Three decades ago Jim Harrick left his native West Virginia in a
1960 stick- shift Chevy with no radio, no heater and no air
conditioner, bound for Los Angeles.
This is an article from the April 15, 1995 issue
On April 3, 1995, he arrived.
Well, not literally. But until April 3, when he led UCLA to its
11th national championship and the first not won under the
sagacious bench instruction of John Wooden, some felt that Harrick
didn't truly belong as the sixth successor to the Wizard of
Of course, to varying degrees, the same judgment had been passed
on all the other coaches -- Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry
Brown, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard -- who followed Wooden, the
man widely considered to be the greatest college basketball coach
of all time. ``I certainly don't deserve to be mentioned in the
same breath with Coach Wooden,'' said Harrick after the Bruins'
decisive 89-78 win over Arkansas in the title game at the Seattle
Kingdome, ``but I never doubted my ability to coach.''
Maybe not, but there were enough doubters doing it for him, just
as they did for the others who followed Wooden. His first four
years at UCLA were smooth ones, Harrick said. But then there were
rumblings that the Bruins were never going to get back to the
title game. There were rumblings that Harrick was not an
X's-and-O's guy. There were rumblings that he couldn't handle
being on the hot seat. Talk radio was particularly tough on
Harrick because, as he says, ``you couldn't defend yourself.''
It's funny, because when Harrick took the job after a number of
other, more celebrated coaches (Brown, Denny Crum, Mike Krzyzewski
and the late Jim Valvano among them) had turned it down, the one
thing he was supposed to be able to bring to the program was solid
``I was a career guy,'' said Harrick the day before the title
game. ``I had been a jayvee coach in high school and then a
varsity coach. I had been an assistant at a major program [Utah
State] and then a head coach [at Pepperdine]. I did it all. Many's
the night I ran a dry mop over the floor at Pepperdine because
there was no one else to do it. You learn to coach that way. You
learn from the bottom up.''
Harrick had a couple of chances to leave Pepperdine during his
estimable run of success there from 1979 to '88 (five West Coast
Athletic Conference titles in nine years). Toledo and Wichita
State came calling, and he turned them down. He came close to
getting the Arizona State and Nebraska jobs, and he admits that he
went after the USC position aggressively before George Raveling
was hired in 1986. But when UCLA called him in '88, he felt that
his ship had truly come in. ``That's what I had been waiting for
all these years,'' said Harrick. ``That was the dream job.'' Well,
as he later found out, it was and it wasn't.
Some in the UCLA community may have expected a glitzy guy, but
that's not Harrick. ``Part of Jim's appeal and his strength is
that he comes from humble beginnings,'' says athletic director
Peter Dalis. Harrick and his wife of 34 years, Sally, who came
west with him in the Chevy, have raised three sons -- Monte, 32;
Jim, 30, who played for his father at Pepperdine; and Glenn, 26,
who is a student at UCLA. The sons were all feisty guard types,
``like their father,'' says Harrick, who played at the University
of Charleston in his native West Virginia. After Harrick got the
UCLA job, he and his wife sold their home in Thousand Oaks so Jim
could be closer to his work. And few major college coaches are
closer to their work -- the Harrick condo is less than a half mile
from Pauley Pavilion.
Harrick has never exactly been a media favorite in La La Land.
Over the years he has occasionally answered questions according to
a scripted formula, even using a crib sheet -- which he didn't
bother to hide from reporters. But Harrick isn't incapable of
producing a gem of a quote. For example, he described being an
assistant coach as ``a job so anonymous, they don't even include
you in the census.''
This season Harrick has been more animated and friendly than
usual, despite the pressure of a run at the national championship.
Perhaps it's just that he and the media are getting more used to
each other. Even Harrick's critics concede that he is
down-to-earth -- ``I'm basically just an old P.E. coach,'' he
always says -- but maybe it isn't surprising that it took awhile
for that to be appreciated in Los Angeles. His pleasure is in
doing the day-to-day, year-after-year job with consistency. ``I've
always said that the true measure of a coach is winning a
conference championship,'' says Harrick. ``Anyone in this business
will tell you how hard that is. And I've won seven (five at
Pepperdine, two at UCLA) in 16 years. I think I've done a pretty
good job.'' One reason for his consistency with the Bruins, says
Harrick, is his relationship with Wooden. If Harrick were insecure
-- and that came to be one of the criticisms leveled at him --
then surely he would've kept Wooden at arm's length, lest the
inevitable comparisons be made. And remember that Wooden quite
definitely had to be asked. Wooden is a humble man who is acutely
aware of the pressure that comes with his legacy, so he stays away
from the Bruin program unless invited. (Of the coaches who
preceded Harrick, Cunningham, Farmer and Hazzard wanted Wooden in
their inner circles.)
``It was the most natural thing in the world for me,'' says
Harrick. ``I didn't care about ghosts. I didn't care about
shadows. Being around John Wooden has been one of the most
important things in my life, and not just my basketball life.''
