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Originally published April 12, 2013 at 8:16 PM | Page modified April 13, 2013 at 3:56 PM

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Marv Harshman deserved his reputation as a college basketball coaching legend

Marv Harshman, who coached at Washington, Washington State and Pacific Lutheran, his alma mater, was a basketball Hall of Famer. Deservedly so.

Times college basketball reporter

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The magic of Marvel K. Harshman, who died Friday, wasn't in the numbers.

Sure, he won 637 games as a college basketball coach, and, in an anachronistic age, he was on the job as a head man for 40 years, daunting numbers.

But he had a losing record at Washington State, and after 27 seasons of coaching at WSU and Washington, he finished one game under .500 in Pacific-8 and Pac-10 games.

Somebody saw through it. He was voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and rightly so.

Harshman's genius was in squeezing every last drop from modest talent. Spare parts to somebody else were linchpins to him. Marv wasn't much for cooing in the ears of recruits. He did his best work after the kids got to campus, not before. The great John Wooden used to say that the coach whose work he admired as much as anybody's was Marv Harshman.

I first became acquainted with Harshman's coaching as a freshman at Washington State. Early in January 1967, there was a buzz on campus. Lew Alcindor was coming to town, going to play his first Pac-8 game right there in Pullman.

But how to simulate in practice the incredible, athletic length of Alcindor? Harshman had his defenders brandish tennis rackets in the paint, which pretty much discouraged any nonchalant offense down low.

That Saturday, we rushed into Bohler Gym to first-row seats, and the Cougars led Alcindor's Bruins — they were headed for three consecutive national titles — by one midway through the second half. Eventually, UCLA won by nine.

Harshman's WSU teams would finish second to UCLA in 1968 and 1969. Today, those teams are No. 5 and 6 seeds in the NCAA tournament; back then, they went nowhere.

While Wooden was recruiting the best out of New York (Alcindor) and Kansas City (Lucius Allen) and Los Angeles (Sidney Wicks), Harshman was cleaning up in Anaconda, Mont. (starting forward Jim Meredith) and Sandpoint, Idaho (forward Gary Elliott). The starting guards were a pair of crowd-pleasing towheads from Richland and Yakima, Ray Stein and Lenny Allen.

He took the Washington job in 1971, an act of perfidy to some WSU partisans. When I asked him about it in 2003, he said the former athletic director at WSU, Stan Bates, encouraged him to look at the job because Glenn Terrell looked to be a president who wasn't especially favorable to athletics.

At UW, Harshman handed Wooden his final defeat in 1975, 10 games before the Wizard's last national title, and the Huskies did it in style, 103-81. His best Washington team was probably his next one, a 23-5 club in '76 led by 7-foot Roosevelt High product James Edwards.

Harshman was a warm figure with both a sense of humor and a penchant for the honest answer. In 1976, when Lonnie Shelton, the future Sonic, went to court to invalidate his signing with the old American Basketball Association so he could return to Oregon State for his junior season, Harshman spoke out bitterly, and it drove a wedge between him and his old warhorse counterpart at OSU, Ralph Miller.

About that time, Harshman's relationship with Oregon's Dick Harter was already prickly. Harter was the interloper from the East whose methods were confrontational, including the practice of having half his players stand, arms folded, at midcourt, staring down the opposition's warm-up drills.

One night in Eugene, as Harter's guys took their stances, several Huskies slipped out, directly in front of the Ducks, quietly pulled Groucho Marx masks from their shorts and donned them. Harter was furious. But Harshman won, and the next day's paper in Eugene showed a photo of Harshman grinning behind Groucho glasses and mustache.

Harshman's exit from coaching in 1985 was a story of presidential idiocy. He was 67 then, and UW prez William Gerberding wanted somebody more youthful in that chair, so he forced him out — just as Harshman was going 28-8 in the Pac-10 his last two seasons, winning co-championships and going to the Sweet 16 in '84.

The irony was unmistakable. He had left WSU for Washington because he was suspicious of the president's motives.

Of course, Harshman's departure augured a decade and a half of mostly regrettable basketball at UW, a stretch that didn't end until athletic director Barbara Hedges took Harshman's advice and turned to one of his old players, Lorenzo Romar, in 2002.

"I think I could have coached 10 more years," Harshman told me in 2003. Two schools, one of them Hawaii, sought him out for jobs, and he said he had "kicked myself" for not taking them.

In '03, I arranged lunch in Los Angeles with three coaching icons. We joined Wooden and Pete Newell, who in 18 months' time, won a national title at California and coached the 1960 U.S. Olympians to a gold medal.

It was lunch with the legends. Marv Harshman belonged.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com


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