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It’s All New to These Buffaloes : College basketball: Now the coach is Harrington. The record is 5-3, nearly half the victories Colorado had last season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new billboards dot the streets. Colorado Basketball: It’s A New Attitude!

Is that so? OK, new coach--Joe Harrington of Cal State Long Beach fame. New uniforms--silver and black. New attitude--uh, they’re working on it.

The Buffaloes are so used to losing that even when they win, they botch things up. This is the only team that can finish first in its own Mile High Classic, as the Buffaloes did earlier this month, and promptly leave the championship trophy sitting on the court after the awards ceremony. Maybe they thought the gold would rub off.

“It shocked me,” Harrington said. “They walked right off the court and just, well, left it there.”

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And get this: When Colorado lost to Wisconsin Green Bay a few weeks ago, a fan sent Harrington a basket of fruit and attached a card. It read, “Don’t let one loss get you down.”

Another fan was more realistic. He sent Harrington a bottle of Chivas Regal. A note wasn’t necessary.

You think Harrington cares?

“Hey, I’ve been lucky with my coaching career,” he said. “Every job I’ve taken has been a step up.”

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From Hofstra to George Mason. From George Mason to Long Beach. From Long Beach to Colorado, the Big Eight basketball equivalent of Death Valley. This is progress? Harrington, 44, thinks so.

“I just don’t think basketball was ever emphasized here,” he said. “Now they’ve made the decision to have good basketball.”

If only it were that simple. This isn’t a program merely down on its luck; it’s a program that hasn’t had any of the stuff for 20 years.

In fact, all you need to know about the health of Colorado basketball can be found on the walls of Colorado’s Events-Conference Center. There are championship banners for skiing, cross-country, tennis, golf, gymnastics, women’s basketball and, oh, yes, a faded flag or two for the men’s team, which last won a Big Eight title in the 1968-69 season, which, by the way, was the last time CU received an NCAA tournament invitation.

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Since then, there have been losses galore. In the last 13 seasons, Colorado has finished in the conference cellar nine times, including a nifty five-year streak that stretched from 1985 to 1989. Colorado hasn’t won a regular-season Big Eight game in 52 consecutive attempts. That’s hard to do even if you’re trying.

And in the last decade, Colorado has gone through a tag team of coaches, starting with Bill Blair, then Tom Apke and most recently, Tom Miller. Not one of them could finish higher than a fourth-place tie.

Now it is Harrington’s turn. He inherits a program that hasn’t won more than three Big Eight games in a season since 1984 and hasn’t had a full house at the 11,199-seat arena since 1983. Not even an improbable second-place finish in last season’s conference tournament could hide the obvious: The Buffaloes were a team divided.

First, there were veiled charges of favoritism and racism against Miller. Critics also accused him, as well as Blair and Apke, of ignoring Denver’s inner-city high schools for recruits. For better or worse, Miller ruled with an iron whistle. Few tears were shed when he left.

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With this as a backdrop, Harrington arrived in Boulder. The players’ first thoughts?

“It was like, ‘Oh, Long Beach State.’ And then . . . ‘Oh, gawd, those ugly uniforms,’ ” said forward Rodell Guest, who is officially listed in the media guide as House Guest (his choice).

Shaun Vandiver, who led the Big Eight in scoring and rebounding last season, said he vaguely remembers seeing Harrington and the 49ers on an ESPN telecast. Of course, he doesn’t recall anything about the game itself, about Harrington’s pressure defense or up-tempo style.

“I just remember they had some ugly fluorescent uniforms on,” he said.

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In short, nobody knew much about Harrington, except that he wasn’t the big-name coach everyone expected. Paul Westhead, a supposed candidate, they had heard of. Harrington, they hadn’t.

“But it didn’t matter,” Guest said. “I’ve been in three years of losing. I was going to buy into whatever he said.”

Others weren’t as easily swayed. Vandiver, a junior at the time, made noises about declaring himself eligible for the 1990 NBA draft.

One of the few favorites of Miller, Vandiver wasn’t sure he could afford to stay in school or adapt to a new coaching style. The father of a 2-year-old daughter, Vandiver’s scholarship money only went so far. Once, he said, he had to borrow a couple of dollars to buy milk for his child.

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“If you would have asked me if I was coming out (to the NBA) at this time last year, I would have said yes,” Vandiver said. “It was all because of financial difficulties.”

Vandiver met with Harrington, who gave the center two options: He could stay in school, improve his game and play for an offensive-minded coach, which might be enough to push Vandiver into the first-round of next year’s draft. Or he could turn pro and take his chances.

Vandiver stayed put. So far, he’s averaging 21.6 points and 14.3 rebounds.

