When asked to describe sophomore forward Matt Stehle, Harvard men’s basketball coach Frank Sullivan is quick to point out that Stehle is humble, “to a fault.”
But such a statement seems fairly odd coming from a man who asked on several occasions not to be written about, insisting that it was the players who were important, even though his own name has become interchangeable with Crimson basketball over the past decade. After all, this is the man who in all likelihood will become the all-time winningest and longest-tenured coach at Harvard, and has guided the Crimson to some of its most successful seasons in the squad’s history. And though he may not think much of such a record, others have certainly noticed.
“I think he should get a centerfold spread in The Crimson,” says Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith. “With pictures, balloons, and we should have a party.”
“If I had a son, I would want him to play for Frank Sullivan,” Penn coach Fran Dunphy says.
COACH OUT OF THE GATES
A native of Lexington, Mass., Sullivan actually began his coaching career immediately after graduating from Westfield State in 1974, and joined the Villanova staff as the freshmen coach as his first job, thanks to his connections with the university there.
“All I ever wanted to do was to be a high school teacher,” Sullivan said. “I just wanted to be a high school coach, I never wanted to be a college coach...Ironically my high school coach [Rollie Massimino] ended up becoming the Villanova coach, so that was that.”
But Sullivan seemed to quickly have a change of heart, and moved on from the Wildcat program to Lehigh in 1977, after just three years with Massimino, but moved from there to Seton Hall in 1982.
“A friend of mine, P.J. [Carlesimo], got a job at Seton Hall, and was like, ‘Why don’t you work with me?’” Sullivan says.
“The first person I ever wanted to hire was Frank,” says Carlesimo, who was with Seton Hall until 1994 and is now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs.
Sullivan went from Seton Hall to his first head coaching job in 1984, when he was hired by Division II Bentley College, where he would lead the school to two NCAA tournament appearances—including one in his first season—in the course of his seven years there.
“I had two guys that should not have been at Bentley College,” explains Sullivan as to how the team managed to qualify for the tourney in his rookie season as a head coach.
And though Sullivan says that he was satisfied with his job at Bentley and that he wasn’t looking to move anywhere at the moment, he was hired by Harvard in 1991 as the school’s 16th basketball coach, taking control of a team whose last winning season was in 1984-1985.
THE REAL TRUTH ABOUT COACHING
Sullivan’s was one of four new head coaches in the Ivy League in his first year with the Crimson, but he certainly had transition experience from the rookie season he enjoyed with the Falcons. Harvard ended up winning just one non-conference game and set the record for the most consecutive losses to open up a season.
“Just getting used to all the restrictions in the Ivy League was very, very challenging,” Sullivan says. “The first Ivy League game I was coaching at Harvard was the first Ivy game I saw.”
And while his first four teams had losing records, Sullivan managed to turn the Crimson program around by the 1995-1996 season, as four out of the next seven years he posted winning records. The 1996-1997 campaign was one of the best in school history, as Harvard went 17-9 and finished second in the Ivies.
However, the past two seasons have been particularly difficult for Sullivan and Harvard, especially last year’s 4-23 finish, which the one Sullivan calls, “without a doubt,” his toughest season as a coach. The 2002-2003 season was also frustrating, as Harvard had a winning record heading into the Ivy season, but seemed to implode with the loss of Patrick Harvey ’02-’04, who was declared academically ineligible to play at the end of first semester, and in the middle of league play.
“It was really a nice feeling going into every year knowing that we had a legitimate shot to win the Ivy League title, and I think that he’s had a little bit of a harder time in the past couple of years,” says Tim Hill ’99, a point guard during the best years of Harvard basketball, who won the team MVP in his senior year.
But like his colleagues, Sullivan’s students are quick to compliment Sullivan and his work.
“I love coach,” says captain forward Jason Norman. “I’m sure he took a lot of heat because of the way we played and because of our record. I really want to win a championship for him this year.”
Such a finish would seem to be a fitting way to put a real stamp on Sullivan’s upcoming record-setting season.
—Staff writer Evan R. Johnson can be reahced at email@example.com.