The first portion of this interview was conducted on Saturday July 26th, two days before Doug Harris interviewed for the head coaching job at Desert Vista High School. He along with several other candidates including Mike Elsworth from Trevor Brown and Hosea Grahm from Seton Catholic interviewed on Monday the 28th, and Harris was officially named the head coach the following day. The second portion of the interview was an exclusive given to PrepAZ by coach Harris shortly after the announcement.
Doug Harris carries a promising resume into any room. He is a former Arizona High School Basketball player of the year (1990) who played division I ball first at Fresno State his freshman year before transferring to the University of San Diego where he was all conference his next three years. From there he moved into coaching at Cal Poly Pomona where he worked his way up to top Assistant before returning to Arizona, his 19 month old baby boy, and his alma mater, Corona del Sol High School. There he assisted Sammy Duane Sr. and relearned the high school game from a coach's point of view. About Duane Sr. Harris speaks with equal amounts respect and awe, "He was a mentor, a teacher and a friend. I can't even tell you how much I respect him."
After Duane Sr. retired Harris interviewed for the head coach's job at Corona, but wasn't surprised or upset when the job went to Duane Jr. "That's what I would want for my son too. You build a program into what Corona has become and it becomes your legacy. You want your son to take over, to continue what you started. That's the dream."
As a kid growing up poor in upstate New York, Harris learned to respect the game of basketball and what it could be. "For a lot of kids basketball and entertaining are the ways out of poverty. You have a different kind of respect for the game when it really could be your only chance." For Harris though his ticket out came in sixth grade when his family relocated to Arizona where his situation improved, but the change was drastic. "I went from the inner city to an almost all white high school. It really gave me perspective…I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I got the best of both worlds."
And make sure you block out time if you ask him about the game he loves. Basketball has been a focus in Harris' life for most of this 31 years, and a conversation about the game can last hours. Gary Trousdale, who has coached literally thousands of Arizona high school players had this to say about Harris, "Never have I watched a kid who played as hard as Doug played, and he's translated that into his coaching, he gets everything there is to get out of the kids who play for him. His intensity just transfers to those he coaches."
Right now Harris teaches at the Dobson Ball Academy in Tempe and coaches club ball for Trousdale and the Arizona Cagers. He laughs easily, and will listen to virtually any argument, even if he thinks your wrong. Well spoken and educated, it seems like he was built to coach high school aged kids, and as arguably the top coaching candidate in the state, it seems unlikely he'll have to wait long for a high profile job. On the Cagers recent trip to the Adidas Big Time Tournament in Las Vegas I had a chance to talk with Coach Harris at length about the game, the players, and what Arizona needs to do to put itself on the national map of High School Basketball.
JimmyJames: Where did you go to school?
Doug Harris: I attended Corona del Sol high school. I played for Sammy Duane Sr. who was an outstanding teacher, mentor, and person. I learned a lot from him and we went to the State Championship game two years in a row (‘90 and ‘91). It was a great environment because I played for a basketball powerhouse at the time.
JJ: And where did you go to college?
DH: My first year I went to Fresno State, then I transferred to University of San Diego where I finished my basketball career by becoming three time all conference at USD and the most valuable player of the team my senior year. I was a point and two guard, my whole life I've sort of been a ‘whatever my team needs' sort of guy.
JJ: Where did you grow up?
DH: I grew up partly in Upstate New York and moved out to Arizona in 6th grade. And I finished elementary school and then went to high school in Arizona.
JJ: Who did you idolize as a kid?
DH: Charles Barkley. How he would rebound and dribble down the court and dunk on people that were six inches taller than him it was unbelievable. Isiah Thomas, Dr. J. These guys set the table for what we looking at now.
JJ: What about coaches that you watch now, that you appreciate the way they run their programs.
DH: Definitely Tom Bennett at Gilbert, he just does things the right way. On the college ranks Tubby Smith is a guy who walked into a very difficult situation with outrageous expectations and has done a great job and just won Coach of the Year last year.
JJ: What do you think about these kids like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neill coming out of high school and going straight to the NBA?
