THE PATTERN is always the same. UCLA coach Jim Harrick dials the same number and hears the same voice. The gentle, persistent voice that has haunted his dreams for seven years. The voice of the man whose legacy he must follow.
And every time they talk, in person or otherwise, Harrick asks John Wooden to come to Seattle to watch his old team, the UCLA Bruins, in the Final Four. But throughout the week the answer was the same: Thanks but no thanks. You run along and have a good time. That Harrick would ask Wooden, the coach who built one of the great dynasties in sports, to attend says much about Harrick's character. Rather than running from the legend, he's embracing it. He's asking the man who won 10 national championships to join them for today's semifinal game against Oklahoma State. It's UCLA's first trip to the Final Four since 1980 - Wooden's final year as a coach."He said he'd think about it, but probably wouldn't go," Harrick told reporters early this week. "I'll keep trying . . . be relentless until he'll finally raise his voice above a whisper and say, 'Nope!' " But by Friday, there were reports that Wooden may reconsider.
Harrick couldn't be blamed if he never wanted to hear Wooden's name again. In a 12-year span, the "Wizard of Westwood" coached the Bruins to 10 national championships. In so doing, he became the best kind of coach but the worst kind of predecessor: a perfect one. It was like taking the stage after Olivier or picking up the mike after Streisand.
When Harrick took over as head coach at UCLA in 1988, he didn't have a monkey on his back. He had the media, the booster club, numerous former Bruins and most of Hollywood on it. All of them expecting the Bruins to be nothing less than the best team in the nation.
Wooden, who hired Harrick as an assistant coach at UCLA in 1977, attends Bruin games but hasn't been to a Final Four since 1985 - the year his wife died. But Harrick persists, hoping he can get the man who made UCLA famous to join them this week; to stir up some of the memories and impress upon the Bruins of today the importance of the tradition.
"Some of those guys weren't even born when all that was happening," said Harrick. "The others were about two years old."
Whether Wooden comes to Seattle or not, Harrick appears to finally be liberated. UCLA is in the Final Four and talk of the City of Angels. Harrick is The Man and the Bruins are The Team. UCLA means glamor once again.
Had Harrick failed under the weight of expectation, he wouldn't have been the first. Gene Bartow lasted two years and left for Alabama-Birmingham, happy to get out from under the glare of the L.A. lights. Gary Cunningham worked two relatively successful seasons (25-3, 25-5) but apparently didn't like the glare much, either, because he eventually took up residence in Laramie as the athletic director at the University of Wyoming, then moved to Fresno State. The Larry Brown World Tour made a two-year stop before he left for New Jersey to coach the Nets. Larry Farmer stayed three years before moving to Weber State, then accepting a coaching position in Kuwait. Walt Hazzard coached four seasons, only to become the only successor to Wooden to be fired.
The most prestigious job in college basketball had suddenly become a steppingstone to the kind of place Kevin Costner defended in "Dances With Wolves": The farthest outpost in the realm.
By the time the Bruins hired Harrick, the job had become a one-way ticket to obscurity. A good way to end up coaching in North Dakota or Madagascar. Denny Crum, Jim Valvano and Brown all turned down the job, in large part due to a surprisingly low salary package. Radio talk shows denounced Harrick as unqualified. Ex-Bruin Bill Walton ridiculed Harrick publicly, though he later apologized. Even as recently as a year ago, the Los Angeles media were predicting Harrick would be fired.
What nobody figured on was Harrick's determination. This is a guy who never knew his car had a reverse. Or a brake. Who subscribed to the motto of taking whatever measures were necessary; and on the way to the UCLA job, he took most of them. He spent four years as a junior high teacher, working on his high school teaching credentials and a master's degree simultaneously. He spent five years as a junior varsity basketball coach, picking up towels and teaching five English classes as he went. He coached JV baseball and took on driver's training duties twice a week.
Harrick worked 19 years before he ever earned as much as $25,000. He took a $12,000 pay cut when he left Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., to work as an assistant coach to Dutch Belnap at Utah State. But the move proved fortuitous. From there he got a job at UCLA as an assistant coach, then landed the head coaching position at Pepperdine in 1979. There he built a 167-97 record in nine seasons, including four NCAA and two NIT invitations.
And so it was that after seven years of uncertainty in Westwood, Harrick finally broke the tape last weekend by making the Final Four. He got a name of his own. He's no longer a chauffeur to the greatest coach ever, no more a footnote to the Book of John.
"You'll never understand," he said. in a news conference after earning a berth in the Final Four.
So if the Bruins win a national championship, you can be certain Harrick won't be weeping fake tears. Eddie Sutton and Nolan Richardson are happy to be there because they've been there once before. Dean Smith is happy to be there because he can't break the habit. But Harrick is happy to be there because he wanted it bad enough to teach driver's ed and pick up towels along the way. Because he dared face, even embrace, the legend.
So if you see someone familiar buying up Final Four t-shirts and taking the tour boats around the Puget Sound this weekend, that's Harrick. He'll be the guy standing in line at the Space Needle and the Seattle Aquarium. The guy loading up on outdoor gear at Abercrombie & Fitch. The guy who's clearly soaking up every moment.
And wishing the voice on the phone was there to enjoy it with him.