His Time Has Come : After Seven Years, Harrick Finds His Comfort Zone at UCLA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He took getting used to, all right. Rough edges, West Virginia twang, and a face that looked pinched and perturbed every time a camera zoomed in and the game was pushed to the brink.

None of that has changed, seven years after Jim Harrick left Pepperdine to come to UCLA.

His profession is filled with clever prima donnas and made-for-TV hairdos, but it was clear seven years ago and it still is obvious, Harrick is never going to be a star.

But he decided long ago that though he might not capture the heart of millions, he would last.

And he has. Though the rough edges still show at times, those closest to the situation agree that Harrick has grown into the job of UCLA basketball coach slowly but certainly, building toward this triumphant season, a year that would fit nicely into a catalogue of John Wooden's glory days.

"I was actually just talking to somebody the other day about this," says forward Ed O'Bannon, who has been with Harrick for five years. "It looks like he's very comfortable now.

"He comes into practice and he's serious and yet at the same time he knows what he wants. And he knows that we can provide as long as we listen. He's just very confident. And it makes it a lot easier to go out and play for him."

He has grown as a coach, and, through the same often-painful process, he seems to have grown on the Bruin faithful. They took some getting used to, also.

But even in a job that seemed to overwhelm him and push him toward the breaking point at first, Harrick was determined: No burn out, no fade away.

"He's the most damn competitive guy I've ever been around in my life," says Harrick's son, Jim Harrick Jr., who played under his father at Pepperdine and was an assistant at San Diego State. "He's got the thickest skin, he's the toughest . . . I've ever been around in my life. Sometimes he doesn't show that, but it's there.

"He wants to be here as long as he possibly can, win a couple of national titles. I think he'll be at peace with himself when he accomplishes all he wants to accomplish here, and I don't think he's even scratched the surface."

Was he ready for the UCLA job seven years ago? After five coaches in 13 years had come and bolted from the burden of Wooden's legacy, and a handful of others had turned down the school's entreaties, it hardly mattered.

What mattered was that he wanted it, and that he was going to be the one who lasted longest.

"Peace comes in enduring to the end, I guess," Jim Jr. says. "And he wants to endure to the end."

Were there times when he thought he might be one more big loss away from being fired? If there were, and though Harrick will not publicly concede that there were, they only made him tougher and stronger and better.

"I'll admit to you, he's right on some part," Harrick says, when his son's comments are repeated to him. "Part of me wants to do it because I want to be the guy who followed John Wooden for a long period of time. Part of me wants to do it because five other coaches chose not to do it.

"I want to be the one who chooses to do it. That's what he's talking about, the stubbornness. Yeah, part of me's like that."

Has his seventh consecutive season of at least 21 victories and an NCAA tournament appearance, with the kind of intricate and balanced play that Wooden calls "marvelous," convinced his doubters that he is at UCLA to stay?

On this point Harrick, who often answers questions by rote, responding from a scripted checklist that he sometimes does not even bother to hide from the interviewer, pauses and narrows his eyes.

"I think maybe it might," Harrick says quietly. "I think people are settled into the fact that we run a sound, solid program.

"It will never be to everyone's liking. But I think people have accepted that."

*

Larry Brown, who had the job once, turned down a return to Westwood seven years ago when UCLA Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis was looking to replace Walt Hazzard. Other prominent coaches, such as Denny Crum and Jim Valvano, were approached.

Harrick, whose Pepperdine teams won five conference titles in nine years, knew the tumultuous situation, and when his turn came, he emphasized continuity and credibility--not instant glory.

"I told them in the interview, I'm a very, very consistent guy," Harrick says. "I'll be there every day in the office at the same time. I'm a routine guy. And my teams have always been consistent.

"Every once in a while you're going to have that great club, but I've never had a bad club. I did once at Pepperdine, when we lost all three guards in one year, had a losing year one year (1986-87).

"But we've had two great years here. . . . So yes, I think I've grown into the position. I think everybody grows into their position. I think I did.

"I thought I was prepared with nine years of Division I head coaching experience, but the magnitude of this job is even greater than what I had expected."

People noticed.

Though his early Don MacLean-led teams won plenty of games and always made the tournament (UCLA had been to the tournament only twice in the previous seven years under Hazzard and his predecessor, Larry Farmer), Harrick's stumbles, misstatements and big-game defeats drew most of the attention.

Even in 1991-92, in MacLean's senior season, when the Bruins won the Pacific 10 title for the first time under Harrick and made their way to the West Regional finals, a 27-point loss to Indiana fueled more speculation about his job security.

