Layoffs, Not Strikes, Worry Harbor Coach

Times Staff Writer

The office of Jim O'Brien, the Harbor College athletic director and baseball coach, is a 12-by-10-foot cubicle tucked behind the racquetball courts. Posters and newspaper clippings, a file cabinet with some of its contents sticking out and two desks littered with stacks of paper fill the room.

It was a typical Monday morning for O'Brien: Three people discussing a fund-raising project were crammed into his office, his telephone was ringing so often he finally resorted to turning on his answering machine and, just when he thought he had a moment of relative peace and quiet, someone peeked his head in the door to tell him of yet another responsibility.

"You're not going to believe this, but I have to run," O'Brien said apologetically. "I've got to go to the DMV and take a driving test so that I can drive the team bus."

Not too many coaches, let alone athletic directors, have to worry about mastering the intricacies of driving a bus, but O'Brien is undaunted by it all. Still, rushing off to take a driving test is the least of his worries.

Got Layoff Notice

O'Brien was one of 39 coaches and physical education instructors in the Los Angeles Community College District to receive a layoff notice.

The district, plagued by a 33% drop in enrollment from a high of 139,000 in 1982 to 93,000 now, has for the first time found it necessary to send out layoff notices. While O'Brien, the only Harbor teacher affected, could remain at Harbor as a mathematics instructor, he could lose his jobs as the baseball coach and athletic director if the layoffs proceed as planned.

O'Brien has coached baseball for more than 22 years, 12 at North Torrance High and the last 10 at Harbor, and he succeeded Floyd Rhea as Harbor's athletic director this year. He said that if even one of the 39 coaches and teachers is laid off, all walk-on coaches would lose their jobs, too, including Don Daniels, who has led the Harbor basketball team into the state playoffs.

"That's the real crisis," O'Brien said. "Without off-campus coaches, I think athletics in the district are in big trouble."

Reduced to 3 Sports

He said Harbor's athletic department would be reduced to just three sports--football, golf and tennis--if the layoffs become official. And with only three sports, he said he would then lose his position as athletic director.

So Seahawk baseball, which has one of the richest traditions of any program in the state, was, in effect, given its notice as well. After all, it's hard to have a team without a coach.

O'Brien said that if the worst scenario unfolds, he might be able to remain as the baseball coach.

"The baseball team is a class," he said. "The issue is, can I teach math and this class? In a meeting the other day, I was told the answer was no. I was kind of stunned, to tell you the truth."

In O'Brien's 10 years at Harbor, he has compiled a 284-115-2 record, six Metropolitan Conference titles, two state championships (1978 and 1984) and three runner-up finishes for the state title. He was named the National Baseball Co-Coach of the Year and California Community College Coach of the Year in 1978 and, in 1984, was named the National Junior College Coach of the Year.

"We're not hitting the panic button," O'Brien said. "I've got to believe something will be worked out.

Would Leave to Coach

"But if I couldn't coach baseball here, I'd definitely look around. I'm not that anxious to leave the area, but that's (coaching) what I love to do."

Richard Strong, who was a second baseman, shortstop and pitcher in his two seasons at Harbor (1981-1983) before moving to Dominguez Hills where he is now a pitching coach, said he was well aware of O'Brien's knack for producing winning teams after seeing the banners and plaques at North Torrance High.

O'Brien led the Saxons to eight Bay League titles and two CIF 4-A championships (1971 and 1973) and was named the California High School Baseball Coach of the Year in 1973 before bringing his talents to Harbor in 1976.

"If for some reason O'Brien had to leave, it would destroy it," Strong said of the Harbor program. "He's made it what it is."

Strong's younger brother, Mike, who played for O'Brien two years ago and is now a starting outfielder at Dominguez Hills, said he might not have attended Harbor had it not been for O'Brien.

"He's one of the main reasons a lot of people go there," Mike Strong said. "If he left, I don't think too many people would stay."

'A Quality Coach'

Bryan King, a sophomore shortstop who transferred from El Camino last year, said O'Brien was the sole factor in his decision.

"I was looking for a quality coach and he's the best around," King said. "And I've seen what he's done to develop players and help them get drafted or scholarships to four-year schools."

Since 1984, 24 Seahawks have been selected in the winter or summer major league drafts. In the last four years, 39 players have received scholarships to four-year colleges, and that is the statistic O'Brien said he is most proud of.

Robbie Hartwig, a track star at West Torrance High that O'Brien converted into an outfielder, was drafted by the San Diego Padres in January, 1985, and then the Detroit Tigers in June after hitting .380 and stealing 42 bases in 43 attempts.

Hartwig, a junior, rejected both offers and opted instead for a scholarship to Louisiana State University. He is now the starting left fielder for the Tigers, the No. 4-ranked team nationally.

'A Winner'

"I think Coach O'Brien is one of the best coaches in the nation," Hartwig said. "He's been a winner all of his life.

"Baseball is the winningest sport at that college. I can't see how they could even think about dropping it."

O'Brien said he, too, is at a loss in understanding the logic behind dropping baseball, or, for that matter, athletics in general. He said the baseball program returns about $350,000 a year to the college.

"Kids go to a community college because of a particular interest, music, nursing or baseball," he said. "And there's no doubt that athletics are money-makers. We've proven it over and over again. But I think there's some people on the board who don't realize that."

11-4 Record

Despite the uncertainty, Harbor's 1986 baseball season has not been forestalled. The Seahawks are now 11-4 overall and 2-1 in the conference.

"We're trying not to let it distract the team," O'Brien said. "I don't want to take anything away from this team. I want to give them my full attention and everything they deserve.

"But I'd be lying if I didn't say it was affecting me a little."

Still, O'Brien is a winner and he's done whatever it takes to do the thing he loves--coach. That includes successfully maneuvering past the dread railroad crossings and earning his bus drivers' license.

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