Going into last season, few people would have thought that the rumblings of dissatisfaction inside the Harvard basketball program would reach many ears outside the cramped quarters of the Indoor Athletic Building. But by the end of March, reverberations of Harvard's unhappiness with coach Bob Harrison's system had registered far outside the Harvard community, resounding in places as unlikely as the Boston Garden, home of the NBA Celtics.
No one would have believed before last year that Harvard's lamentations over its basketball woes would ultimately have an impact as far afield as the locker room of Boston's nine-time NBA champions. Harvard basketball just isn't the kind of thing that has very high priority at Harvard, much less the outside world. But the necessity for change at Harvard, opportunely coinciding with the retirement plans of a 13-year Celtics veteran, has changed the IAB line-up, and brought Thomas E. "Satch" Sanders to Cambridge to pump some life into Harvard basketball.
That a change was made at all is remarkable in itself. Harrison still had two years to go on a three-year contract, and Harvard, steeped in the tradition of frugality handed down from its Puritan founders, isn't in the habit of dismissing people whose contracts have not expired. Besides, it is painfully un-Harvardian to fire a coach point blank, and the Athletic Department has carefully cultivated a tradition for easing its athletic mentors out of the picture quietly when they are no longer wanted. So Harvard's sudden decision to relieve Harrison of his duties as ring master of the Crimson program came as quite a shock.
Nevertheless, Harvard had no choice but to make a change, regardless of the cost and embarrassment of replacing a coach who still had a year to go on his contract. Under Harrison, the Harvard basketball program had become a circus of undisciplined talent and unrealized potential. During his tenure as coach, players moved in and out of the program more rapidly than the acts change in a Ringling Brothers performance.
Harrison wanted to bring big-time basketball to Harvard, and to fulfill this aim, he successfully recruited some of the best high school talent in the country. But somehow, despite the blue-chip ballplayers that Harrison had at his disposal, a productive and rewarding basketball program never materialized.
From the beginning there had been the feeling that Harrison wasn't really the man to be Harvard basketball coach. Somehow, he always seemed out of place in the Cambridge arena. His volatile outbursts on and off the court, his relentless quest for ballplayers "who will run through walls for you," his often suspect offensive and defensive strategies, left most people uneasy. Not because his goals were incompatible with the Harvard atmosphere, but because Harrison never seemed quite the man capable of pulling them off.
Harrison had high hopes for "the great Harvard basketball experiment," as the Crimson's big-time aspirations were dubbed when Harrison first came to Cambridge. But despite the talent (high school All-Americans James Brown, Floyd Lewis, Tony Jenkins and Jim Fitzsimmons), Harrison never was able to communicate his "dream" to his players.
The longer Harrison stayed at Harvard the larger the communications gulf between the coach and his players grew. And this failure to relate was what ultimately undid him. Harrison never really adjusted to the Cambridge atmosphere and always seemed to regard the Harvard student as a somewhat less than normal human being. And if his strategic deficiencies restricted his success as a coach, his failure to communicate even deficient strategies handcuffed him all the more.
1973 was the year things were supposed to happen for Harvard basketball. After a three-year fuse, the fireworks of seniors Brown and Lewis were supposed to explode in a breathtaking display of basketball brilliance. The performance of these two seniors, along with those of Jenkins and Fitzsimmons, whom most people figured would be two of the top juniors in the country, was to skyrocket Harvard into Ivy League and national prominence. But the fireworks that the Harvard community had awaited for over three years with eager anticipation did not explode. Instead they fizzled miserably, and Harvard stumbled to a 7-7 Ivy record and 14-12 overall.
Harvard's failure this season can be attributed in the main to incompetence in basketball's three Ds--defense, discipline and determination. The 1973 Crimson cagers simply didn't play the kind of defense that makes champions. The man-to-man under Harrison's guidance was shoddy at best, and the Crimson coach seemed unwilling or incapable of installing effective zone coverage. As for discipline, Crimson fans saw very little of that, as Harvard's helter-skelter fast-break offense ran wild week after week, producing a phenomenal number of turnovers (as many as 38 in a single ballgame) and often giving up as many points as it netted for the Crimson. Harvard's set offense was even worse, often freezing Fitzsimmons, the team's leading scorer in 1972, completely out of the action. At other times the patterns resulted in low percentage shots out of the corner or broke down completely into a pass-to-the-frontcourt-go-one-on-one attack that never involved more than two players at a time.
Harrison's ineptness with the first two Ds, combined with his inability to communicate with his players, undermined the third: determination. Harrison wanted players who would "run through walls" for him. But as the season progressed it became increasingly evident that not only were the Harvard players unwilling to run through walls for the Crimson coach, but they had lost the drive to execute even the most basic aspects of the game.
After the disappointment that this season produced, intense pressure was brought to bear on Harrison, both for his handling of the team and for his administration of the program as a whole. A number of squad members went to officials in the Administration and the Athletic Department and voiced their complaints. After the inordinately large number of protests, the Athletic Department realized that the dissatisfaction with the program was more than mere rumor, and it decided that in the best interests of Harvard basketball, it was time for a change. On March 16, Harvard gave Harrison his walking papers.
The selection of Sanders came eight weeks later. During that time an eight-man search committee made up of Athletic Department officials, players and representatives from the Standing Committee on Athletics sifted through over 75 applications for the Harvard position. By May 3, the committee had narrowed the field to four finalists whom they recommended to Athletic Director Robert B. Watson. Watson made the final decision.
In Sanders, Harvard has a coach who will stress areas of the game in which Harvard was weakest during Harrison's tenure as coach--defense and discipline. "I'd like to have my players exert as much concentration as possible on the defensive end of the court," Sanders said at the May 15 press conference announcing his appointment. And the man considered by many as the greatest defensive forward ever to play in the NBA is certainly the person to teach the Big D. After defense, fundamentals will take top priority for Sanders. "My teaching as coach will be geared to fundamentals along with defense," Sanders said. "You can't produce successful teams without developing knowledgeable players."
The only deficiency in Sanders's credentials is a lack of coaching experience, but coming as he does from a long tradition of ex-Celtics who have successfully switched to coaching, this is less of a handicap than it might appear at first glance. Ex-Celtics have a tendency to become outstanding coaches, the most notable being Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn and Bob Cousy, all of whom are now coaching in the NBA. Sanders comes highly recommended, according to Watson, by "a number of prominent people" in the Boston area, including Celtics General Manager Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the winningest coach in NBA history. According to Watson, Auerbach told Harvard that Sanders's knowledge of the game of basketball "is as great if not greater than any former Celtic who has gone into coaching."