By Rick Lund
Rick Lund is a news presentation editor at The Seattle Times. He was the paper’s assistant sports editor from 2001-2006.
The recent passing of Naismith Hall of Fame college basketball coach Marv Harshman brought me back to a different time. It was a time before the three-point shot, the dunk, the shot clock and the breakneck pace of the game. A time when big men and UCLA dominated the game, when March Madness consisted of only 26 teams, and all those years when “Harsh”—whether he was at Washington or Washington State — did more with less.
For the better part of his coaching career, Harshman didn’t get the prized recruits. He was known as a teacher of the game, not a recruiter. Yet he coached for 27 years in a conference – first the Pac-8, and later the Pac-10 — that regularly attracted high-school All-Americans, including the great John Wooden UCLA teams of the late ’60s and ’70s. Marv built his UW teams around more lightly recruited players such as Dan Caldwell, Bobby Fronk, Andra Griffin, and a guard from Compton, Calif., by the name of Lorenzo Romar. They hardly looked like Pac-10 players when they arrived. By the time they were seniors, and Harshman had a chance to “coach them up,” those players helped the Huskies challenge UCLA and Oregon State when they had no business doing so.
But the talent pendulum would swing, albeit briefly, toward Montlake in the mid-70s when Harshman assembled what I consider the most talented team in school history. The 1975-76 Huskies started the season 14-0, were ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation in the old United Press International poll, No. 6 by The Associated Press, went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years and finished the season 22-6.
The Huskies had shown signs of greatness the previous season. The highlight was one of the more memorable victories in Husky history, a 103-81 rout of UCLA. It would be Wooden’s final career defeat before the Bruins reeled off eight more victories and a 10th national title. Years later, Wooden would say, “I remember vividly my final visit to Seattle. Washington, which was always well-coached by Marv Harshman, defeated us soundly.”
The 1975-76 Huskies returned the nucleus of the team that stunned UCLA. It had all the pieces, and the centerpiece was 7-foot, junior center James Edwards. The former Roosevelt High School star picked UW over UCLA when it wasn’t fashionable to turn down Wooden. Edwards had a virtually unstoppable fade-away jumper in the paint, averaging 17.1 points and 7.1 rebounds that season. Before he was through at the UW he would become one of the school’s all-time leading scorers. He played 19 seasons in the NBA.
Joining Edwards on the front line was 6-10 senior Lars Hansen and 6-7 sophomore Kim Stewart.
Hansen, from Coquitlam, B.C., was the first in a long line of foreign big men to play for Harshman. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, was a little more rugged than Edwards, and got most of his points close to the basket. Hansen also played in the NBA, including a stint with the 1979 NBA champion Sonics. Stewart, like Edwards, was another local high-school All-American (Ballard) who stayed home. On this team, however, Stewart was a role player, averaging 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.
As talented as Washington was inside, the Huskies were equally potent in the backcourt.
Six-foot-four senior guard Clarence Ramsey from Lincoln of Tacoma was the team’s second leading scorer (15.8 points) and possessed perhaps the sweetest shot of any player to play at UW. Picture a slightly taller and more athletic version of a more recent Husky sharpshooter, Tre Simmons. Ramsey had incredible range and elevation on his jump shot.
The leader of the offense, however, was clearly point guard Chester Dorsey. Also known as “Chet the Jet,” the 6-1 junior from Indianapolis, Ind., was a crowd favorite with his behind-the-back and through-the-leg passes. Harshman wasn’t always amused with Dorsey’s flashy game, but his career 4.4 assists average remains a school record.
Some of the bench players could have started for some Pac-8 schools. They included 6-6 forward Ken Lombard from Seattle, 6-6 guard-forward Greg Jack of Mercer Island High and 6-10 forward Larry Jackson of Pasadena, Calif. and Olympic Junior College. Larry Jackson scored 27 points in the previous season’s upset of UCLA. Today, the Huskies struggle to find a player who’s 6-8. Jackson was one of three Huskies 6-10 or taller
In winning the first 14 games of the season, the Huskies beat cross-town rival Seattle University, won at Wyoming and Nebraska, and traveled to Portland to dispatch Florida State, Northwestern and Texas Tech in the always-competitive Far West Classic. UW won its first three conference games before its first loss Jan. 17 to Oregon State, 72-70. In that memorable game in Seattle, Edwards and Lonnie Shelton, Beavers center and future Sonic, went mano-a-mano, combining for or 60 points. Edwards outscored Shelton 37-23, but Shelton hit the game-winner at the buzzer.
A month later came the memorable “Groucho Marx” funny glasses victory in Eugene, Ore. It was the height of the “Kamikaze Kids” era of Oregon basketball under Coach Dick Harter. The Ducks liked to stand at half-court during pregame warmups and stare at the opponent. Some of the players had come up with the idea to counter the Ducks’ tactics by hiding the glasses in their shorts during warmups and quietly slipping them on and staring back. The Huskies went on to win, 67-62, and after the game Harshman donned the glasses and posed for a Eugene newspaper photographer.
But that late February victory would be the last for the ’76 Huskies. UW finished the conference season with road losses to Oregon State and Washington State. Although UW finished just third in the Pac-8 (a 9-5 record), its 22-5 overall record earned them the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since the Bob Houbregs-led Huskies made it to the Final Four in 1953.
Washington was sent to Lawrence, Kan., to play Missouri in a sub-regional game in front of a pro-Missouri crowd. The Huskies led by as much as 11 in the first half, but guard Willie Smith rallied the Tigers to a 69-67 victory. Four Huskies fouled out, including Edwards. Missouri shot 31 free throws to Washington’s 13, a stat that wasn’t lost on the UW coach.
“It was a very strange game,” Harshman was quoted in a Seattle Times story years later. Harshman blamed the loss, in part, on uneven officiating. Had Washington gotten by Missouri it would have faced a Texas Tech team in the next round that it beat by 22 points in December.
The 1976 Huskies averaged 80.2 points per game, one of the highest scoring teams in school history. What makes this statistic more impressive is it came before the era of the shot clock and three-point shot. I suspect the team’s weakness was its defense. Long before the era of today’s suffocating defenses in college basketball, even by 1976 standards, this team was probably sub-par defensively.
Washington would go 17-10 the following year in Edwards’ senior season, and lurched to 14-13 two seasons later in Stewart’s senior season, in which the star forward suffered a season-ending knee injury in January in a game at Marquette.
The magic was gone. The talent dropoff was noticeable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. UW sank to 11-16 overall in 1979, Harshman’s first losing season at the school. And while the Huskies hung with the top teams in the conference with inferior talent, they struggled to finish above .500 in Pac-10 play for several years.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s and the arrival of Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp that the Huskies were a force again in the Pac-10. Washington earned back-to-back Pac-10 championships and NCAA appearances in 1984 (24-7 overall record) and 1985 (22-10), Harshman’s last two seasons. Washington advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1984. Those teams enjoyed more postseason success than the 1975-76 Huskies.
But as one who has watched Washington basketball for more than 40 years, that team of Edwards, Ramsey, Dorsey, Hansen and Stewart was the most talented I saw. In fact, it was simply Marv-elous.
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