Pepperdine's Coach Is Ready to Move Up : Success Hasn't Spoiled Waves' Jim Harrick; It's Just Made Him Want to Do Even Better

Times Staff Writer

As Jim Harrick is more than happy to tell anyone who asks--and even some who don't--everything is still mighty fine at the 'Dine.

Never been better, in fact.

Pepperdine's basketball coach won another West Coast Athletic Conference championship this season, the Waves' fifth in his seven seasons.

He picked up a few more honors--WCAC coach of the year for the fourth time, District 15 coach of the year for the second time.

His team won 20 games for the fourth time in five seasons. And the Waves will be playing again in the NCAA tournament. Pepperdine (25-4) will meet Maryland (18-13) in a first-round game Friday night at the Long Beach Arena.

Even though he was clipped on his left leg and sent sprawling by a motorist last week while jogging near his home in Newbury Park--he's sporting a bruise on his left calf--the West Virginia native said that he loves the California life style. And he can't knock the working conditions in Malibu, where the sliding glass door in his office affords a spectacular view of the Pacific.

So why does Harrick's name keep popping up whenever there's a coaching vacancy?

Harrick, 47, said it's a byproduct of his success.

"Athletic directors want to look good to their boosters by saying, 'Hey, I contacted the winner of the West Coast Athletic Conference, the Pac-10, the WAC, the Big Sky,' " Harrick said. "And we've won five times, so my name gets thrown around a lot."

Not that he's complaining.

Harrick went hard after the Arizona State job four years ago, when the Sun Devils hired Bob Weinhauer, and there's speculation that he may be looking around again.

"He and I have talked about it, and it would be nice to move on," said Jimmy, the second of Harrick's three sons and a sophomore reserve guard at Pepperdine.

"He won't tell anybody, and I don't know if I should be telling you, but, hopefully, this could be a springboard. . . . I think we're all at the mercy of our team. How well we do in the tournament could benefit some players, as well as my father and our coaching staff."

Jimmy said that his father is happy at Pepperdine. "But you always look to move on in your career, to better yourself in every way you can," he added. "I know he's looking for a long-term job and long-term status, where he can say he's set for a while.

"I think he's done all he can do within the capacity of Pepperdine," Jimmy said, pointing out the built-in obstacles at the university--limited budget, lack of publicity, high school-sized gym, no games on network television, weak conference. "I think there's a certain limit at Pepperdine where you're not going to be able to take a team much farther than he has taken some teams here."

Harrick, though, said he could stay forever at Pepperdine. Running a hand across the top of his desk, he told a visitor: "Our program's on the freeway, going very, very smoothly. There are no potholes. There are no curves."

But, in response to a question, he also said: "I think to win an NCAA championship at Pepperdine would be very, very tough. . . . Our attraction to top athletes in the country is very limited. I'm not sure, consistently, we can be in the top 20. We're the type of school that's going to be there maybe once every four years."

As for what might prompt him to leave, Harrick said: "No. 1, I think all of us in our profession would like to recruit the best athletes in America at some time in our lifetime. No. 2, you'd like to have an opportunity to battle for the NCAA championship--if you've got any competitive spirit in you."

And No. 3, Harrick said, the right move would benefit him financially. His annual salary at Pepperdine is believed to be about $50,000. In a less saturated market, with radio and television contracts, he could possibly double or even triple his salary.

Harrick said there will be some movement within the coaching ranks in the next few weeks.

"As for me, I don't know," he said.

For the time being, he'll make do in the 'Bu.

Make do, indeed.

Pepperdine may be the best team in the West--or, at least, west of Las Vegas.

The Waves have been ranked in somebody's top 20 for most of the second half of the season, largely with players that UCLA and a majority of other major colleges didn't even recruit.

The Waves aren't big--they go 6-8, 6-7 and 6-7 across the front--but Harrick said he's never had a team that shoots or defends as well as this one. ESPN's Dick Vitale said a few weeks ago that Pepperdine's Dwayne Polee plays the best on-ball defense of any guard in the country.

The same group--forwards Eric White and Anthony Frederick, center Levy Middlebrooks and guards Jon Korfas and Polee--has started 58 straight games, winning 46. The No. 1 reserve, swingman Grant Gondrezick, is getting a look from pro scouts.

Harrick said it's a fun team to coach.

"This team has a rare chemistry about it that I really enjoy," he said. "They share the ball. They give it up. They're very, very unselfish.

"I think it's keyed by Jon Korfas. I can talk about him all day. He's a winner. W-I-N-N-E-R. Jon Korfas is spelled winner. He doesn't care if he scores. He keys the rareness we have on our team.

"The attitude is marvelous. Nobody's jealous and nobody's envious. Nobody cares who's the high-point man. And, boy, you can work wonders if you make the extra pass and nobody cares who's the star. You can beat a lot of people that way."

Of Pepperdine's last five losses, four were to Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and DePaul. On neutral courts, the Waves lost by 13 to Duke in an NCAA tournament first-round game last season and by 6 to Kansas in its opener this season. At Kentucky and DePaul, they lost by 32 and 13.

