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Del Harris & Earlham College




Del Harris hasn’t forgotten his Quaker roots

Josh Chapin


Del Harris celebrates an Earlham College victory as the Quakers’ men’s basketball coach. Harris came to Earlham 50 years ago as a 27-year-old tabbed to lead the school’s basketball and baseball programs.

Long before he became an icon in Indiana’s baseball community, John Cate was just a Richmond kid who loved to play the game.

Long before he became an international basketball coaching icon, Del Harris was pulling double duty at Earlham College.

Harris was 27 years old, a “kid” as he calls it, and serving as both the Quakers’ head baseball and men’s basketball coaches.

This was before Harris won more than 550 games in the NBA. Before his Coach of the Year award. Before he led China in the Olympics and helped the Dominican Republic medal in the FIBA Americas Championships.

All of that came after. After Harris helped forge the culture of Earlham athletics and after he took a special interest in the fledgling baseball career of a young Cate.

John Cate, pictured here in 2010, was Earlham College’s baseball coach, a position that once belonged to basketball coaching legend Del Harris. Harris had a major impact on Cate’s baseball career, working out with the future Richmond High School and Richmond Roosters leader when Harris was at Earlham and Cate was a young student.

“He would take me and work me out, one-on-one, work on my hitting and fielding when I was an eighth-grader, ninth-grader,” Cate said.

“I can still see it. There was a backstop at the northwest corner where the present soccer field is, practice field. He would throw BP to me and hit me ground balls, just him and I. It was a special, special experience. As you look back — Del Harris, Laker coach. He took time to spend with me.”

He’s still taking time, 50 years after he first gave it to Earlham and Earlham gave him his first major opportunity.

Harris now lives in Texas and still is involved with professional basketball, now as the vice president of the Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks.

Yet, when Earlham and the community of Richmond calls, Harris still is quick to answer.

“It is amazing,” said Avis Stewart, a former basketball player for Harris at Earlham who is now the school’s vice president of community relations. “The thing about Del that people maybe they don’t appreciate as much, is that for all of the fame, fortune and people that he’s met, he always comes back to Earlham.

“Earlham seems to be his base, seems to be his value place, where he enjoyed his time here better than any other time.”

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It was a time that started in 1965. Harris isn’t sure of the exact date, just that it was in late April or early May, when he first set foot on the Richmond campus as the newest addition to the Quakers’ coaching community.

Fifty years later, he was again at Earlham.

Del Harris speaks during the Sadler Stadium dedication on the campus of Earlham College. Harris, a basketball coaching legend, has a special connection to the baseball program, having coached the Quakers for three seasons.

This time, he was there to help the school celebrate the dedication of its new on-campus baseball facility, Randal R. Sadler Stadium.

Harris was introduced to the crowd early in the ceremony. He was scheduled to speak, just not quite yet.

Harris grabbed the microphone anyway and soon started talking about the school’s past, a “glorious day in Earlham College history.”

This is where, for all intents and purposes, Harris got his start. He had coached at the junior high and high school level, but this was a larger stage.

Both Earlham programs he took over had won two games the previous season.

Both programs had a long way to go.

“We only had three or four guys who could really play,” Harris said of the baseball team he inherited. “They stayed.”

Earlham played only about 13 or 14 games a baseball season then, Harris estimated. “A good day was a rainout,” he joked, “because we weren’t going to reschedule it.”

But Harris had bigger plans.

If the Quakers were going to be any good, he figured, there were certain things they absolutely needed. And they needed money to get them.

Players raised money by selling programs. The Quakers took a spring trip down south, even playing Georgia Tech.

That one didn’t go so well. Georgia Tech won 22-1.

Del Harris (from left), Lisa Shepherd-Stidham and John Calipari pose at the 2012 Smart Futures dinner. Harris often returns for fundraising events in Richmond and will bring elite coaches with him. Harris had a major break in his coaching career 50 years ago when he joined the ranks of Earlham College as the leader of the school’s men’s basketball and baseball programs.

Still, just getting out on the field was important. So were the fruits of the fundraising campaign.

Earlham bought a pitching machine and an indoor hitting cage, a net Harris would suspend from the ceiling of the basketball court.

When Feb. 1 rolled around, as soon as basketball practice ended, Harris would lower the net and roll out the pitching machine.

“We had baseball practice as soon as basketball practice was over,” he said.

Improvements began to show. The baseball team won 17 games in Harris’ second season, and the program started adding players.

Harris’ assistant, Rick Carter, also coached football. Carter talked some of those players into becoming two-sport athletes and joining Earlham’s baseball team.

By Harris’ third season, the Quakers had won 17 games again.

The Plainfield native was a talented baseball player in his own right. He had been offered a spot coaching basketball in Puerto Rico in 1968 but turned it down.

The reason? He and Carter were playing baseball for a summer team in Dayton.

That team made the finals of a national amateur tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. Carter was a center fielder and Harris pitched, even throwing a complete game against a team from Washington, D.C., on the way to winning the tournament.

“It was just a natural for Rick and me to do baseball,” Harris said. “We loved it. Rick’s father was a professional softball pitcher on the side.”

Harris and Carter were building a reputation.

“Back in the days, him and Rick Carter, what a dynamic two people,” Cate said.

Something else was happening, though. Harris’ other sport had become pretty darn good, too.