Meanwhile, Colorado is 5-3, which means the Buffaloes have won almost half as many games as they did all last season. The real test begins Jan. 5, when the Big Eight season begins.

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It’s early, but Harrington’s impact on the beleaguered Colorado program is showing up in unlikely places. At midcourt of the Events Center is a not-so-subtle reminder to visitors. It reads, “Elevation 5,345 feet.” Harrington, of course, ordered the artwork.

When his players mentioned their desire to attend a school seminar on black athletes, Harrington promptly altered the team’s workout schedule. He consulted them about a dress code for road games. About curfew. About training table menus. About what kind of sneakers they preferred. He even kept alive college basketball’s finest nickname--House Guest.

“At first, he didn’t want to use the new name,” Guest said. “He tried to get it out of the media guide. But we talked about it and I said, ‘I feel I earned the name. The public gave me the name.’ He said, ‘All right, you can keep your name.’ ”

It worked. The new and improved Guest was named most valuable player of the Mile High Classic.

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“If Miller was still here, I wouldn’t have been MVP,” Guest said. “He wouldn’t have had the confidence in me to shoot the shots. At halftime, he would have told me to tone it down, that I was shooting too much. He had confidence in three players and I wasn’t one of them.”

Also, for the first time in recent memory, there have been smile sightings at Colorado basketball practices. Players actually seem to be enjoying themselves.

“I think a change was really good for this bunch,” Harrington said. Then he catches himself. “But I’m not trying to put any one person down from last year.”

He meant Miller.

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On occasion, players even mimic Harrington’s New England accent. In Harrington’s dialect, Coors is pronounced Kerrs , Colorado is Cow-a-raddow and score is scaw . If Harrington witnesses a thunder jam, he’ll say, “No doubt about that one.” Except that it comes out, “No dat abat that one.”

The translations are courtesy of Vandiver.

Harrington also tinkered with the 1990 schedule that initially included only nine home games (compared to your usual 15 or 16), no commitments for the Mile High Classic and nonconference games against Connecticut, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Wyoming and Illinois State.

“A murderous schedule,” he said.

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Connecticut was dropped. Dean Smith graciously agreed to wait until next year for a Tarheel-Buffalo matchup. Illinois State did the same. Harrington found three so-so teams--Central Connecticut State, Eastern Michigan and American--for his tournament and also boosted his home schedule to 14 games.

Recruiting, a Harrington strength, has produced four early signings, including one from a top 75-rated player from Chicago.

“You’ll see some California kids coming here in the future,” he said.

As for attendance, Harrington enlists his players for door-to-door sales pitches. It isn’t uncommon for the coach and, say, Vandiver, to visit a sorority or fraternity house and ask for their support.

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“We don’t just show up and 11,199 appear,” Vandiver said. “We have to sell ourselves. This program isn’t like UNLV or Kansas, where they pack the house every time.”

Despite his best efforts, Harrington has had his awkward moments here. He hired longtime friend Tom Abatemarco, the former head coach at Drake whose two-year tenure at the Des Moines, Iowa, campus was marred by what amounted to a player revolt.

Abatemarco also served as an assistant to former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, and it was Abatemarco who recruited the troubled Charles Shackelford and Chris Washburn. Shackelford is best known for his alleged involvement in a point-shaving scheme, and Washburn later left school early for the NBA, where his career was ended by a drug problem.

“I took a lot of heat for it,” Harrington said. “But I’ve known Tom for 20 years.”

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He defended the hiring by pointing out that Abatemarco was cleared of any alleged wrongdoing at Drake. As for Abatemarco’s N.C. State experience, Harrington has said that Valvano, not the assistant coach, is the person responsible for dictating recruiting policy.

Another traditional problem is the program’s tenuous relationship with Denver’s black community. When Miller was dismissed, local black leaders wanted the school to hire or, at the very least, seriously consider a black candidate. When Harrington was offered the job, those same leaders felt betrayed by the school administration, specifically, Athletic Director Bill Marolt.

All of this has left Harrington in the role of peacemaker. It is slow work.

“Other recruiters will use it against us,” he said. “But the bottom line is that this is a people business, and there are a lot of great people at this school. I don’t think it’s such a black-white thing with the people here as it is with outsiders looking in. They immediately see that the number of blacks at Boulder and CU . . . there aren’t that many. They immediately say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to go there. There aren’t that many black people living there.’ I think that’s more reason to come here.”

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These are the battles Harrington now fights, from racial fence-mending to ending prolific losing streaks. He has been asked to do what Bill McCartney did with Colorado’s once-sorry football team: Turn a loser into a winner.

Guess what. Harrington doesn’t mind at all.


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