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Saturday, March 10, 2007 - Page updated at 09:02 PM

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Blaine Newnham

Cougars' old-school success revives memories for Harshman

Special to The Seattle Times

He spent 13 years coaching basketball at Pacific Lutheran, another 13 at Washington State and the final 14 years at Washington.

But it is clear who Marv Harshman is talking about when he uses the pronoun we.

At 89, he's still seen climbing into seats behind the basket at Edmundson Pavilion. He still thinks the world of Lorenzo Romar, his protégé who now coaches the Huskies.

"I've never known a person who attracts people more than he does," Harshman said. "The kids love him."

Having said all that, little brightens Harshman these days quite like a discussion about Washington State's nationally ranked Cougars, who play the game the way Harshman coached it, the way coaches 30 and 40 years ago coached it.

"Nobody, not even UCLA, plays better defense in the league than Washington State," said Harshman. "And Dick's son [coach Tony Bennett] has opened up the offense. They've gotten two or three better players than they've had and he's taken the reins off."

In trying to explain WSU's success, Harshman talks about players who have been in a system, who are disciplined, hardworking and unselfish.

Players who rally to the ball on defense and on offense both systematically and creatively take what the other team's defense gives them.

Harshman watches it with fascination.

Marv Harshman won 13 letters in four sports at PLU before World War II. Military service limited his pro options as a player, so after the war he coached PLU to a record of 241-121, before going 155-181 at WSU and 246-146 at Washington.

He won 642 games as a coach and ironically was doing his best coaching when he stopped. He was named Pac-10 coach of the year in two of his last five seasons, and his final two teams shared Pac-10 titles.

But Harshman was 67, old-school, cantankerous at times, and the UW administration wanted new blood, pushing him aside before he was ready, unfortunately ushering in an era when Andy Russo and then Lynn Nance had one NCAA tournament appearance in the next eight seasons.

Harshman won't go to the Final Four this year, one of the few in 50 years he's missed. It just isn't as easy to get around as it used to be. He uses a cane to help with balance problems and gave up golf two years ago because he could no longer effectively grip a club.

But he still goes to the gym five times a week, spending three days in the pool and two on the treadmill. He and his wife, Dorothy, seem as independent as they can be.

He saw his first Final Four when it was played at Washington in 1949. He remembers the coaching clinics, both those scheduled and unscheduled, in the daytime and late into the night when coaches shared their styles and secrets.

"There couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred coaches in those days," he said. "Now you go and there are 3,000 coaches and many of them are looking for jobs and shoe contracts. The clinics are nothing."

WSU's success recalls a different era, said Harshman, when players made decisions based on the way they were being played by the defense.

"People think we had set plays back then," said Harshman, "but what we had were a series of options. Now, a player decides he can beat someone one-on-one no matter what the situation. There needs to be a reason you do what you do.

"The Huskies have had that problem. Justin Dentmon has tried to win games on his own and just run out of room and options."

Harshman thinks the more players spend time with a system and trust it, the more they are likely to give up the ball to a teammate who might be uncovered.

The game can again be more like chess and less about personal domination.

Never unwilling to express an opinion, Harshman said he thinks the younger players spend too much time playing basketball, and not enough time learning the game's fundamentals.

"They think they know everything," he said, "and are harder to coach. It is so hard to get them to change what they are doing. I think Lorenzo's positive approach works better today than mine, which was mostly negative."

He talked about the wisdom of high-school players joining elite summer teams and playing games all summer.

"In the 40 years I coached," he said, "I had one player with a stress fracture, and that was Lars Hansen. Kids didn't play so many games, they weren't pounding themselves on pavement all the time."

He said he thinks Spencer Hawes should play at least one more year at Washington.

"He can beat most players one-on-one, but he needs more strength and to put some weight on," said Harshman. "Post play in the pros is about strength."

Harshman coached Spencer's father and uncle; in fact, they were together on Harshman's first team at Washington which he said this week he considers the best he ever coached.

That team, in 1972, won 20 games, including its last six. Unfortunately, only the league champion advanced to the NCAA tournament and that, as usual, was UCLA.

Washington State will get the chance this year that those Huskies didn't. Some things are better in college basketball today, even if others aren't.

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