Marvel Keith Harshman never enjoyed a home-court advantage in life greater than the overwhelming edge he had Saturday afternoon when a few hundred of his former colleagues, players and fans gathered at, appropriately enough, “Marv Harshman Court” on the University of Washington campus, to bid farewell to a state coaching legend who passed April 12 at 95.
Attendees reminisced and swapped tales about his life and times, but none mourned, really. You don’t mourn a man who made it past 95, most of it in robust health, as much as you celebrate a life exceedingly well lived, certainly Harshman’s crowning achievement according to a parade of speakers that piled story upon anecdote about their friendships and associations with him.
To those new to his history, Harshman, born Oct. 4, 1917, migrated west from Eau Claire, WI., with his parents in 1927 and grew up in the Lake Stevens area, where he attended high school and began attracting attention as a star athlete by 14, according to son Dave, who recounted that the Pacific Coast League’s Seattle Indians expressed interest in signing him in 1931, when he was way too young to sign a contract.
Marv could play any sport well, but football and basketball were the games in which he excelled. He starred in both at Lake Stevens and later at Pacific Lutheran College.
“He was probably the most versatile athlete Pacific Lutheran ever enrolled,” said Jim Van Beek, who played under Harshman at PLU. “He was the best example of a multi-sport athlete that PLU ever had.”
“He was first-team All-America in football and first-team All-America in basketball,” former assistant Jud Heathcote added at the service. Heathcote joked, “But there weren’t really that many Americans back then.”
Following Harshman’s career at PLU, he played semipro basketball and football in the Seattle-Tacoma area, then entered military service with the Navy during World War II. After his discharge, Harshman embarked upon one of the greatest coaching careers in state history, leading the PLU basketball team for 13 years (1946-58), the Washington State Cougars for another 13 (1959-71) and, finally, the Washington Huskies for 14 seasons (1972-85).
During those 40 seasons, Harshman won 642 games, then the ninth-highest total in NCAA Division I history. He entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in April, 1985, just weeks after coaching his last game.
“Forty years at the collegiate level in the state of Washington . . . ” mused current UW head coach Lorenzo Romar. “You wonder why he was a legend, and it’s because he was just very good at what he did.”
Romar had a couple of intriguing stories. When Harshman showed up at Romar’s Compton, CA., home in the late 1970s to recruit him to Washington, Romar was eager to know whether Harshman thought he had the ability to play in the NBA (Romar ultimately did, for five seasons). Instead of telling Romar yes, as many recruiters might have done, Harshman told Romar that would really have to work at it, as another former Husky, Charles Dudley, had done.
“He told me the truth, and I always appreciated that,” said Romar.
Not long after that recruiting visit, Romar found himself at the Los Angeles International Airport, where he spied UCLA coaching legend John Wooden. Romar couldn’t help himself: He chased after Wooden, corralled him, introduced himself and told Wooden that he was being recruited by several colleges.
“I was going over this in my mind,” said Romar, “and I was trying to figure out what to do. I wanted to ask Wooden what he thought I should do. Then I told him what my choices (of colleges) were.
“Wooden said to me, ‘If you have a chance to play for Marv Harshman, you can’t afford to pass that up.’”
Heathcote’s first coaching break came when Harshman hired him as a Washington State assistant.
“I’m indebted to Marv for my entire college coaching career,” Heathcote said. “Every job I ever had was because of Marv.”
Heathcote coached under Harshman in the WSU program in the late 1960s, then moved to the University of Montana as a head coach at Harshman’s recommendation.
In 1976, Heathcote became head coach at Michigan State. He was hired by MSU athletic director Joe Kearney, also at Harshman’s recommendation (Harshman had been hired at Washington in 1972 by Kearney, then UW athletic director, before Kearney moved to Michigan State).
Heathcote coached at Michigan State from 1976-94, and won the national championship in 1979 with a sophomore named Magic Johnson.
“Wouldn’t have happened with Marv,” said Heathcote, a famous banquet speaker in his day, who added, “We’ve all lost a part of our history, and today we say goodbye to Marv. But one day, we will be reunited.”
Saturday’s memorial service, which began with the sound of a bouncing basketball, a referee’s shrill whistle, and son Dave donning a funny-nose-and-glasses disguise, also included speakers Bob Houbregs, Detlef Schrempf, Hugh Campbell, Bud Norris and Steve Hawes, all of whom delivered remarks before and after video slide shows chronicling Harshman’s four-decade career.
Hooubregs, who led the UW basketball team to its only Final Four appearance in 1953, when he was named NCAA Player of the Year, is a state athletic icon but notoriously shy when it comes to public speaking. Still, Harshman meant enough to him to that Houbregs, with assistance, scaled the stairs to the podium.
“I know Marv is looking down on us with a smile on his face,” Houbregs said. “That’s because he knows I’m uncomfortable. I hope he’s happy with Dorothy (his deceased wife). He was a great man and great friend.”
“He was all about simple things,” said Schrempf, who played under Harshman at Washington in the early 1980s. “What I remember is that he could recall things from dates from 60 years ago, and he loved to tell stories. I was extremely fortunate to have met him.”
“He was the ultimate bookworm,” said family friend Sue Beyer. “He read everything from history to mystery. He loved the written word and loved crossword puzzles.”
“He was a great, great teacher,” said Hawes, who starred for the Huskies in the early 1970s, playing one year (1972) under Harshman. “He taught basketball, but he could have taught anything. He could be very direct and blunt, but he always got his point across.”
One time, Hawes said, Harshman was trying to teach the Huskies the importance of getting the ball inside. But one of the UW guards had trouble grasping the concept.
“Don’t you see it?” Hawes quoted Harshman as saying. “It’s as obvious as a horse turd in a bowl of milk.”
“To me,” added Schrempf, “he just lived a very rich life. When you think about Marv, you think about how many lives he touched. He was always approachable, he listened, and he cared.”
The funny-nose-and-glasses episode happened in 1976 when the Huskies traveled to Eugene to face the Ducks. In those days, Oregon coach Dick Harter routinely made his players stand at mid-court with their arms folded to stare down the enemy.
“They’d have half of their players shooting and the other half standing there staring at you,” said Kim Stewart, a Husky from 1975-78.
With Harshman’s blessing, a UW aide scrounged around and found a half dozen false-face joke masks, which featured big bushy eyebrows and glasses.
Before taking the court for the pre-game shootaround, UW players shoved the glasses down their warmups. Then, when Oregon’s starters lined up and began their stare-down, the Huskies donned the disguises, turned around and went fake nose-to-nose with the suddenly flustered Ducks.
“I owe him everything,” said Heathcote. “I’ll never forget him.”
Excellent column Steve. Reminds me of just what a positive role model Coach Harshman is to the state and his impact on Washington state sports history.
Thanks for weighing in. Marv was a classic, which was why hundreds attended his memorial service. I loved Lorenzo Romar’s story about John Wooden.
I agree with jafabian – thanks for bringing back the memories. It was a pleasure to read the article and remember the man. He was a classic old school coach and character.
And thank you for your thoughts. Many knew Marv better than I, but I count myself fortunate that I did get to know him on a personal level after he left UW. I did not know, until the memorial service, that Marv loved to play crossword puzzles. So do I. If he was still with us, we could trade notes on Greek gods, the Greek alphabet, the Jewish calendar, Latin verbs, constellations and odd suffixes, all staples of crossword play. He’d probably kick my butt. And if he couldn’t, he’d challenge me to a boxing match and break my nose (he did that once to a friendly rival who beat him in a game of Ping Pong).