Harrick and Wooden, pupil and tutor, meet at Coco's, a restaurant
in the San Fernando Valley, two or three times a month. Harrick
freely admits that ``99 percent of my offense'' comes from Wooden
and that ``this year's team is a typical John Wooden-disciple
team'' in that it stresses fundamentals, conditioning and
unselfish play. Rarely does the talk get too basketball- specific
-- Harrick says Wooden is as likely to be discussing Marcia
Clark's line of questioning in the O.J. Simpson trial as he is the
rudiments of the fast break -- but Harrick's assistants routinely
come along for the get- togethers, and they are usually fascinated
by Wooden's practice philosophy.
``They always ask him, `Coach, why didn't you practice situations,
like down one with 12 seconds to go?' '' says Harrick. ``And his
answer is always the same. `If your team is sound fundamentally,
if they're well drilled in the basics, then they will do the right
things when they have to.' ''
But the question that always fascinated Harrick, and almost anyone
else interested in basketball, was this: Did Wooden have a knack
for recruiting phenomenally skilled basketball players, or did he
simply create them out of above-average athletes? After years of
Wooden-watching, Harrick feels he has the answer. ``It's always a
blend,'' he says. ``For the first 15 years, Coach Wooden didn't
really have the blend.'' Remember that Wooden came to Westwood in
1948 and didn't win his first NCAA championship until 1964. ``You
need talent, luck, cohesion, fundamentals, all those things, to
win a championship,'' Harrick continues. ``It doesn't just happen.
And once [Wooden] discovered the key, he just kept on going.''
Harrick felt that he had that blend this season. But he isn't
afraid to say that luck had something to do with the championship
run. ``I never had a season when almost every decision I made or
my players made turned out right,'' he said. ``Like in the
Connecticut game in the West Regional final, Charles [O'Bannon]
calls timeout with only a few seconds left in the half. We never
do that. And what happens? Tyus [Edney] gets us a three-point shot
that turned out to be important.'' The Bruins went on to win
But it wasn't luck when Harrick went to a zone defense to shut
down the outside shooting of Oklahoma State guard Randy Rutherford
in the semifinals. It wasn't luck that he designed a game plan
that called for double-teaming -- and ultimately shutting down --
Arkansas's Corliss Williamson. It wasn't luck that UCLA stayed in
its timeout huddles much longer, sometimes as much as a minute
longer, than Arkansas; obviously Harrick had something to say.
And his best coaching may have been done before the Bruins even
arrived in Seattle. Rather than ignoring the obvious -- that
everyone in the UCLA community was, uh, eager for a title and fed
up with past flameouts, particularly the 112-102 loss to Tulsa in
the first round of the '94 tournament -- Harrick used the Final
Four as an incentive during the regular season. His players
frequently got together in team huddles, touched hands and said,
``Kingdome.'' During a trip to Seattle for a Pac-10 game against
Washington, Harrick made sure the team bus went by the Kingdome so
he could take them inside for a few minutes. ``This is where we
want to be in April,'' he said. And at the Bruins' final practice
session in Pauley Pavilion before they left for Seattle, Harrick
decided to play the trump card of history. ``I know players aren't
much on the past,'' Harrick says. ``As far as all those
championships under Coach Wooden go, they could've happened 800
years ago.'' But he decided this was the time. He called the team
together at center court and pointed to the 10 championship
banners hanging from the rafters. ``There's room for another
one,'' he said.
Never did Harrick run away from the challenge of this year. That's
not surprising, since even his critics had to admit that running
away was not Harrick's style. ``You know, there was a time when
anyone would've wanted the UCLA job,'' says Oklahoma's Kelvin
Sampson, who coached in the Pac-10 for seven years before taking
over at Norman this season. ``It was magical. But times change.
There are pressures associated with that job that a lot of coaches
wouldn't want. If I'd had [Harrick's] record when I was at
Washington State, they would have erected a statue of me. But the
UCLA job comes with a lot of ifs, ands and buts.
``We, the other coaches, relate to Jim because he's a survivor. He
has fought battles on and off the court, he's managed to win most
of them, and he's endured. Jim Harrick is a symbol for coaches,
and now he's at the pinnacle. Nobody deserves it more.''
Or worked more diligently to get where he is. When Harrick left
his first coaching job, at Morningside High School in Inglewood,
to take an assistant's job at Utah State in 1973, he took a pay
cut in the process -- from $23,500 to $12,500. How did he know
leaving a job he had held for nine years would pay off? ``I
remember this one guy who was the Latin teacher at Morningside,''
Harrick said. ``I was talking to him in the hallway one day, and
he had become like an old man with a cane, and he said to me, `You
know, I had a chance to go to junior college and didn't because I
didn't think I could take a $2,000 cut.' Right there, I stopped in
my tracks and looked at him and said to myself, That's me in 10
Instead, Harrick finds himself in a very different place these
days. Three weeks ago, there he was, the West Virginia
mountaineer, at the Academy Awards as the guest of Forrest Gump
co-producer Wendy Finerman, who is the daughter of Bruin team
physician Gerald Finerman. ``I got to hold it,'' said Harrick,
referring to the Oscar that the film won for Best Picture. ``It
And so are the burdens of following in Wooden's footsteps. But
Harrick is holding something different now -- the NCAA
championship trophy and the respect of the UCLA community. It has
been a long and winding road from West Virginia to Tinseltown. But
Jim Harrick has arrived.