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Coach Is Sold on Challenge at Long Beach

April 23, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

He arrived from Virginia with the impeccability and stateliness of an executive or young senator, but was neither, having come instead as the new men's basketball coach at Cal State Long Beach.

At his unveiling during a news conference last Friday at the Hyatt Edgewater Hotel, Joe Harrington stood at the podium with the self-assurance of a man accustomed to public speaking, which he is.

His brown hair swept across his forehead and sat like a nest atop his angular face. His suit was as tailored as his ideas for turning his new team into a winner and matched his gray eyes, which refused to focus on past 49er futility.

From his height of 6 feet, 5 1/2 inches, Harrington looked down and said, "I came out here last Sunday with pretty much of an open mind. By Monday afternoon, I just knew I wanted to be the coach here. I know we're going to do well. I feel very comfortable with the elements here: the area, the traditions, the people that direct the school."

His voice, although influenced by years in the South, left no doubt as to his New England roots.

After seven years at George Mason University, a Division I school in Fairfax, Va., where Harrington's record was 112-85, he was selected by Corey Johnson, the new 49er athletic director, to succeed Ron Palmer. Palmer resigned March 2 with a three-year record of 23-64.

Harrington, 41, a native of Maine, played basketball at the University of Maryland. He was an assistant to Lefty Driesell at Maryland for 10 seasons, then was 14-14 in his first head coaching job at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., in 1979-80.

Harrington described himself as a positive person, then described his coaching style:

"I like to press and fast-break and let players play and their talents flow, (although) that doesn't mean it's helter-skelter. A good pressing team can be a team that can upset people, especially in the facility I'll be coaching in."

That facility is the university gym, and its resemblance to a high school gym did not depress Harrington, who left a new arena and an average home crowd of 5,000 at George Mason.

"I think it's a tremendous advantage," he said. "I'll tell you, it will be the hardest place in college basketball for a visiting team to win with people yelling and screaming. It's just the right size."

This major change came suddenly and unexpectedly for Harrington, who is single.

Only two weeks ago, he had finished a successful recruiting period and looked forward to contending for the Colonial Athletic Assn. title next season. He did not know that Johnson was very interested in him.

"I contacted coaches and athletic directors and asked them for people they thought could come in and take Long Beach back to a winning situation," said Johnson, who was looking for an experienced Division I coach with discipline and recruiting ability. "His name kept popping up. I called him and told him I felt he was the type of person we needed."

Harrington said that Joan Bonvicini, the 49er women's basketball coach, influenced his decision to take the job.

"She said, 'It can be done here. People are just starving for a winner in men's basketball,' " he said.

Relatively unknown in Southern California, Harrington, who will have a three-year contract, said he would remain that way only briefly.

"I'm going to be different than anyone they've known here," said Harrington, who vowed to quickly get out into the community and meet people. "They're going to want to say, 'Let's meet the coach,' or, 'Hey, that's the new coach at Long Beach.' ".

And the new coach promised that the team will have discipline, something some of the players complained was lacking under Palmer.

"I guarantee you'll see players playing harder than you've ever seen them play," Harrington said.

Harrington said he had not heard of any of his new players, but, "I think there are good athletes here, the cupboard is not bare. It's a clean slate for the players. It's appealing for players to be part of a rebirth."

All but one of the 1986-87 49ers will return next season, but Harrington said he will try to bring in an additional one or two. "We won't sign players just to be signing players," he said.

On Monday afternoon, the 49er basketball players were playing a pickup game in their sweltering little gym. Harrington had to resist the urge to peek in--that would be against NCAA rules, he said--but later met with his team for 45 minutes.

"He stressed academics and our appearance off the court," center DeAnthony Langston said after the meeting. "He's real positive. We feel better about ourselves now."

The 49ers have not felt too well since closing a 12-19 season with eight straight losses.

"He just laid down the law," guard Morlon Wiley said. "He emphasized hard work, supporting each other and being a little family."

The players weren't the only ones impressed. Dorothy Magnuson, the basketball secretary who has seen more than a few coaches come and go, said Harrington had given her a dozen carnations for National Secretary's Week.

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