DH: I would recommend going to college. But it's a difficult situation. We hear about Garnett and LeBron and Kobe, but there are a lot of kids who get drafted low or not at all and don't make it. I think college is a great experience to have and I think even more than physically, mentally and emotionally it prepares kids for the NBA.
JJ: So if the next LeBron ended up at whatever program you end up at, and he came to you and said, "Coach, I'm skipping college and I'm going to the NBA," you could look him in the eye and say "No, go to college."
DH: No, I don't think I could do that if the kid really is the next LeBron or Kobe. Those individuals were ready. Moses Malone did it. Garnett has obviously done it. So if the kid really is the next LeBron, and was going to go top five, I would say go, because this is the dream, you've got a chance to achieve your dream, you've got to go for it, don't waste time. But there are just so few of those guys that come along and if I wasn't absolutely sure this was the next LeBron, if wasn't absolutely sure he was going to go top 5 in the draft, I would tell him to go to college, because it gives that kid more time to develop.
JJ: What do you think growing up, and at least starting to come of age in New York brought to you and your game?
DH: I think it gave me toughness. I always played against older kids and back East they play a different type of game, a lot more physical. So it brought me a little mental toughness, a competitiveness because those battles back East are fierce. And it helped me tremendously coming to Arizona because I felt I leg up on kids my age because they weren't exposed to things I was exposed to.
JJ: Was it a tough neighborhood?
DH: Yeah, I grew up in an inner city. You did what you had to do to get by. But it was okay, I mean you don't know you're in that situation until someone tells you. But it was fun I had a great time growing up back East as well as out here. I think diversity is key in life, I being well versed in one way and the other way. I went to basically an all-white high school at Corona and grew up in the inner city. I had the best of both worlds and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. That's what life is about, dealing with and getting along with and different types of people and coaches.
JJ: You mentioned it's a different type of game back East, more physical, tougher ballplayers. Do you think that's something inherent in the East Coast? Or why is it that you don't get that tough kid out here in Arizona?
DH: I think because of the economic situation sometimes, because back East kids look at sports or entertainment as a way out of poverty. Not that there's not poverty here, but I don't think the game is as important to the kids here.
JJ: But is that something you can teach, you can instill in a player, or is that just something that because of the economics of some of the kids back east that it just is the way it is?
DH: Yes and no, I think because of the background, it is because you just grow up knowing that is survival for you, so you have to do what it takes to survive. So, in that sense you get that kind of mentality where I got to go out here and compete, and survive, whatever it takes I have to survive. So you grow up tougher you grow up with more urgency, because your life can depend on it. So in that sense it's instilled. But I think you can teach that to a kid through repetition, day in and day out, we're going to play this way all the time. I think over time they come to an understanding that they can play that way 90% of the time.
JJ: If you talk to people who know high school basketball on a national level you'll hear about New York, Philly, Chicago, Atlanta starting to make a name for themselves, D.C. Do you think Arizona has made a name for themselves, do think they deserve respect in the same way those other cities do?
DH: I think it's a little disrespected. There is tons of talent in Arizona, I don't think its to the level of the other regions you mentioned because I think there are more people in those regions, I mean mentors coaches, who truly understand the game of basketball, truly know it and know how to teach it. I think a lot of the coaches in Arizona, they're not as…I'm not trying to say there aren't good coaches in Arizona, but they are not as experienced as the coaches back East. Because those guys are preparing these kids not just for high school, but for college and even professional ball, because lets be honest there are kids that are ready to make that move, and are going to make that move.
JJ: In that respect, what do you think the role of a high school coach should be?
DH: I think it should be a mentor, a friend, for some of these kids it should be a father, because some of these kids don't have a father figure in their life. I think they should concentrate on changing some of these kids character first, and then once you change a kid's character the kid just blossoms. The kid becomes a better person, then a better student and then a better basketball player because you changed his character and he just gets better and better in life.
JJ: Is that something you dealt with, as far as not having a father figure?
