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His Time Has Come : After Seven Years, Harrick Finds His Comfort Zone at UCLA

March 09, 1995|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He took getting used to, all right. Rough edges, West Virginia twang, and a face that looked pinched and perturbed every time a camera zoomed in and the game was pushed to the brink.

None of that has changed, seven years after Jim Harrick left Pepperdine to come to UCLA.

His profession is filled with clever prima donnas and made-for-TV hairdos, but it was clear seven years ago and it still is obvious, Harrick is never going to be a star.

But he decided long ago that though he might not capture the heart of millions, he would last.

And he has. Though the rough edges still show at times, those closest to the situation agree that Harrick has grown into the job of UCLA basketball coach slowly but certainly, building toward this triumphant season, a year that would fit nicely into a catalogue of John Wooden's glory days.

"I was actually just talking to somebody the other day about this," says forward Ed O'Bannon, who has been with Harrick for five years. "It looks like he's very comfortable now.

"He comes into practice and he's serious and yet at the same time he knows what he wants. And he knows that we can provide as long as we listen. He's just very confident. And it makes it a lot easier to go out and play for him."

He has grown as a coach, and, through the same often-painful process, he seems to have grown on the Bruin faithful. They took some getting used to, also.

But even in a job that seemed to overwhelm him and push him toward the breaking point at first, Harrick was determined: No burn out, no fade away.

"He's the most damn competitive guy I've ever been around in my life," says Harrick's son, Jim Harrick Jr., who played under his father at Pepperdine and was an assistant at San Diego State. "He's got the thickest skin, he's the toughest . . . I've ever been around in my life. Sometimes he doesn't show that, but it's there.

"He wants to be here as long as he possibly can, win a couple of national titles. I think he'll be at peace with himself when he accomplishes all he wants to accomplish here, and I don't think he's even scratched the surface."

Was he ready for the UCLA job seven years ago? After five coaches in 13 years had come and bolted from the burden of Wooden's legacy, and a handful of others had turned down the school's entreaties, it hardly mattered.

What mattered was that he wanted it, and that he was going to be the one who lasted longest.

"Peace comes in enduring to the end, I guess," Jim Jr. says. "And he wants to endure to the end."

Were there times when he thought he might be one more big loss away from being fired? If there were, and though Harrick will not publicly concede that there were, they only made him tougher and stronger and better.

"I'll admit to you, he's right on some part," Harrick says, when his son's comments are repeated to him. "Part of me wants to do it because I want to be the guy who followed John Wooden for a long period of time. Part of me wants to do it because five other coaches chose not to do it.

"I want to be the one who chooses to do it. That's what he's talking about, the stubbornness. Yeah, part of me's like that."

Has his seventh consecutive season of at least 21 victories and an NCAA tournament appearance, with the kind of intricate and balanced play that Wooden calls "marvelous," convinced his doubters that he is at UCLA to stay?

On this point Harrick, who often answers questions by rote, responding from a scripted checklist that he sometimes does not even bother to hide from the interviewer, pauses and narrows his eyes.

"I think maybe it might," Harrick says quietly. "I think people are settled into the fact that we run a sound, solid program.

"It will never be to everyone's liking. But I think people have accepted that."

*

Larry Brown, who had the job once, turned down a return to Westwood seven years ago when UCLA Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis was looking to replace Walt Hazzard. Other prominent coaches, such as Denny Crum and Jim Valvano, were approached.

Harrick, whose Pepperdine teams won five conference titles in nine years, knew the tumultuous situation, and when his turn came, he emphasized continuity and credibility--not instant glory.

"I told them in the interview, I'm a very, very consistent guy," Harrick says. "I'll be there every day in the office at the same time. I'm a routine guy. And my teams have always been consistent.

"Every once in a while you're going to have that great club, but I've never had a bad club. I did once at Pepperdine, when we lost all three guards in one year, had a losing year one year (1986-87).

"But we've had two great years here. . . . So yes, I think I've grown into the position. I think everybody grows into their position. I think I did.

"I thought I was prepared with nine years of Division I head coaching experience, but the magnitude of this job is even greater than what I had expected."

People noticed.

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