A Visit with the legendary Marv Harshman

When I called up former Washington basketball coach Marv Harshman to schedule our interview, I asked him how he was doing. In a seemingly discouraged tone of voice he replied, "Oh, I'm surviving." A few days later, on a Sunday evening, I approached his residence and rapped on the door. Some moments passed. The door opened slowly, and it was him. He peered at me, straining from a hunched back, and extended his hand.

As I entered the house, Harshman turned slowly and motioned me into the living room. He shuffled toward his easy chair. I took a seat upon the couch facing his chair. I wanted to be respectful of the situation and not overstay my welcome. I began to mentally eliminate certain questions I had planned to ask, in order to save time.

I watched as Harshman struggled to situate himself in the chair. He was wearing a blue mock turtleneck sweater, and his head featured a shock of white hair. The thought occurred to me that I was about to ask questions to the second-winningest basketball coach in Husky history, behind Clarence "Hec" Edmundson himself. I remained quiet and waited. He settled in, then looked over at me and began to talk.

Amid the framework of his frail body, Harshman's face suddenly lit up with a wide smile and from it emanated a tremendous warmth toward me. He spoke slowly, but his voice brimmed with energy and enthusiasm. I glanced at my list, waited for him to pause, then lobbed forth my first question. Twenty-five minutes later, he was still answering it. His hands, at times, waved in the air to emphasize certain points. To Marv Harshman, the anticipation of talking basketball was an elixir.

Years ago, a reporter asked Harshman about his proclivity toward recruiting seven-foot centers. Harshman responded, "Quick guys get tired. Big guys don't shrink."

I asked Harshman about that quote, and he responded with a beaming smile. "I was lucky to have 7-footers," he said. "The game has since changed, with the 3-point line. It has now become a guard-oriented, drive the ball and kick it out type of game. Not just myself, but John Wooden and others, feel like it has ruined the game... And the crime of play in the post is that the Shaq-kind of guys can use their bodies to knock defenders back for position. When contact is initiated like that, it is almost always called as a blocking foul. But the rule book specifically states that the defender has every much the right to their space as does the offensive player. It says it right there in the rule book."

I asked Harshman about an occurrence I had heard about from the 1970s, when his Huskies were playing the Oregon Ducks at the Pit in Eugene.

"Well, Dick Harter was the Oregon coach," said Harshman. "He had those teams known as the Kamikaze Kids. I even heard from some of his former players that they were coached that, if there was a loose ball, they were supposed to knock the opposing player out of the game, THEN get the ball, instead of just going after the loose ball. Harter always said that he had fifteen fouls to give up in the middle (five each of his two forwards and center). And I had James Edwards, who was scrawny - especially early in his career - and he would get beaten up.

"And I told Dick Harter at one point, `Dick, I respect you as a coach, but I don't appreciate the way you are teaching these kids to play basketball.'

"Anyway, Oregon had a thing they did before the games. Half their team would be warming up and stretching and the other half of the team would stand at half court and glare at the opposing team.

"I had a player on our team, a black kid from California, I can't remember his name at this moment. He went down to 1st Avenue in Seattle and bought six Groucho Marx glasses (with the phony nose and mustache). Guys drew straws as to who would get to wear them. So we're down at Oregon, and our guys have hidden the glasses inside of towels on the bench. The Pit is jammed and chaotic - you know it's Washington- Oregon. During warm-ups, when Oregon lined up at half court to glare at us, our guys jogged over to bench, took out the glasses and returned to the court. They had their backs to the Oregon players. They put on the glasses and turned and stood in a line and stared back at them. For about ten seconds, the gym fell silent. Then bedlam erupted. Fans were throwing things and screaming obscenities. One of my players, Clarence Ramsey, said later, `They yelled four-letter words that I had never even heard before!' But before the game, Ramsey also had said, `Guys, this isn't going to mean anything if we don't win the game.'"

Harshman pauses to beam a smile, before adding, "But we won by three points."

I recently asked former head football coach Don James of his memories of Marv Harshman during the ten years that both coached at Washington.

"Marv and I were good friends and always were supportive of each other and cheered for each other's teams," said James. "I vividly remember being all bundled up, heading to the football field on cold, rainy days, while Marv was dressed in gym shorts going to work. I remarked that I should have been smart and been a basketball coach."

When I quoted this to Harshman, his face fell into a deep smile and he remained quiet for several seconds. Then he reflected on a memory.

"There was one instance around the time Don arrived at Washington, where we had started to work with our big guys, our 7-footers and power forwards," he said. "They were having problems with their footwork. We had come up with something for our big guys. (It served as a type of hop-scotch game)

"Don saw us doing that and he started doing that with his quarterbacks. And I think it helped."

