REVIVING THE 49ERS : Joe Harrington Is Building Something at CS Long Beach

Times Staff Writer

They came to Cal State Long Beach to start a basketball era they hope will rival the one long ago under Jerry Tarkanian.

Glory hasn’t returned overnight, but Coach Joe Harrington and his associate coach, Seth Greenberg, appear to have Long Beach headed back to the big time.

The 49ers, a high-scoring team with a relentless full-court press, have a 10-6 record, their best in nine years.

The players are the same ones who were on a 12-19 team coached by Ron Palmer last season. But they have been playing harder, which is what Harrington had guaranteed.

Long Beach is 4-3 in the highly competitive Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. and has reminded some 49er fans of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when Tarkanian’s teams were 121-20.


Ed Ratleff was the star then. In 1973, a 49er-Marquette game drew nearly 13,000 people to the Long Beach Arena.

But in the last decade, that tradition has taken a beating. When Harrington and Greenberg took over last spring, the 49ers had a 32-83 mark over the previous four seasons. Most of the home games had been moved from the Arena to the campus gym to save money and the embarrassment from small crowds.

Now, through winning, the 49ers have outgrown the 2,000-seat gym. They will play their last two home games against UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine at the Arena.

“I really want to play in the Arena,” said Harrington, who cringes at the lines on the gym floor that mark tennis and badminton courts. “That’s a big-time setting.”

Still, when the 49ers lost to Nevada Las Vegas Jan. 4 at the Arena, 71-68, Harrington was upset that the crowd was only 4,286.

The drive toward regaining national recognition was in high gear on a recent morning in the cramped, sparse 49er basketball offices. Recruiting calls were being made, as were preparations for a game against New Mexico State.

Dressed in a blue warm-up suit, the 6-foot 5-inch Harrington locked up, by phone, a 1989 date with Purdue at the Arena. “Next season, you know, we’re playing in the (Iowa) Hawkeye Classic,” he said.

He took a call. “It wasn’t a mistake (to come here), it’s about 65 here today,” Harrington kidded Bill Foster, coach at Florida’s University of Miami.

Harrington then held a meeting to discuss the afternoon practice. “Let’s spend five minutes on blocking off on the free-throw line; we’ll go the full two hours, then lift weights,” he told Greenberg and the other assistant coach, Dereck Whittenburg.

Whittenburg was the North Carolina State player who took the long shot with seconds remaining in the 1983 NCAA championship game against Houston that fell into the hands of teammate Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it for the winning basket.

Greenberg drew a diagram on a white board, and the coaches discussed how to combat a box-and-one defense against guard Morlon Wiley.

Wiley has averaged 20 points a game, but the 49ers haven’t been a one-man team. Forward Andre Purry has averaged 15 points a game, centers DeAnthony Langston and John Hatten have combined for 19 points and 10 rebounds a game, point guard Billy Walker has averaged four assists, Jeff Eastin has provided solid defense, jumping Rudy Harvey has been a spark off the bench and Rigo Moore has helped win games with outside shooting.

Harrington’s phone rang.

“Four o’clock . . . you fired up?” Harrington asked Moore, who wanted to know when practice was.

Harrington, 41, came from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he had a 112-85 record in seven years. For 10 years, he was an assistant to Lefty Driesell at Maryland. Harrington gave each 49er a copy of “The Magic of Thinking Big,” a book Driesell used to give to his teams.

Greenberg, 31, was an assistant coach at Pittsburgh, Virginia and Miami before joining Harrington here.

Dick Vitale, the former coach turned TV commentator, calls Harrington one of the top 10 young coaches in the country and refers to Harrington and Greenberg as “workaholics and relentless recruiters.”

Harrington said: “We’re aggressive in recruiting and workouts but at the same time a little laid back too, a good combination for us.”

Harrington is most aggressive during games, yelling at his players and the officials. He has already been reprimanded by the PCAA office for criticizing officials.

The coaching change has been largely responsible for the team’s turnaround, according to Wiley, who is averaging 20 points a game and has developed into one of the nation’s best guards.

“We were going into games last year I didn’t think we were prepared for,” Wiley said. “Maybe the coaching staff didn’t know about how to prepare a team. They didn’t have a lot of experience. These guys go to camps and seminars and are constantly trying to learn.”

Harrington has restored the discipline that players have said was lacking under the low-key Palmer, and given the team a new confidence that has been been reflected in 49% shooting, compared with 42% last season.

After lunch, Harrington called for another meeting.

“Let’s have a little recruiting update,” he said. “What are we going to do with each one this week?”

Names of high school and community college players were written on the board and discussed. How will Long Beach get those players?

“Get down on our knees,” kidded Greenberg before saying, “Bringing back the glory days is a selling point. And we sell ourselves more than anything else, our work ethic.”

After the meeting, Harrington picked up a copy of USA Today. “Hey, Seth, there’s a guy 6-10 who left Rice or TCU last week, better check your guys in that conference.”

At 4 p.m. practice began.

Harrington praised the defense, which has harassed opponents into 23 turnovers a game and which impressed Tom O’Neil, former University of the Pacific coach, so much that he said it was like going against a school of piranhas.

“But for us to be an excellent team, we have to get better offensively,” Harrington told his players. “Mentally, you must come out here every time fired up. Every time you practice a play, you do it with an attitude.”

But the 49ers were sloppy during drills.

“You just practiced 15 minutes of turnovers,” Greenberg said.

Langston made a bad pass and said, “My fault.”

“I don’t want to hear, ‘My fault,’ from anyone,” Harrington said. “Get it done!”

Practice went past 6. Then, for 25 minutes, the players raced up and down the court, nonstop, in four-on-four scrimmages. Wind sprints followed.

The 49ers didn’t complain.