1977-78: Onward and Upward With Coach Mac

A sign of the times for Harvard basketball hangs over coach Frank McLaughlin's desk in the IAB: "The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer."

No one will deny that the intense, 30-year old mentor delivered the 'difficult' as a rookie at the Harvard helm in the schizophrenic world of Ivy League basketball, where anything can happen (and usually does).

But now that the mesmerizing honeymoon between Cambridge hoop fans and their gung-ho, energetic, "you've gotta believe" messiah is over, the major question becomes, can Francis X. McLaughlin succeed where others have failed and build a winning program?

To answer this query, you must go beyond the slick, master-salesman style that characterizes the amiable former Notre Dame assistant coach and led one Boston columnist to crack that McLaughlin would have made a mint selling Arizona real estate.

Instead, like so many things in this increasingly bureaucratized world, success off the court revolves around organizational efficiency and follow-through. Fortunately, McLaughlin and his right arm, Terry O'Connor (Harvard's first full-time assistant varsity coach), are in good condition.


For now comes the start of the "second" season, the time of year when a coach's index finger cramps with fatigue from phone calls to prospective student-athletes, a time to polish up on the Crimson sales pitch [see box], a routine enhanced by Harvard's stunning upset of Ivy champion Pennsylvania, 93-87, a month ago at the IAB.

"The win against Penn gave our program some credibility," McLaughlin said, planning to take advantage of a new Harvard athletic department policy permitting a limited system of active recruiting (rather than the former passive system of alumni referrals and phone calls) by members of its coaching staffs.

The McLaughlin renaissance period began without its chief artisan, co-captain Steve Irion. The loss of the squad's leading scorer and rebounder to knee surgery wreaked havoc with a potentially explosive frontline.

The other pillar, talented but enigmatic senior center Brian Banks, returned after a year's absence and impressed all in his successful drive for All-Ivy (honorable mention) accolades.

But Harvard lost seven of its first nine contests; and when people heard about the squandering of large halftime leads against Fordham (39-29), Detroit (40-26), and Connecticut (47-31), they wondered aloud if Francis was neither saint nor saviour.

But then came "The Talk." There was McLaughlin, one wintry January afternoon, face fiery red, eyes glistening as he modulated between soft pleads and harsh commands, begging while cajoling his troops in classic locker room speech.

Suddenly, he was the reincarnation of Knute Rockne, and you could hear the Fighting Irish theme song as he reached the final crescendo about mental toughness, pride, desire and Harvard's tradition. He pulled out all the stops. And damned if the room didn't have an electric feeling, and damned again if you didn't buy every last word of his pitch. McLaughlin had consummated the ultimate deal--he had sold Harvard basketball to his own players.


It manifested itself slowly, but there was Cyrus Booker emerging from an early season sleep-walk to throw down scintillating slam dunks night after night and hit for double figures in 13 of Harvard's last 16 contests.

And along came sophomore Bob Allen to win a starting berth in the backcourt with better than ten points a game after a virtually non-existent first half of the season. Add Rosey Cox too, who returned to the squad for what seemed like the umpteenth time, but played with earnest dedication.