In the middle of that season, he hit as wrong a note as is imaginable at UCLA, complaining that his salary was not on par with the Bobby Knights and Denny Crums of the basketball world.

He did not look comfortable. He looked and sounded like someone ready to be sized up and mounted as coach No. 6 who could not last in the Wooden shadow.

"I think at the beginning, there's so much scrutiny on everything you do, every decision you make, just being under the spotlight so much, I think, made him very tentative, made him very cautious," says assistant coach Mark Gottfried, who has been with Harrick all seven UCLA seasons.

"But I think he's just become so much more comfortable with all that, he handles all that stuff much better. I think he seems much more at ease with the position of being the coach at UCLA. Maybe it's not so intimidating, like maybe he might have been at the beginning--which would be pretty understandable."

From Dalis' standpoint, the perception that Harrick has matured as a coach isn't necessarily the whole story. Dalis, who has said he expects to extend Harrick's contract beyond the 1996-97 season, sees the development of a system.

"I think Jim was a very accomplished coach before he came to UCLA, as evidenced by his highly successful record at Pepperdine in his conference," Dalis says.

"I think whatever he has made people perceive him to be is a direct result of the comfort of the program coming together in the way he had originally hoped that it would come together. And it is happening now.

"I'm sure he does (grow), I'm sure that has happened with him. I can respect and understand it, because I came out of kind of the same background. He's an old-fashioned P.E. coach in many ways. And he's a disciplinarian, and he believes that people ought to behave in a certain way.

"He is a team player. I mean, he may not agree with some of the things I want to do, or whatever, but he also is a team player. That's a characteristic both he and Terry Donahue have--and it's very difficult to find today in intercollegiate athletics."

Nobody around the UCLA program believes that this or any year will ever completely quiet the loud critics that pop up--justified or not--every time UCLA is eliminated in the tournament or suffers a particularly difficult defeat.

"It's a normal thing," Wooden says. "No one likes it, but you better be able to accept it. It's like what I always told my players, your strength as an individual is how you react to both praise and criticism."

Most specifically, however, this season has countered several specific critiques of Harrick's coaching tenure. Until a few years ago, Harrick, it was pointed out, lost many local recruits to Eastern schools--most jarringly when Orange County star Cherokee Parks committed to Duke four years ago without giving UCLA an official visit.

But triggered by Gottfried and assistant coach Lorenzo Romar's successful recruitment of Charles O'Bannon, the recruiting gates seemed to have opened again toward Westwood.

This year's freshman class features Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson, who have played vital roles in the 23-2 record and almost certainly will be named to the conference's all-freshman team. Two other potential standouts, Kris Johnson and omm'A Givens, have barely played at all as freshmen.

And for next year, Harrick has commitments from two top high school players: forward Jelani McCoy and guard Brandon Loyd.

"I think they've quieted every critic they've had to quiet," Jim Jr. says. "The rumor was they weren't recruiting, they had to get Charles. Now they've got Charles and they've got all these freshmen.

"Then it was they don't improve in his program, well, tell me Ed O'Bannon hasn't improved. No one knew Tyus Edney (out of high school). George Zidek was on the bench two years ago.

"The job they're doing almost looks too easy. Because they're doing it the right way with good kids and they're winning. So you think anybody can do it. Well, how come all those other guys didn't stick around?"

*

Harrick still makes mistakes, of course, and all you have to do is look back to the two technical fouls he drew at the end of the Bruins' loss at Oregon in January to know that.

But they are rarer now, and, with Ed O'Bannon flourishing as a leader, the whole team appears to be fluid, fast and having fun.

"I think he's enjoying himself much more," Gottfried says. "But I think that comes from. . . . there's just a comfort level knowing he's doing a good job. And sure, there's a lot more security in that for him.

"When you first tackle this job, meet it head on, you'd be lying if you said you weren't trying to survive here in the short-term. Now he's turned that into seven years, and hopefully he'll turn that into 15 years or whatever it's going to be until he wants to quit.

"As the 20-win seasons keep piling on, it just gets more comfortable and comfortable and comfortable."

Says Jim Jr.: "They didn't expect him to do as well as he's done. I don't think they expected to have the success he's had.

"He's kind of stuck his foot in his mouth a couple times. And that's been a learning process. He's made some complaints and it's just exploded. He can't speak his mind sometimes.

"But I don't think people expected Jim Harrick to do what he's done. I think being the fourth choice, maybe the fifth choice, was kind of a blessing in disguise.

"He was the assistant (at UCLA) for two years, and we sat up there at Pepperdine for nine years. We watched all the difficulties UCLA was having.

"Everybody said he's not a national name," Jim Jr. says, with a relaxed smile, "Well, he is now."

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