HARMELING: Sterk meant world to WSU hoops

IT'S BEEN 15 wordless minutes since my attempt to start writing about Jim Sterk, his departure, and what he meant to the Cougar basketball program and the broader university. At a loss for words, consider this: He meant a heck of a lot more than anything I am capable of describing to you.

Out of respect for him, I will try to give it a shot.

I suppose I could begin -- and even finish -- with the fact that he was the man responsible for bringing Dick Bennett out of retirement.

That sounds like a big accomplishment, but once you understand how much Dick loved to golf (that's a rule for retirement, right?), suddenly it appears that Sterk worked a minor miracle. Think turning water into wine. (Oh wait -- this site is for Cougars; think turning water into Busch Light.)

When I say Dick loved to golf, I mean he really loved to golf. Do you remember his characteristic face of absolute dismay following a turnover? Well, take that intensity, put a 9-iron in his hand, and that's what Dick Bennett the golfer looked like.

One day, Dick was uncharacteristically distraught in the office. When I asked him how he was, he told me point blank: "Not good" That is the only time I can recall him being in a bad mood in the office. So what was to blame for his countenance? He explained to me that during a match-play tournament in Lewiston the previous day, he held a two-hole lead with three to play. I don't think I need to tell you how it ended up. He almost couldn't live with himself.

Outside of his love for golf, this illustrates how competitive he was. Which gives you a greater appreciation for Sterk's ability to get him to coach a team that previously accepted losing.

If I'm Dick Bennett and I'm set for life financially, have an incredible wife, don't wake up to an alarm clock, and the only obstacle between me and a 12-foot birdie putt is an obnoxiously large Final Four ring taking up some space on the grip, I think I just miiiight be content.

I'm not sure how Sterk did it. I don't have his official bio, but I've got a hint he may have worked as a used car sales man at some point. I mean, c'mon. Convincing a legend to give up that life to take over a program that hadn't had a winning season since 1995-96?

I do know that Jim started things off right with Dick. When he picked him up at the airport in Spokane, they drove straight to the Coeur d'Alene Resort (you know, the place with the gorgeous golf course and the only floating green in the world). Dick literally thought he was in Pullman. When they hopped in the car the next morning to head to campus, Dick was thinking this part of Pullman (yes, we're talking Coeur d'Alene here) would be a good place to buy a home. He was feeling good about Ol' Wazzu.

Sterk was clearly working his magic. And the words must have been flowing like music on the drive down to Pullman in order to convince Dick that he should clean out the fridge of all the brats and cheese and move to the Palouse. That's like convincing Tony Stewart to buy a '88 Honda Civic from your lot. Or, for the younger audience, I would argue that Sterk could take the place of Jeremy Piven as Don "The Goods" Ready in the movie "The Goods" -- minus the strip clubs, profanity, and disrespect for other human beings. That last reference went over the head of 96.5 percent of the readers. That's fine. We're moving on. Stick with me.

Even though landing Bennett was likely his most notable move, what impressed me the most about Sterk was his character. He genuinely cared about every athlete's experience at Washington State. I've only attended one university, but something tells me most student-athletes wouldn't have the face-to-face, intimate experience with their AD that we did. And for that, I am thankful. Despite his impressive title, comfortable paycheck, and wonderful family, Jim always treated you like you were the most important person in the world. He breathed humility. He desired for his athletes to be given the very best opportunity to succeed, including the best coaching available, academic resources, and facility renovations.

Following big wins, Jim would frequently show up in the locker room to offer his congratulations. But you know what? He would be there after the tough losses, too. That's what you could expect from a man who opened his doors on Christmas Eve for anyone who was away from family. And for any Aztec fans, that's the kind of guy you can expect to get when he arrives.

Jim, on behalf of the Cougar Nation, thank you. Much like this article, sometimes those words are just not enough.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Daven Harmeling was a mainstay on the Washington State basketball team – and a fixture on the Pac-10 All-Academic team – during the most successful three-year stretch in Cougar history. Part of Dick Bennett's stellar recruiting class of 2004, this Grand Junction, Colo., product completed his eligibility last season and now is in Vancouver, Wash., running clinics for Dan Dickau Basketball, coaching high school ball, and working as a substitute teacher. He is writing a regular column for Cougfan.com this season.

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