DH: My real dad was never around, but I had a great stepfather and I had some great coaches throughout my life. I've been blessed in that respect, with some incredible coaches. That's why I really love teaching and coaching and giving back because I had so many give to me and help me become the man that I am today.
JJ: Obviously there is a direct correlation between a teacher and a coach. Most people ‘coach' the same way they ‘teach.' But you're so intense and so focused, I get the sense that you're the type of person who ‘teaches' the same way you ‘coach.' Would you agree?
DH: I would definitely say that, back in high school some guys would say that I was too focused, and even now I wonder if sometimes I'm too focused or too intense, but that's the only way I know. That's how I was successful as a player, that's how I've been successful as a coach. I think you just have to set the tone for who you're teaching and/or coaching that ‘This guy is focused, but he's professional in how he carries himself, and how he goes about his business, and he does it the right way.' Actions speak louder than words. Focus should be a good thing.
JJ: You are Coach Trousdale's assistant on the Arizona Cagers, and one of things he said to me when I asked him about you was that you are going to be a great high school head coach because when he was the recruiting coordinator at the University of San Francisco he watched you play and you were the most intense player he'd ever watched. How have you maintained that intensity since you haven't played competitive ball in seven years?
DH: When I got out of college I really didn't know what I wanted to do. And I got into coaching summer programs and that really brought my passion out. I just knew that if I couldn't play this game I wanted to coach this game. And I brought the same mentality to coaching that I played with. I want to be intense, I want to do everything the right way, I want to work hard, I want to set the right example, set a tone. So people can believe and trust in what I do and what I'm trying to show these kids. I just want them to see that I've been there as a player, and been successful as a player, and not a lot of coaches can say that. A lot of good players don't make good coaches, we know that, but since I've been there and I know that this intensity worked for me I think I can transfer that to the kids. But the thing that sets me apart is that I recognize that each of these kids is unique and different and some don't have that same drive and so I think I know how to motivate and get the most out of them.
JJ: Motivation seems like a thing that you put up very high on a list of qualities you have and qualities you like to see in others.
DH: That's right up there. Whatever you do in this life, if you have people follow you then you have to have a motivating theme behind it. Something they believe in, if they believe and trust in you kids will run through walls for you. So motivation and trust are definitely the two qualities I work the hardest at and look for first in others.
JJ: Does the mentor/teacher relationship change from a school sponsored team to a club team?
DH: Well the first thing is I just can't stand losing. I love winning. I want to win, and I want to win the right way. In the summer it's a more relaxed setting. It's a little easier to be a friend in the summer. There's a fine line between being a friend and a coach, and I don't think I've ever crossed it, but in the summer it's a little more relaxed and I think that line moves a little so that it's a little easier to joke around with them and have more of a personal relationship rather than just a professional player/coach relationship.
JJ: You said, "I want to win, and I want to do it the right way." What is the right way, or maybe the easier question is what is the wrong way?
DH: I think the wrong way is to just throw five guys out there and have them go one on one. I think you're disrespecting the game when you do that. I am a very traditional guy in the sense that I believe if you respect the game the game will respect you. It's a team game and it was made to be that way. It's five guys working together and really its more than five guys because I think the bench is as important as the starters and maybe even more so. Because of what they do in practice, the way they lift you up during the game and I think the guys coming off the bench during game can be pivotal.
JJ: Who is the best high school basketball player you've ever seen? Played with, coached, watched from the sideline, just seen?
DH: I would have to say Larry Johnson, or, no I'll take that back, Sean Elliot, he was so well rounded, he could play five positions.
JJ: Who's the best high school player now?
DH: LeBron James. He's a man already physically.
JJ: But he's already been drafted.
DH: He has. But I haven't seen a lot of the top players at this (Adidas Big Time) tournament, we've just been so busy with the Cagers I want to but I just haven't been able to get to a lot of other games.
JJ: Who's the best player right now in Arizona?
DH: I would say…hmmm…that's a tough question. I would say Ty Morrison. Physically and mentally he's tough, and he takes the game seriously, has that East Coast mentality. He doesn't let outside distractions get to him. A lot of players in Arizona are a level below the elite players in the country not physically, but in their mentality.
