Harris coaching himself in this struggle
- Cliff Pfenning
- Portland Tribune - News
Grant principal silent about renewing basketball coach's contract
When Bobby Harris thinks about all the hassles that go into being a high school basketball coach, it's enough to make him ponder retirement.
But coaching is such a vital part of his nature that Harris wants nothing to do with even the word 'retirement' É not as long as he can still draw plays on a chalkboard or wring a towel on the sideline.
Harris, 55, is one of the most successful coaches in the lengthy history of the Portland Interscholastic League. And he, along with everyone else, thinks that there is still work to do with the Grant High boys program.
When Harris began coaching the Generals during the 1998-99 season, after 22 years as head coach at Jefferson, his goal was to return Grant to its glory years, 1985-88, when it reached the state title game for four straight seasons.
But that hasn't happened, and Harris now feels pressure from within the Grant halls and outside the school to retire, which is the last thing on his mind.
So in his 31st year with the Portland school district, Harris is being challenged to re-educate himself as to what the job of the modern high school basketball coach entails.
From Xs and Os and parent relations to assistant coaches and summer all-star teams, he is examining what he does and how he does it to see where he can improve and affect the changes that will make Grant a winner in the highly competitive PIL.
At the top of this list is survival.
Harris is hoping that a renewed outlook will allow him to stay as coach at Grant after the annual, and ongoing, school assessment with Principal Toni Hunter.
Harris is known as a coach with a social conscience who molds teen-agers into men; he's also known for winning seven of every 10 games at Jefferson.
But when the winning stops, what happens to the value of self-discipline and hard work? And who should decide when a coach steps down from a job Ñ the school or the coach?
Ed Geist, president of the Grant Booster Club, says Harris has run a solid program. But the city's basketball community, from school to school, is a fickle lot, with a long memory.
'Portland has a love-hate relationship with its basketball coaches,' Geist says. 'And coaches are judged on their attitudes as much as anything, and how well they run a program from the freshman level on up.'
For Harris, convincing the Grant community starts with his school's administration.
'I want to remain the coach at Grant and continue to rebuild the program,' he says. 'If the administration will let me.'
A coaching legend
In 27 years at Jefferson, Harris also coached athletes in football, gymnastics and track and field.
It was with the basketball team, though, that he forged a lasting bond, taking the Democrats to the state playoffs 18 times in 22 years as head coach. He left the school when Jefferson was reconstituted by the district in 1998, resurfacing at Grant. While at Grant, he surpassed the 400 career-win mark.
Jefferson's current coach, Marshall Haskins played for Harris at Jeff and thinks the school should name its gym in honor of its former coach.
'He spent 22 years in an incredibly challenging job Ñ that's amazing,' says Haskins, who also is Jefferson's athletic director and activity director. 'I can't imagine being the coach here for that long.'
Haskins says the pressure at Jefferson stems from 1972, when the Demos won the state title with a team of black players.
'Every year since then, everyone around here has thought we should win the state title,' Haskins says. 'A lot of those expectations were because of Bobby running a good program. You can't win just on talent. You've got to keep kids eligible and on task. Bobby did a great job of keeping the program in perspective.
Harris, who guided the Demos to the state title game in 1995, has four former players who are head coaches: Haskins, Tony Broadous at Roosevelt, James Broadous (Tony's brother) at Parkrose and Tyrone White, who is the Roosevelt girls coach. A handful of Harris' former players are assistant coaches in the PIL as well.
Harris had the Generals within a victory of reaching the state playoffs in 2001, when they finished 13-12. Grant tied Lincoln for fourth place in the PIL but lost to the Cardinals in a playoff.
This season, Grant stumbled to a 7-16 record, leaving Harris at 38-54 in four years there.
Harris' job probably wouldn't be an issue if he hadn't retired as a physical education teacher last year. That move put him at odds with Hunter's desire to have both the football and basketball coaches within the building during the day, a frequent goal of administrators.
