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Harvard still plays basketball four flights up the stairs of the Indoor Athletic Building (IAB). The freshman rule still prevents freshmen from playing on the varsity team, and coaches still cannot leave the campus to recruit players. No enticing offers of a new Porsche attract 7-ft. basketball wizards to Harvard.
But despite all the disadvantages and restrictions of the Harvard program, basketball is undergoing a transformation. A new spirit of optimism and a confidence lacking the past few seasons now pervades the IAB. The laid-back, low-key days of Harvard basketball seem to have made their exit, and an aggressive, spirited program has moved into its place.
The coaching staff of Satch Sanders, Mike Jarvis, and Buddy O'Neil is gone. With them went the days of four-hour, lackadaisical practices and a Harvard style of play that often resembled sleep walking.
The new Harvard coach Frank McLaughlin has revitalized Harvard's basketball program. McLaughlin brings with him a spirit that the IAB has lacked for some time now. Satch, an ex-Boston Celtic, was a great player and a knowledgable coach, but he was quiet, low-key, and just the wrong man for Harvard. The Crimson program needs someone to pick it up off the floor and kick it back into shape. It needs an active, aggressive leader. McLaughlin can be that type of leader and he has wasted no time starting.
"There's nothing phony or hypocritical about being a rah-rah," says the spirited coach. "People try to knock the Harvard image, and if they can do that through the basketball program, they will. But we're not gonna give them the chance, because there'll be nothing in this program to knock."
His strong words come across as slightly over-optimistic to many who have lived with the struggling Harvard program for the past few years, but those words are not idle verbalizations; McLaughlin backs them up with action.
McLaughlin has cut back to two hours the four-hour practices that Satch ran by eliminating time-wasting during practice.
"Practices are shorter, but they are more intense," says co-captain Steve Irion. "We get a lot more done now because there's no standing around. We used to come out and practice a little, then take a break, and it dragged out for hours. But now we just work continuously, and we really work hard."
McLaughlin comes here after a successful, seven-year association with Digger Phelps. First at Fordham and then at Notre Dame, McLaughlin assisted Phelps with the coaching chores. His post at Harvard marks McLaughlin's debut as a head coach. But the new situation does not intimidate McLaughlin, who has approached his formidable task with great enthusiasm.
"It's a big challenge, but I have accepted and I think the players have accepted," says Harvard's 14th head basketball coach. 'Everyone wants to win and everyone is giving 100 per cent every day because we want to represent Harvard in the best way."
But McLaughlin faces his biggest challenge in obtaining support for his program. The players are behind him and so is the Athletic Department, but the fans are another story. Severe attendance problems have plagued Harvard basketball in recent years. Often the stands were occupied almost entirely by players' families and friends. McLaughlin feels student support is crucial for the program to work.
"If we get the student support, we'll have a good team," he says, "but it starts now and the fans have to help us out. They can't wait 'til we win and then jump on the bandwagon.
"The first thing that other college coaches say when they're recruiting is that no one cares about basketball at Harvard. They tell the high school athletes that no one watches the games," explains the 1969 Fordham graduate and Ram basketball star. "Then the high school kids come here and see 40 or 50 people at the game and they get really turned off to the program.
"But if we have good support, then they'll come and even if we lose, they'll say, 'Okay, they lost, but look at all the support and attention the team gets.' The program suddenly becomes attractive."
McLaughlin believes that Harvard can overcome the obstacles that make successful basketball difficult here.
"We can get around the less-than-ideal court at the IAB, and we can overcome the recruiting restrictions and freshman rule," he says. "But we've got to show there is support for the sport. When we open on November 30, we all go on the line: players, coaches, and the rest of the University."
To help him transform the program, McLaughlin brought in a new staff. Terry O'Connor will assist him with the varsity, and former Notre Dame star Ray Martin will run the freshman team.
O'Connor comes off a successful five-year coaching career at Cayuga County Community College in Auburn, N.Y. The new position marks a breakthrough for O'Connor into the ranks of major college coaching:
"We came in with our eyes open," says O'Connor, "and we just want to get as competitive as possible as soon as possible. But we have to remember that this school is still mainly an academic institution and it's just as important to make sure all the players graduate, because that's what they're here for."
O'Connor recognizes the drawbacks inherent in the Harvard program but feels the basketball team can be a very competitive one and, at the very least, make a strong bid for the Ivy Title.
