April 17, 2013 at 12:00 PM
Marv Harshman: My bittersweet memory of a coaching icon
Don Shelton is the sports editor of The Seattle Times, where he has worked since 1987. He has been a sports writer and editor for several papers around the Pacific Northwest and California.
After Marv Harshman’s death last week, a 30-year-old memory came back to me that serves as a reminder of the fire that drove a coaching legend and the compassion that made him a beloved icon.
Marv was entering the final years of his Hall of Fame college coaching career with the Washington Huskies. I was a young reporter at a small suburban newspaper in Bellevue covering the men’s basketball team. It was the 1982-1983 season, and the Huskies were a talented team that would finish 16-15 and sixth in the Pac-10 before going on to share back-to-back conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances the next two seasons behind stars Detlef Schrempf and Chris Welp.
One postgame scene stands out, although most of the details of that season and that game are fuzzy. I remember a young Reggie Rogers (yes, he played basketball before starring for the Huskies and becoming a first-round NFL draft choice) missing a dunk in a sloppy home game that the Huskies either lost or came close to letting slip away. Marv, who was 66 at the time, was a little grumpy after that performance. During postgame interviews, he fielded a few questions before I asked about his team’s sloppy play and the missed dunk.
Marv let me have it. I still remember the glare he shot my way. He was steaming over what he considered a loaded question.
“If you want to write that, go ahead and write it,” he growled, “but don’t expect me to write it for you by answering that question.”
I felt my face turn red. All eyes were on me. I stood my ground, but said nothing. Marv had made his point, answered a couple more questions and left.
I brooded over what had happened the rest of the week. I believed I had asked a fair question, but having the great Marv Harshman single me out in front of my peers was embarrassing. I replayed it all weekend in my head. Why hadn’t I shot back with a follow-up question? What were others thinking? Were they laughing at me or, worse, feeling sorry for me?
I dreaded the Huskies’ weekly news conference at Edmundson Pavilion, but knew I had to act like nothing had happened. I drove to the UW thinking of how I would react if the old man tried to show me up again. I walked into a room, ignoring the media chatter as I silently rehearsed my first question and a followup.
Marv walked in like he always did, was briefly introduced and began to talk. This time, however, he didn’t dissect the previous week’s games.
Instead, he did something I’d never heard a coach do before. He apologized.
He didn’t mention me by name. He didn’t need to.
“I want to apologize for what happened after the last game,” Marv said. “I don’t think I handled one of the questions very well, and I’m sorry if I offended anyone. Nothing personal.”
I’m sure he looked over at me as he finished. I looked down at my notepad and scribbled notes, though I didn’t need to write anything down. Thirty years later, I still remember every word.
Marv never mentioned it again, and I didn’t either. Yet that memory reveals a lot about what made him a coaching legend. The fire that burns in all the great ones was there, even though Marv was almost at the end of his career by then. That intensity got the best of him for a moment after a tough loss, and a young reporter felt the heat.
Now, three decades later, I’m glad Marv jumped all over me. I was young and too sensitive. I needed to be tested and get tougher. The old coach gave me a lesson I’d never forget, as he had done so many other times for others in his career. It would serve me well as I covered other teams and became an editor a couple of years later.
More than a decade after Marv retired, I became an assistant sports editor at The Seattle Times and often ran on a treadmill at a YMCA near my home in Canyon Park. Marv sometimes walked on a nearby treadmill. By then he was in his early 80s and was stooped and frail, but I marveled at his determination. The old coach was still going strong.
I said hello to him a couple of times. He smiled and said he remembered me. I never brought up his fiery reply or his apology.
Marv Harshman died last Friday at age 95. He was truly a legend, and in story after story about his career, former players and coaching rivals talked about the lessons they had learned from him. Many of them thanked him for what he had given them.
It’s time for me to do the same.
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