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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

He Can Lord It Over UCLA but Won't

Midwest: With Rhode Island in regional final, Harrick discusses without rancor his past employer and Lavin--and his NBA dreams.

March 22, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — Jim Harrick, the new King of Kingston, R.I., leaned back in a folding chair at the Kiel Center on Saturday and reveled in his glory.

Reporters gathered, pencils poised, as Harrick held court.

It had to feel almost as good as getting fired at UCLA felt bad.

A writer wondered what it meant for his Rhode Island Rams to advance to the NCAA tournament round of eight on the same night UCLA got "clocked" by Kentucky in the South Regional.

"Geez," Harrick said. "Don't sugarcoat it."

This was Jim Harrick at ease and at peace, a far cry from the Harrick whom family members say had to be hospitalized because of stress related to his November 1996 ouster from Westwood.

Yes, what a day Saturday was.

How many chances do you get in life to stick it to a former boss?

To be sure, Harrick knew what all this meant, knew what the writers wanted, knew he held an upper hand that allowed him to jab deftly and respectfully.

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, right?

A gentleman could not very well come out and scream, "Stick it, Pete Dalis."

But Harrick could, at last, answer questions regarding UCLA from a position of power, with writers from the around the country eager to gobble up his words.

In an indisputable feat of coaching, Harrick, in his first year at Rhode Island, has taken a team of good-but-not-great talent to within one game of the Final Four.

He would not talk directly about UCLA's off-the-court problems this year with Kris Johnson and Jelani McCoy, both Harrick recruits, but he would say:

* "I've never had a player's name in the paper for social misconduct."

He would not criticize UCLA Coach Steve Lavin for abandoning him after the firing, but he would say:

* "It bothers me that Steve doesn't talk to [former assistants] Mark Gottfried, Jim [Harrick] Jr. and Greg White, or me. That's his choice, not mine."

He would say that Lavin is a puppet for Dalis, the UCLA athletic director responsible for firing Harrick.

"In my experience, he's an innocent victim," Harrick said of Lavin, his UCLA successor. "They control everything he says, everything he does. He has to do what the boss tells him to do."

Harrick did say that he deserved more respect from Lavin.

"Maybe the word is 'unappreciated,' " he said of Lavin, whom Harrick hired. "But he's a fine young man. He had nothing to do with my departure."

Harrick would not speak badly about UCLA, at which he was an assistant from 1977-79 and head coach from 1988 until Nov. 6, 1996.

"UCLA is a fine place," he said. "There were just a couple of people there that didn't want me around and got me out. Happens in companies every day. It's not brain surgery."

But Harrick would say, "In the end, I felt like Hannibal Lechter."

He would say: "The only thing I didn't like was that they tried to take away my career."

Today, Rhode Island faces Stanford for the Midwest Regional title.

Irony seems to cloak Harrick these days.

Jarron and Jason Collins, both Stanford freshmen, were present at the now infamous dinner at Monty's in October 1996, which ultimately led to Harrick's firing.

It was because of that recruiting dinner that Harrick falsified an expense report and then lied about it later, the reason cited for his dismissal.

Today, Harrick will have to mount a defense against Jarron Collins, the star of Stanford's Friday night victory against Purdue. Jason Collins followed his brother to Stanford, but is out because of a knee injury.

"I've known the Collins twins since ninth grade," Harrick mused.

Yes, what a day Saturday was.

Harrick, chased away from Los Angeles, his home for 37 years, said he has been inundated with phone messages and faxes from well-wishers back home, many from UCLA--none named Dalis or Lavin.

From his once-in-a-lifetime perch, Harrick could now contemplate a future on his terms. At 59, there would be no more rejection letters from Brigham Young or Louisiana State, schools that interviewed--but did not hire--Harrick for coaching vacancies last year.

Last year, at the Final Four, an out-of-work Harrick paraded around Indianapolis with a microphone.

"I was in the media," he joked.

A year later, people wonder whether Harrick will use his Rhode Island success as a springboard.

"Sitting here today, I'd say no," he said. "Someone might knock my socks off, but I doubt it."

Harrick would say that "the epitome is coaching in the NBA."

His name has been linked to a possible future position with the Clippers.

"There are only five or six openings a year," Harrick said. "To think you'd get one of those is ludicrous."

About as ludicrous, perhaps, as a down-and-out coach taking a rag-tag team to the brink of the Final Four less than two years after being fired in disgrace at college basketball's most hallowed program.

Could Harrick's life possibly, so quickly, take such a dizzying turn, from bottom floor to penthouse?

"That would be the epitome of everything you could do in a career, coaching in the NBA," Harrick said. "That's the ultimate job."

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