Martin, as the freshman coach, is preparing his players for their varsity years with McLaughlin, and he finds Harvard a fascinating institution.
"It's a super school," says the former Notre Dame captain. "Not just academically, but also schedule-wise. The Ivy League schedule is really a great one, with all the rivalries that it has."
For Martin, Harvard represents his first full-time coaching experience. His only experience as a coach before this was with New York City summer-league teams, but Martin is enthusiastic about his new role.
"It's a hard transition because sometimes I push a little too hard," he says. "I think back about how I could have done better if I had pushed a little harder at times, and I try to make my players do the same; but I have to remember that I'm the coach and not the player anymore. I just want to motivate my players day in and day out and get them to do their best."
The controversial freshman rule gives Martin a team to coach, since freshmen players cannot play varsity ball in the Ivy League. But Martin thinks the rule has some drawbacks.
"Basically it's a good rule, but if it stays it should be universal. Academically it makes sense," he explains. "but it turns away many talented players who do not want to spend their first year at college away from the varsity.
"I think of my freshman year, though, and it was a really hard transition coming into college and traveling with the team while trying to adjust to the school and do my work. In that sense, the rule is good, but if it is kept, everyone should follow it."
The freshman rule, along with Harvard's high academic standards, scare away many talented players who are not necessarily top students, and the combination of the two limits Harvard's ability to become a national contender. (Add the recruiting rules to that duo and one can see why Harvard does not make the National Top Twenty poles.) But McLaughlin sees Harvard's role as a very special one.
"Academically, the school is outstanding, and none of us want to change that. We just want to get the best athletes possible who can handle the work, and then our job is one of coaching them and helping them to play while still doing well in school."
To get the basketball team into a more exciting, competitive style of play, McLaughlin works with a "constant-motion" offense. By keeping the team from standing around, he hopes to create more action on the court and more excitement for the fans.
But more important than the on-court adjustments is the new off-court change. The players have a positive attitude, much more positive than last year. They say this year is going to be a good one for Harvard basketball.
"I've been pretty impressed with Frank," says 6-ft. 6-in. junior Bob Hooft. "He's bringing in a new kind of basketball and it's more enthusiastic than last year. Satch was a good coach; but it's just two different styles of coaching, and so far I've been impressed with Frank."
"We're going to have the physical edge at the end of the game because Frank's working us hard now," says sophomore guard Steve McIntosh. "Everyone's thinking positive and we'll be both physically and mentally sound. We can challenge for the Ivy Title. It's a whole new system, stressing a lot of fundamentals and the constant movement will be exciting. Frank's very personable and he's getting a lot of things done for the team," McIntosh adds. "The way things were going just wasn't too hot, but now that's all changed. Once we show the fans what we can do, I think they'll keep coming to the games. People are curious about what's going on and I think that will bring in support."
"It's a welcomed change," asserts Irion. "This is the way basketball is supposed to be played. The attitude of the club is improved and it's like a fresh, new start. Frank is going to get a little respect for the program, and he's working hard with the alumni, the players, and the Friends of Harvard Basketball.
"The people who come to the games are going to see exciting play, and they'll come back. This year, you'll see guys hustling, and that will bring fans. Right now, it's football in the fall, hockey in the winter, and the beach in the spring; but we want some of the winter fans. We're willing to share with hockey, and we're gonna get some support."
"I'm very optimistic," says Cyrus Booker, returning after a year off from Harvard basketball. "Frank keeps practice moving and everyone's attitude is real good. Everyone is working real well."
"Everyone's excited," adds Harvard's big man, 6-ft. 9-in. Brian Banks, who also returns after a year off. "We're going to have a nice team because everyone wants to do something."
Ultimately, the story behind Harvard basketball is it's freshness. With new coaches, some new players, and a new moving look to the offense, the Crimson hoopsters are out to make an impression.
"UMass opens the season here November 30 and they don't know what's going on. They know there's a new coach and all, but what if they walked into a packed gym--that would really stun them. That's why fans are important to the team right now," McLaughlin says.
"The days when Penn and Princeton came here to walk all over us are gone. No one will take Harvard for granted any more," he promises.
The players appear just as confident about the new Harvard look. "We're gonna surprise a lot of people this year," is the overwhelming opinion at the IAB.
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