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."
Sanders says that he will pattern his coaching style after Auerbach, the man under whom he played for most of his career. "I guess you could say that I'm from the Red Auerbach school of coaching," he says. Sanders said that Auerbach's philosophy is based on "getting players to work overly hard on the defensive end of the floor," because "the offensive end is always appealing and will take care of itself." Sanders said that he will also take a page from the coaching book of Tom Heinsohn, his coach for the last three years. Heinsohn relies heavily on scouting reports and film studies in determining his strategy.
Sanders, who is the first black to become a head coach at Harvard and the first black to coach basketball in the Ivy League, was not even considered a serious candidate for the post until two weeks before his selection. But in his first meeting with the selection committee, Sanders impressed the search group with his poise, intelligence and depth, and immediately became one of the group's top choices for the coaching position. Sanders said that the Harvard job had been mentioned to him several times during the Celtics' season, but it was not until the season ended that he became seriously interested in the job. Harvard signed Sanders to a multi-year contract. "I think we're talking three years," he said at the time of his selection. "It's a no-cut, no-trade deal," he added with a laugh.
Reaction among the returning ballplayers was generally favorable, especially to the new coach's emphasis on defense and discipline. However, some players were a little uneasy about Sander's lack of coaching experience. Nevertheless, the Crimson players recognize that Sanders has always been a winner, and feel that with that background, he will have no trouble adjusting to coaching.
At the press conference introducing Sanders as the new Harvard coach, Watson said that while Harvard realized that Sanders has had no professional coaching experience, "we feel his personal qualities and excellent knowledge of the game will hold him in good stead as coach."
Crimson captain for next season, Tony Jenkins, who accompanied Sanders at the press conference, said he was "pleased" with the selection. "I've been around here for a few years, and I've seen the potential for a successful basketball program go down the drain," he said. "I hope Mr. Sanders will be able to change these things around." Sophomore forward Len Adams, who served on the search committee, said that Sanders would be a "definite credit and help" to the Harvard program. "He was a winner in both college and the pros, and he is going to bring that attitude to Harvard," Adams said.
Besides this winning tradition, the biggest thing Tom Sanders has going for him at Harvard is Tom Sanders. The soft-spoken NYU graduate is cut from an entirely different mold than his predecessor. According to everyone who has known him, he has always been able to communicate with young ballplayers.
Hank Finkel, a Celt teammate, says "I don't think you could have picked a better man. He knows how to handle kids and he really has an art of communication with ball players."
But what is even more important, Sanders realizes that the ballplayer who "will run through walls" for basketball is a thing of the past. He acknowledges that the modern college basketball player has other interests that compete with basketball. "It used to be that you were either one thing or the other, either a student or an athlete," Sanders said. "But the young ballplayer growing up now has a lot of other interests. They're interested in world and community affairs as well as basketball and studies." Sander's awareness of the different interests vying for a young ballplayer's attention should serve him well amid the diversity of the Harvard community. Many people, including Harrison, have said that the very nature of the Harvard atmosphere is antithetical to establishing a good basketball program. Such an attitude assumes that athletics cannot be integrated into the Harvard sceme of things. But anyone who has followed the successes of Harvard crew, swimming, soccer and baseball in the past few seasons will easily see that this argument is unfounded. Sanders, at least from his early statements about Harvard, seems to realize that basketball is only one part of the whole of undergraduate life, not the whole in itself. And he seems dedicated to making that part a rewarding one.
Tom Sanders says that he came to Harvard "to bring basketball into the proper perspective as far as winning is concerned." But from all early indications, he brings much more than that. He brings, after five years of turmoil in Harvard basketball, a sense of direction for the program and insight into the nature of the Harvard position. And after five years of frustration, perhaps he brings a chance for productive end to "the great Harvard basketball experiment" as well.