FAMILY MATTERS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fathers and sons. It's a story told a million times in a hundred thousand ways, but it never loses its power.

You wonder, though, if it has ever been told quite the way it will be Friday in St. Louis.

On one bench, a coach and his two sons will fight side by side for tiny Valparaiso.

Homer Drew is the Valparaiso coach, Bryce Drew is the shooter who launches upsets from his fingertips, and Scott Drew is his father's apprentice, an assistant coach.

On the other bench will be Jim Harrick, fired by UCLA in 1996, only a year and a half after winning the NCAA title, and back in the tournament this year as Rhode Island's coach, the guy who has pulled the most resounding upset of the tournament so far, beating top-seeded Kansas.

And over there with the Drews on the Valparaiso bench when Rhode Island and Valpo meet in a Midwest Regional semifinal Friday?

That will be Jim Harrick Jr., an assistant who will be going against his father.

"If I lose this game, I've got to hear about it all summer. You know how he is, he'll be after me," said Jim Jr., slowing to mimic his father's much-parodied West Virginia twang. " 'What have I got to say? We kicked your rear end.' "

Not too shabby for a couple of teams seeded eighth and 13th, though.

"The bad news is, we're playing each other," Harrick Sr. said. "The good news is, one of us is going to the Elite Eight."

Sunday in Oklahoma City, they were arm in arm, a loose circle of family and foe after Rhode Island had finished off Kansas. Harrick, Homer Drew and Jim Jr., laughing at the symmetry of it all.

"It was exciting, but I was most excited for him and my mother. They've been through so much," Jim Jr. said.

"He's a very, very thick-skinned man. I've only seen him cry three times in my life. When he lost his mother. When he lost his father. And when he lost the UCLA job. Not a lot of people know this, but I've seen him in a hospital bed when he developed stress at Christmas when lost his job.

"I'm happy because he's been through so much. And people actually had doubted his coaching ability. To take Rhode Island to the Sweet 16, that is sweet redemption."

His father, well, if you saw him standing there, you would know.

"It was one of the great moments in our family's time together," Harrick said Monday, hardly a dozen hours after he and the team arrived at the Providence (R.I.) airport after the long flight from Oklahoma City to find a couple of hundred people waiting at 3 a.m., including Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Almond.

"It was a magical, magical weekend."

The magic started when Valparaiso played Mississippi in the first round, and in an incredible, improbable finish, 3,700-student Valpo beat Mississippi on Bryce Drew's desperation three-pointer.

A long pass, a scramble, a touch pass to Drew--and pandemonium.

"Who didn't tear up, watching that coach hug his son after he hit that shot?" said Larry Farmer, the one-time UCLA coach who is Harrick's assistant at Rhode Island. "That was great stuff. I've got a 9-year-old. Maybe one day he'll do it for me.

Two days later, Valparaiso pulled off another upset, beating Florida State in overtime.

"You get in a bracket and before you even play, they get an upset," Farmer said. "It's really inspiring. You start to think you can do it. I think we fed off that."

Harrick was in the stands during the Mississippi game, only a few hours before his own.

"After their buzzer-beater, Jim came in to get ready to play Murray State and he was just exhausted," Farmer said.

Little wonder.

"There were not a lot of people there, and I saw him sitting right across from me, in the Valpo section," Jim Jr. said of his father. "He was up there, pumping his fist and shouting at the refs. Acting like a dad. If they had a tape of that, it would be hilarious."

Another tape that would be hilarious, if it existed, would be the one of Homer Drew recruiting his son.

As Indiana's Mr. Basketball, Bryce had plenty of offers--Notre Dame, Syracuse, Stanford.

"I think after all the people came to visit with Bryce, I just asked, 'Can I come as the coach at Valparaiso and present some things for you to consider?' " Homer Drew said.

"The story goes--I'm getting a little older, but this is what they tell me I did--that I went out and rang the doorbell and came in and sat down with Bryce and the family to go over everything. I guess that's the story we need to go with. I've been corrected by my wife and Scott about that."

