on your name?"
He was always like that, quick-witted, direct and forever opinionated. Without prodding, he'll tell you basketball has changed, and not for the better.
"There are a lot of great athletes today," he'll say, "but there's not that many great basketball players."
It's not so much the rules, but the way the rules are interpreted. He never liked all the banging down on the low post and still doesn't. He hates the fact point guards dominate the ball rather than pass it. He doesn't like that officials let them palm the ball.
He doesn't think coaches do enough teaching. He remembers a Final Four in Louisville when he and Ladell Anderson, the former Utah State coach, began discussing in a hotel elevator the proper way to set a screen. Up and down the elevator went, people getting on and off, casting bemused glances while the two of them demonstrated stances and shoulder positions.
He concedes that his best player was the multifaceted Detlef Schrempf. He'd yell at other players in practice, and one day, a Washington player said, "Coach, you always yell at us, and you never yell at Detlef."
"When you guys play as hard as Detlef," Harshman responded, "you can yell at me."
Schrempf, in fact, played too hard. When he was a freshman, Harshman felt he was growing dead-legged in midseason and thought about sitting him out. Then somebody told him Schrempf routinely spent an hour or two before every practice in the intramurals building. Harshman put the kibosh on that.
The Boston Celtics scouted Schrempf hard. Red Auerbach, the czar of the franchise, told Harshman if they could land Schrempf, they'd have the two best passers in the NBA. Larry Bird was the other.
Harshman is reluctant to name his personal all-star team around Schrempf. Different players, different eras, different demands. But the candidates would include Chuck Curtis, a forward from PLU (1956-59) in whose years the Lutes went 116-12; forward Gary Elliot of Washington State (1968-70); UW forwards Ray Price (1972-74) and Paul Fortier (1983-86); Huskies guards Louie Nelson (1971-73) and Chet Dorsey (1974-77); and his centers.
Harshman was best with big guys, among them Steve Hawes (1970-72), James Edwards (1974-77) and Chris Welp (1984-87).
Maybe nobody in the history of college basketball knows the terrain of any one state like Harshman. He spent 13 years at a small school, 13 more at a bigger one and his final 14 at its rival.
His move from WSU to Washington in 1971 was thoroughly unconventional and not entirely popular. He says it was spurred by advice from Stan Bates, the former athletic director at WSU who left the school to become commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference.
"We had that new president (Glenn Terrell), who was almost anti-athletics," said Harshman. "Stan told me, 'Kearney wants to speak to you, and I think you ought to listen, because I think it's going to be kind of nasty around here for a while.' "
Washington AD Barbara Hedges has kept Harshman's counsel in hiring his successors. In 1993, when she selected Bender, his top choice was Mike Jarvis, then at George Washington, but Jarvis wouldn't come west. His No. 2 pick was Lon Kruger.
"I really liked him," Harshman said. "But he had just taken the job at Florida. He said, 'Marv, if you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have jumped at it, but I can't break my contract.' "
He thinks Bender may have run afoul of an old suspicion he harbors about programs such as Duke and North Carolina, where a deeply entrenched coach can afford to be inflexible. Often, his protégés can't.
"Bob was a disciple of Duke," Harshman says, "and he tried to play the same way without the same talent."
For that reason, he believes Romar was a better choice for Washington than the popular candidate, Missouri Coach Quin Snyder, a Mercer Island native.
"I know Quin," Harshman says, "but I don't think he fits the situation here as well as Romar."
He has finished the decaf now, and he moves off slowly to his treadmill workout. He's a bit hunched, but still has the healthy shock of white hair and the sparkle in his eyes.
"My joints are so stiff all the time," he grouses. "I know it's old age. But I don't want to admit it."
In June, he will again help run a basketball camp in Centralia, something he has done for three decades. It's just a mom-and-pop operation, but it brings him close to old friends in the game. By day, they teach those hard screens. Evenings, they gather to run shuffle cuts and 2-3 offenses using schooners of beer and coasters.
These are some of the best moments for Marv Harshman, who was, and still is, a basketball coach.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com