"On a given night, we can play with anybody in the country," Harrick said. "We may not win, but we're right there to play with them."

Of the NCAA tournament, he said: "We could go a long way with a bounce of the ball. You need a lot of luck. A lot of things have to happen for you, but they've got to happen for everybody."

Assistant coach Tom Asbury described Pepperdine as a team of Pac-10 caliber, but with one notable advantage over Pac-10 teams. "We're in a league that, from top to bottom, year in and year out, is probably a little easier to win," he said.

And so, the Waves keep winning.

Still, they have a hard time recruiting blue-chip athletes.

In California this season, Harrick said, there are at least 10 high school seniors who probably wouldn't even return a phone call from Pepperdine.

Polee and Korfas weren't recruited by Pepperdine in high school because Harrick believed he had no chance of signing them. "In those cases, you don't waste your 10 cents" he said. Both transferred in--Polee from Nevada Las Vegas and Korfas from USC.

"We have trouble recruiting against UCLA, and that kind of hurts my dad," Jimmy Harrick said. "He's a top-notch coach, and yet we won't get players, not because of the coaching staff but because of Pepperdine University. I think that frustrates him a lot."

Harrick calls the situation a dilemma. "But we know our place," he said.

At times, though, he can't help wondering if maybe the grass is greener on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

In 1982, he thought the Arizona State job was his for the taking. The way the situation was handled still irks him.

"I felt they put me out like a rabbit in front of the dogs," Harrick said, raising his voice slightly. "I was the leader, I was the leader, I was the leader. And everybody knew it. And all of a sudden, they bring in a guy from Penn (Weinhauer) and give him the job and I look like a fool.

"They did it so they could hide"--he drew the word out--"from the media who they were going to hire. I got burned a little bit and learned a lesson."

Since then, he said, he has not applied for another job.

A former UCLA assistant--he worked in Westwood under Gary Cunningham during the 1977-78 and '78-'79 seasons--Harrick didn't get so much as a phone call from UCLA when Larry Farmer resigned and Walt Hazzard was hired after the 1983-84 season.

"I thought it quite odd that a school of the magnitude of UCLA wouldn't talk to a few people capable of being its head coach to see what option they wanted to take," Harrick said, with a trace of bitterness. "I think UCLA, without a doubt, gets the best players in Los Angeles, and the best players in the West. They should have the best coach, whomever that may be."

It may be the guy in Malibu.

Asbury describes Harrick as a fatherly type.

"He's a players' coach," Asbury said. "I've always said that if you can't play for him, you can't play for anybody. He's a very patient, very caring kind of guy. A humanist, as far as coaches go.

"We don't run a rehabilitation center here, but we've taken some kids with some checkered pasts and we've had success with them and they've turned into excellent people."

A John Wooden disciple who played on a summer league team in high school with Jerry West, Harrick believes that his best quality is his consistency.

"Practice is almost identical each day, to the point that it's boring to the kids," he said. "I move it around to keep it from getting too boring, but they could come out on the floor and run through our practice by themselves and know exactly what to do."

While Harrick was coaching at Morningside High School in Inglewood, he used to drive down the freeway as often as he could to watch UCLA practice. "I'd just sit up there in the stands with a notebook--and learn something every time I went," he said.

He's fond of saying: "Wooden's way isn't the only way to play basketball--just the best." He now considers Wooden a close friend.

Harrick is a personable, wise-cracking man whose West Virginia twang seems at times to be dripping with honey. His personality is said to have charmed the mother of more than one recruit.

Said Polee, who played for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV: "Tark is more intense and doesn't relate as well to players as Coach Harrick. Coach Harrick is very understanding."

Asbury, on the other hand, is more of a traditional disciplinarian.

Said Eric White, a junior forward from San Francisco: "Harrick's the brains, and Asbury's the brawn."

It has been a winning combination. Pepperdine tied USF for the WCAC title in Harrick's second season, then lost a playoff to determine which team would go to the NCAA tournament. Since then, the Waves have won four more titles outright.

In the 1982-83 season, they were beaten by Houston, 93-92, in a December game at Pepperdine, then lost in double overtime to North Carolina State, 69-67, in a first-round NCAA tournament game at Corvallis, Ore. North Carolina State beat Houston that season to win the NCAA title.

"If I'd have beaten North Carolina State, I might never have had to apply for a job," Harrick said.

Jimmy Harrick said his father often jokes that he made Jim Valvano famous.

So, would Harrick like a crack at becoming famous himself?

"My ego doesn't dictate that I need that, because I'm happy," he said. "Every job I've taken, I've taken with the intention of being there for the rest of my life."

But, seemingly contradicting himself, he said: "I've always been a guy who was kind of a gambler and not afraid to shut one chapter and go on to the next. When my wife and I got married, we left that night for California."

It might be time for Harrick to go on to another chapter. He said he talks constantly with Wooden about the possibility of moving on.

After the tournament, he might be leaving again.

"He would like to be known and he deserves to be known," Jimmy said of his father. "He deserves to be recognized. He's done a great job here and he can accomplish a lot more in college coaching."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°