Harshman continued.

"We've had a lot of good friends in coaching, including Don. There was a lot of camaraderie amongst the coaches at Washington. All of the sports - tennis, soccer, basketball, football, track, all of them. In looking back, that was one of the very best parts about coaching - the camaraderie and friendship that existed amongst the coaches. It actually used to be that way with coaches throughout the conference. It used to be that way in the PCC (Pacific Coast Conference). You would go to Pullman, Corvallis or Eugene to play a game, and afterwards it was automatically assumed that you would go to the hosting coach's home for dinner. But that changed when some east coast guys came in and started coaching in the league. They were nice guys, but had a different mentality. They felt like the players and coaches should be enemies, and that nothing good could come from interacting with each other. And I think that is a shame. I don't feel that it has to be that way."

I told Harshman that one of my most prized basketball memories was when the Huskies beat Duke in the NCAA tournament in 1984, shooting an amazing 77.8% from the field.

"Did we shoot that well?" he said. "I never knew that until you said that right now. Well, Duke was a very good team. They had Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker as their guards. We changed our defense by things that we noticed on film. We saw that they got careless if they beat you into the front court. We put in a defense to encourage them to beat us, then we'd run to catch up, because you can run faster than you can dribble. We'd let them go past and then catch up to them from behind, and this caused Duke some problems. Little Alvin Vaughn (Husky point guard) got two of three steals in a row at one point there. That was an exciting win for us.

"Then Dayton beat us in the Sweet 16. They doubled Detlef (Schrempf) all game long, and we couldn't get anybody to score to save our lives. And that hurt, because had we won that game we had Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in the next round. With our front line we would have had a pretty good chance. And had we won that, the Final 4 was in the Kingdome that year. I had been preaching that to our guys all season long."

I also told Harshman of my memories of listening on the radio to the epic clashes between Washington and Oregon State, and the sub-plot battles between Chris Welp and Jose Ortiz, Marv Harshman versus the late Ralph Miller.

"Oh yes. Ralph was tough in Corvallis," he said. "His personality was so strong, and it would dictate the tempo. They liked to slow it down, limit the turnovers, get a good shot. If you could get ahead of him in the second half, you could kill him, because his offense wasn't geared to make comebacks. But if he got ahead of you, they'd just bleed you.

Harshman paused, then struggled to extract himself from his chair. He shuffled over to me, wanting to demonstrate the manner he taught in practice.

"It took me two years to teach Christian Welp, our 7-foot center, the best techniques for playing center," he said. "I'd tell him to quit fighting City Hall. If the defender is insisting on positioning outside of you to deny you the ball, it's OK. Let them guard you that way. When the ball goes to the wing, just pivot and then with a pass inside you've got yourself a dunk. But players get it ingrained in their minds that they have to play a certain way, and it can take awhile to get them to view the game in a new way. And of course Welp became a tremendous player."

As Harshman settled back into his chair, the interview was drawing to a close. I asked Harshman how he views his relationship with current Husky basketball coach Lorenzo Romar.

"Kind of like a Dad," he said with a beaming smile. "I take a lot of pride in how he has developed - and I want to take some credit - but I know I shouldn't. When it comes to practices, I go when he asks me to go. But I make sure not to go to too many, as I wouldn't want the players to perceive me as meddling in any way.

"I remember when Lorenzo was initially considering becoming a coach. He called me. Athletes in Action had asked him to be the coach. He came up to see me. He had the leadership qualities you look for, but there were basics about coaching that he didn't know yet...just the logistics of being a coach. He's a super people person, I don't know anyone who doesn't respond well to him.

"And the best thing I ever did was get him the Washington job," he said. "I lobbied Barbara (Hedges) to hire Lorenzo. Then after he got the Washington job, I lobbied Lorenzo to get Ken Bone. I told him to bring in people older than him so that he could benefit from their experience and not make the same mistakes that they've already learned from. That's what I told him. I said that (assistant coach) Cameron Dollar is a capable guy, but he's only been coaching for a little while.

"But I am just so happy for Lorenzo," he said.

I ended the interview, gathered my notebook, and stood up to leave. We began walking, side-by-side, slowly across the living room toward the front door, casually talking basketball for several minutes. Harshman showed me a trophy that was perched upon a table in the corner. It had once been presented to him by his good friend, legendary former UCLA Head Coach John Wooden.

Standing in the doorway we shook hands, and I turned to leave.

"I really appreciate your time, Coach."

"Like my wife says, I can talk basketball for hours and hours," he said, smiling. Then he added, "Thanks for letting me talk."

Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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