Bryce stayed home, and it turned out to be a pretty terrific decision for Valparaiso, the smallest school still in the NCAA tournament and increasingly the embodiment of the movie "Hoosiers."

The team even watched a clip from the movie on the bus to the games last weekend.

And when the Crusaders returned to Valparaiso, Ind., about 2:30 a.m. Monday morning, they arrived with a police escort to find a basketball-mad town.

"I was just completely overwhelmed by all the people waiting outside, and it was cold," Homer Drew said. "Students with bare chests had spelled out Valpo--all male students, by the way--and there were guys in trees. It was truly a warm welcome and truly does remind you of 'Hoosiers.' It's a small community, and they truly have embraced us."

The Midwest Regional has become the magic bracket. Maybe you think the NCAA selection committee set up the North Carolina-UNC Charlotte game, or Rhode Island's first-round game against Harrick's former assistant Murray State Coach Mark Gottfried.

But this?

"Of all the possibilities in college basketball, us playing each other for the right to go to the final eight, it's special," Jim Jr. said. "Never in your life could you have imagined it. It's not like Kentucky and UCLA. It's Valpo and Rhode Island. They couldn't have planned this. We had to beat a [Southeastern Conference team] and an [Atlantic Coast Conference] team. And he had to beat Kansas."

Harrick and Jim Jr. have faced each other, in a couple of regular-season games when Harrick was at UCLA and his son was an assistant at San Diego State.

"They spanked us both times," Jim Jr. said. His mother, Sally, by the way, pulled for UCLA.

"She'll root for Rhode Island," Jim Jr. said. "I expect her to, but she'll pull for us a little. Once the ball goes up Friday, I probably won't think about it. He and I are both so competitive once the ball goes up.

"He and [Gottfried] had to play, and it was hard. You don't want to see Mark get beat by 25."

Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar, who coached at UCLA with Harrick and Gottfried, will be watching this one with interest.

"That's hard on Coach Harrick, playing against a guy almost like his son, Mark Gottfried, in the first round, and now, in the Sweet 16, playing his actual son," Romar said. "But you know, just as it was in the first game, the competitor comes out, and he will forget about it once the ball is thrown up in the air.

"It may be harder for Jim Jr. He's always pulled for his father to do well. At UCLA, he pulled for him to do well. Now he's got to pull against him.

"That's his father. I think it would be harder for him to beat his father than for the father to beat the son. I would guess that he would be more torn than Coach Harrick."

Torn? Hardly.

"I want to win, selfishly, for my career," said Jim Jr. "He wants to win, selfishly, because he still has more to prove.

"I'd much rather lose to Mississippi or Florida State than lose to my dad. He's won a lot of games in his career. He has a national championship ring, a Final Four watch. He's been to the pinnacle and experienced those things.

"But he's got a new challenge and a new focus. It's all on the line for the right to go to the final eight. If he gets it, I'll be the first to hug him. If I get it, he'll be the first to hug me."

And just as there was Sunday, there will be genuine joy, not just relief.

Once Harrick was the hunted, and such teams as Tulsa and Princeton snared him. Now he's the hunter.

"When you're at UCLA, you've got all the pressure in the world on you," Farmer said.

"You're expected to go to the Sweet 16," Jim Jr. said. "They expect the final eight, the Final Four.

"After the Kansas game, he was really, really happy, to me, for the first time as a coach since his days at Pepperdine. He was always on edge at UCLA, living with the pressure that 'you've got to win, you were not our No. 1 choice, you're not a UCLA grad.' Now he's coaching the way he used to coach at Pepperdine. I think he's much more relaxed. And the last thing is, he's appreciated at Rhode Island."

By the way, two more Rhode Island victories and two more UCLA victories, and they will meet in the Final Four for the chance to play for the national title.

"If we meet them, we meet them," Harrick said. "Right now, we're worried about playing games, not who we'd be playing. It was like that for me in the tournament before. How you play, not who you play."

Anyway, how unlikely is that? It could never happen.

Could it?

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