Retirement as a coach would close the Bobby Harris era. But Harris doesn't want to retire, and he has gone to great lengths to show it.
In January, the Grant student paper, The Grantonian, contained a sports column that referred to Harris' impending retirement. Harris, upset in part that the columnist hadn't interviewed him, put so much pressure on the school to withhold the story that the entire press run was recycled and the paper reprinted with a different sports column.
Harris says the newspaper incident was unfortunate and was caused in part by bad timing Ñ and persistent rumors that he planned to retire at the end of this season.
Hunter and Athletic Director Pam Joyner are responsible for hiring (or not rehiring) coaches. Hunter does not want to comment on the Harris situation. Athletic coaches are given one-year contracts and are evaluated annually.
Harris says this season was his most difficult in terms of parent relations, a frequent comment from coaches in all sports every year.
'If coaching were just about coaching kids, it would be a lot easier of a job,' he says. 'So much of sports is about learning lessons in life, lessons about hard work and dedication. That's what I try to teach kids, because I believe in that.'
Senior Justin Glover, who missed at least one game because of a run-in with Harris, says he harbors no bad feelings about his basketball experience at Grant, despite being suspended by the coach.
'We got along fine,' says Glover, who is also a top baseball prospect. 'We had some problems, but that's part of what goes on with a team.'
Critics of Harris are plentiful in North and Northeast Portland, though none will go on the record. But they will say privately that Grant's overall program lacks cohesion. Harris says this is his fault.
'That's one area that I maybe haven't put as much emphasis on until now Ñ making sure that the teams do the same things at every level,' he says. 'All those years at Jefferson, I had the program pretty well set up.'
Paul Kelly, a coach in the Grant system for two years before moving to Jefferson last fall, says Harris' name gets tarnished because of his disciplined style and the fact that he has been around since game film was shot with 8 mm cameras and needed to be developed.
'When someone's around for a while, you can find the negative if you want to,' says Kelly, a truancy officer at Jefferson. 'But I know I learned a lot from his experience in the game and with working with kids.
'I'm a better person for working with him.'
Building a winner, again
While Hunter weighs the situation, Harris continues with his plans to build Grant's program. On Tuesday, he took a group of underclassmen to the state tournament to watch Benson battle South Medford. Meanwhile, there are summer camps to organize for middle-school students and money to raise to help send teams to camps.
Harris says he is up to the challenge and is focused on the Grant program because it's his neighborhood school. Has been for years.
Can he do better? Can he adjust? Harris points out that despite such a troubling year, the Generals won three of their last five games. He attends middle school games to put a face with the varsity program, and he has redoubled his efforts to build a cohesive program. And he says he doesn't feel a day over 35.
'The challenge I'm facing now is causing me to put into practice the things I've been telling kids for all these years,' Harris says. 'I feel like we're turned a corner and have things on the right track.
'If I quit now, it'll be like I'm giving up on all the things I've been saying all these years, letting kids down. And I don't want to do that.'
Who's the boss?
Harris points out that many of the state's top coaches no longer teach in their buildings. Nick Robertson at Beaverton, Ken Harris at Sunset, Mike Doherty at Oregon City and Don Emry at Benson have retired from teaching but led their teams to the state playoffs this year. Doherty recently became the state's winningest coach with more than 660 wins.
Hunter hasn't said that Harris won't return as coach, and, as the principal, that decision is hers to make, according to Richard Garrett, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
There is no appeals process, outside of civil court. And both the PAT and the school district have experience with this route, thanks to another veteran basketball coach.
In 1986, Benson Principal Paul Benninghoff fired basketball coach Dick Gray after complaints from parents. Gray, represented by the PAT, sued the school district on the basis of age and race discrimination and won back his job in U.S. District Court in 1988. Two years later, he led the Techmen to the state title.
ëf Harris isn’t rehired, suing the district would be his only recourse. What would he do?
'I don't know,' he says.