SEATTLE — In this tournament of spectacles and spectacular success, of the history and ghosts of wizards past, Jim Harrick defines himself as "vanilla." And who would argue with his description? In the convulsions of basketball at UCLA, he is the Survivor of Westwood. And who could argue with his success?
If John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, comes to Monday night's championship as promised and sits in full view of the cameras as he does at Pauley Pavilion, Harrick says he will embrace the man and not hide from him.
Harrick's UCLA team is playing for its first NCAA championship Monday night since 1975, when Wooden retired his legend after 10 titles in the previous 11 seasons. In between five coaches were chewed up by the job, coaches who came into the job with far more L.A. glitz than Harrick. He has none.
Maybe Harrick has thrived because he was 41 years old before he got his first college head coaching job and had worked the equivalent of the minor leagues so long, or the fact that he actually made his living teaching in junior high school and high school. Maybe it's his vanilla manner or the fact that his ego isn't in obvious competition with either history or his players who have enabled him to survive seven seasons, and even thrive.
Remember that in the interim Larry Brown coached UCLA two years, took them to the championship game that first season, and then moved on as Larry Brown does. Remember one of the first things Brown did at UCLA after buying white shoes was change the color of the uniforms to something closer to Carolina blue.
Remember that when David Letterman was asked if he would like to be the next Johnny Carson, he answered, "I don't want to be the next Gene Bartow."
Poor Gene Bartow, he came right after Wooden, went to the Final Four his first season, posted a 52-9 record, and the ache in his belly told him to get out of town. Note that Walt Hazzard, a hero of Wooden's first champions, was fired after a 25-7 season. And so it was until Harrick got the job almost by default before the 1988 season, after Brown and Denny Crum declined.
"Only Coach Bartow had been a Division I head coach," Harrick said. "I sat there and watched them and I knew that some day there would always be some criticism. I knew most of the writers and the officials because I had been in the town. I knew the league and I knew the coaches and their style. So I thought I was a little more prepared."
Harrick says it's time to drop the adjective "beleaguered" from his name because it no longer applies. "I'm going to tell you something," Harrick said. "I've lived a vanilla life."
He paid his dues. Just out of Morris Harvey College, now known as the University of Charleston, in West Virginia, he married his high-school girl friend and that night drove to Los Angeles to take his first job. Twenty-eight years later he was an overnight success.
For 13 years he was a high-school coach, taught all the subjects in a junior-high school class, coached high school baseball and basketball -- all of it in Los Angeles, where he could see the pressures on Wooden's successors. He worked two years as an assistant to Gary Cunningham, who followed Bartow, and saw how it all worked from the inside and how Cunningham wanted out. He loved his nine years at Pepperdine, still in Los Angeles, loved his home with a 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean, loved bein g loved at the school when he won and when he lost. "They thought I could coach," he said.
And there were times he asked himself why didn't he stay? The worst of it was, he said, in the two years talk-radio was very strong in Los Angeles and -- as in New York -- people with no credentials suddenly had a forum to demand more than was reasonable and exert more influence than was justified. He just stopped listening.
In the time after Wooden, Brown had to contend with the fact that the base salary was very low and the rich perks of basketball camps still belonged to Wooden. Brown, who had come from Denver of the NBA, couldn't buy his Brentwood house on his UCLA salary so booster people made it available to him. With booster generosity comes booster influence on everything. To paraphrase what one noted booster said of Brown, "I could geld him and he'd have to change his clothes to find out." The money has been adjusted, the biggest and baddest booster died and left money to the program, and Harrick says he answers to nobody.
From the time Harrick coached at Morningside High School and on to Pepperdine he would haunt practice at UCLA or Long Beach State, or wherever, until Wooden hired him to work at his camp. Wooden and his wife, Nell, and Jim and Sally Harrick had dinner in each other's homes and went out together. "And we lived through the sickness and illness when we were at the hospital when Nell was in intensive care for 100 days," Harrick said.