JJ: What is the number one characteristic you look for in a player?
DH: Does he play hard and is he coachable.
JJ: You'd take those two things over talent?
DH: I would.
JJ: That's easy to say sitting here.
DH: Yeah, I know it is, but its been proven throughout the history of sports, and it was proven last year in the state championship game. Desert Vista had a lot better talent than Gilbert, but Gilbert played hard, unselfish, they played together, and they won. That's why I think if you play hard, you play as a team, and you play unselfish, you'll be more successful than if you're just talented. And that's how I want my teams to play.
JJ: You brought up the championship game, give me some predictions. What teams look good for this upcoming season?
DH: I think Mountain View will look good, Mesa, and McClintock looked really good.
JJ: What about Gilbert?
DH: Gilbert lost a lot of people but Coach Bennett does such a great job that they'll be solid.
JJ: What are you looking for now? Do you have any coaching ambitions beyond high school? Would you want to coach in college or even professionally?
DH: I had a stint coaching at a good division II program and that was a great experience. But I moved back to Arizona because I have a 19 month old boy, and I want to be here for him, so it would be a long time before I went back to the college ranks. What I would really like to do is build a strong program and win some state championships and start a legacy.
JJ: Would you be interesting in coaching a 1A or 2A program?
DH: There are some absolutely outstanding coaches at 1A and 2A, and some extraordinary talent there also, but I've been a 5A guy my whole life, and right now that is where I'm the most comfortable, and I feel like that's the greatest challenge is in 5A so that's where I'd like to be, the biggest and the best.
JJ: What is your strategy?
DH: Championships are won with defense and I love man to man help style defense. Everyone is guarding everyone, everyone is picking everybody up. Everyone has one another's back. No one person on my teams gets beaten, and no one guy wins. We all win together, on defense and on offense. We share the ball, get the easiest shot. If the best player in the country is playing one on five he's not as good as a sixth grader shooting a wide open lay up. It's a team game and my teams play that way.
On Tuesday Doug Harris was named the Head Coach at Desert Vista, I spoke to him shortly after the announcement was made.
JJ: What was you initial reaction to being named head coach?
DH: It was a mixture I guess of gratitude, shock, relief, and happiness. It's an honor to be at a program as distinguished as DV. There will be a lot of expectations put on me, and I have a lot of my own expectations.
JJ: Are you at all intimidated considering this is your first head coach position and you're going to be at such a high profile program?
DH: No, it's a challenge, but I love a challenge. I look forward to meeting the guys and getting things going. They went to the state finals last year without me, I'm just hoping I can keep this good thing going?
JJ: Any predictions for the upcoming season?
DH: You never let me go easy do you jimmyjames. I'm very conservative when it comes to predictions. There's going to be a period of adjustment, both for me adjusting to the school and the team, and for the guys on the team adjusting to my system and my style of play. First of all we'd like to qualify for the state tournament, I think that's realistic and reachable. We've got a few guys coming back this year, I think its two starters, and those guys have experienced winning. Once you've experienced winning you just want to keep winning. That's the way I was when I was a player, and I hope these guys are the same way.
JJ: Coach Harris. How does that sound?
DH: That sounds great. I'd really like to thank the administration at Desert Vista. They are taking a chance with me, and I appreciate it. I'm honored to be the first black head coach in the east valley, and I am a first time head coach, so the administration took a shot with me and I'm just going to work as hard as I can to live up to the expectations I have for myself, and the fans and parents at Desert Vista have for me.
Well spoken and experienced, Doug Harris is exactly what Arizona high school basketball needs to step up on the national stage. He brings a big time high school basketball pedigree, an East Coast toughness, and a desire to win, and win as he says, "the right way." There's talent in Arizona, there's talented teams in 5A, and Doug Harris can bring those intangibles that Arizona is missing. Desert Vista saw that, and took a chance on a young coach who very well may take Desert Vista and make it into the program everyone thinks it could be.