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Handing Off the City Section : Harkness' League Realignment Won Praise; Recruiting, Eligibility Issues Drew Headlines


The disarray in which Hal Harkness found City Section athletics when he became commissioner in 1986 was evident just by the names of the leagues.

Young athletes competed in leagues named Crosstown, Metro and Freeway, a constant reminder that they often spent more time riding buses than playing games. It was not uncommon for a school such as Locke High to play a football game at San Pedro one week and at Wilson in East Los Angeles the next.

"It was a waste of time to play schools so far out of our area," Locke football Coach E.C. Robinson said. "Kids would cut one or two classes to get to the locker room to change and catch a bus at 2 p.m. Then we would run into all that traffic coming back on a Friday night."

It was that sort of scheduling nightmare that Harkness confronted when he took over as commissioner, replacing Jim Cheffers. In 1988, he initiated the realignment of the 49 Los Angeles Unified School District schools into two divisions with six geographically compatible conferences. It was one of his major accomplishments.

Harkness, who will turn 55 in September, announced his retirement as commissioner in June. He will be replaced by Barbara Fiege, Belmont High's athletic director, on Oct. 11.

During his tenure, Harkness reorganized and created a more cost-effective and time-efficient sports program for the nation's second-largest school district. He served as an executive secretary for the Interscholastic Athletics Committee, helping shape rules and create a more effective policy-making group.

"He was a no-nonsense type of guy with strong ethical standards, which he lived by and expected others to live by," Banning Principal Augustine Herrera said. "He believes in doing things by the book. He had high standards for athletics and he expected people to follow those rules."

Harkness also made the commissioner's office more accessible and supportive of coaches and school administrators.

"I always thought Harkness was pretty fair and very professional," Manual Arts basketball Coach Randolph Simpson said. "He always followed through with things when I needed help, and he was always respectful. It didn't matter if you coached a team with the worst record, he treated you like you were a state champion."

But Harkness also had detractors.

Controversies over recruiting and eligibility requirements have generated headlines during his tenure, and his relationship with school district officials was almost nonexistent--a situation that has tinged his departure with some bitterness.

As commissioner, Harkness said he never had an official meeting with the district superintendent or stood before the school board. Major decisions by school district officials regarding the athletics program were made without his input, he complained.

"I think my biggest challenge was the district's lack of understanding of the athletic programs," Harkness said. "I believe, after working day and night with the schools, I have expert advice and counseling to give as part of the decision-making process and that it is not being utilized. I was never asked or consulted by the school board or any superintendent that I've worked under.

"I'm a front man as far as I'm concerned. I knew that when I came in. But enough is enough. I'm no longer comfortable with that position."

Dan Isaacs, the district's assistant superintendent for school operations, said Harkness had the attention of school district officials.

"Hal Harkness had direct access to me and (director of senior high schools division) Richard Browning on a regular basis," Isaacs said. "Information that needed to be shared with the office of the superintendent was appropriately shared. I would like to add that I felt Hal Harkness did an outstanding job working to support the athletic program and on behalf of students, coaches and appropriate administrative staff."

On Sept. 2, 1986, Harkness was named director of athletics for the City Section of the California Interscholastic Federation. He succeeded Cheffers, who retired after 23 years with the City Section, including 14 as commissioner.

The City Section is one of 10 state sections governed by the CIF. The City Section is not only a governing body, but also part of the Los Angeles school district. Its athletic office not only governs member schools, but also provides financing. Coaches' salaries and transportation costs are its biggest expenses. Although the Southern Section office contains more member schools, it is not tied to one school district and is not involved with financing individual athletic programs.

Harkness won the City cross-country title at North Hollywood in 1955 and finished fourth in the state in the mile in 1956 before attending Occidental College. He spent most of his teaching career in Los Angeles schools, including Wilson, South Gate, Carson, University and Franklin.

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