By 1968, Harris’ third season at Earlham and his final as the baseball coach, his basketball team was 25-3, champion of the Hoosier Collegiate Conference, ranked as high as sixth in the NAIA and a national tournament team.

On the day Harris coached his last postseason basketball game, the Quakers were on their sixth baseball game. Something had to give.

“I coached myself out of a job,” Harris said.

He ended up coaching himself into something so much more.

Del Harris reacts to a call as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks during a 2000 game against the Indiana Pacers. Harris, a former Earlham College coach, had a long NBA career where he won more than 550 games and was named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1995.

Harris stayed at Earlham until 1974, at which point the ABA came calling. He joined the staff of the Houston Rockets as an assistant in 1976, his first foray into the NBA.

His NBA career spanned through 2010 and was highlighted by his stint leading the Los Angeles Lakers from 1994-99. Harris was named the league’s Coach of the Year in 1995.

“He is a great basketball coach, everybody knows that,” Stewart said. “But the thing they don’t know is that he is just a great coach, and they see that in the baseball as well.”

Harris won 556 games as an NBA coach and was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

He is an author, a broadcaster and a Coach Wooden Keys to Life award winner.

He also is a Quaker and clearly was thrilled to be back in Richmond last month.

Steve Sakosits is the current Earlham College baseball coach. Del Harris praised Sakosits, saying “I’ve watched them play. He knows what he’s doing out there.”

Steve Sakosits was thrilled to see him there, too. Sakosits is the current Earlham baseball coach, and his office in Sadler Stadium carries Harris’ name with it.

“It’s definitely humbling to know the guys who have been in front of you, especially a guy like that who has had a career like he did,” Sakosits said.

“He’s done a lot of things. To come back to a small liberal arts school in Richmond, Indiana, where he got his start, is pretty special. For a guy like that to come back here and support what we’re doing now, it’s pretty special.”

Harris makes annual visits to Richmond. And he sometimes brings friends.

Many of them are basketball personalities. John Calipari was here in 2012 with Harris for the Smart Futures event for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wayne County. In 2013, it was Tom Crean.

And just last fall, basketball icon Nancy Lieberman came to Richmond at Harris’ urging.

“He’s an encyclopedia of basketball,” Lieberman said of Harris last October. “When I was named head coach of the Legends, one of the first people I went to was my friend Del. I needed to know what Del knew. He’s very free with the information.”

Lieberman was free with the quick quips at Harris’ expense, showing the playful depth of the relationship.

Nancy Lieberman and Del Harris, right, pose in a prop doorway during the annual Smart Futures dinner at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Wayne County’s Jeffers Unit last year. Harris routinely returns to Richmond for events such as this, 50 years after he first started as a coach at Earlham College.

“The really great thing about Del, and I tell him this all the time, is how lucky I am he suggested to Dr. James Naismith to put a hole in the peach basket. Del got tired of going up the ladder,” she joked. “He’s not only a smart basketball man, and just a wonderful friend, he’s a thinker. He’s a solution-orientated fellow.

“Every time I see him, I ask, ‘What was Dr. Naismith really like?’ He just looks at me like, ‘Did you just say that to me in front of people?’

“It’s important to have somebody like him who has a plethora of knowledge and information and recall, and you figure out how you want to do this with your program.”

Not only is Harris an encyclopedia of knowledge, he also has a wealth of stories.

Sakosits got to sample that side of Harris the night before the Sadler Stadium dedication.

There was an open chair next to Harris, and Sakosits took it. He didn’t talk much, though.

“Him telling stories was basically me just listening,” Sakosits said. “As a young coach, that’s what I’m here for. When I worked for John (Cate) that was the same thing. When I get the opportunity to be around people who know more than me, in coaching and in life, I am going to sit back and take mental notes.

“That’s what’s special about this town. There is so much history in it. You look at sports in general and what’s reviving the town, with Richmond in basketball and hopefully Earlham College turning the corner. This is a great sports town. It’s just waiting to bust at the seams again like it was back in the day.”

Cate brought Sakosits to Earlham as an assistant coach. Earlham baseball was the final stop for Cate in a coaching career that included successful stints at Richmond High School and with the Richmond Roosters of the Frontier League.

The Earlham job was one more baseball bond Cate shared with Harris.

“Earlham gave him his first opportunity, and he remembers that as his start,” Cate said. “He’s just a good guy. To be in the same sentence as Del Harris, where we did coach baseball at Earlham, it’s pretty special.”

Harris wants to see that positive direction continue at Earlham.

He swelled with joy standing at Sadler Stadium that afternoon, watching the Quakers play on a turf field that has more in common with Division I programs than most Division III schools.

It was a reminder of his days at Earlham, when the Quakers had 10 sports and all 10 had winning records.

“Just to have this feeling of pride to be associated with something Earlham is doing athletically is really something special for me,” Harris said.

Earlham College Vice President of Community Relations Avis Stewart talks in 2011. Stewart played basketball for Del Harris at Earlham and has remained close with the legendary coach.

“It starts at the top, with the president and vice president and that sort of thing. … The coach, he’s the one who really goes out and gets them and is in charge of the performance on the field. Without it coming from the top, then the coach is trapped. It’s great teamwork. Congratulations to coach Saks for what he has been able to go out and do and coach these guys. I’ve watched them play. He knows what he’s doing out there.”

Part of what Earlham is doing now is something Harris hopes the Quaker camps continue to do when it comes to student-athletes.

Stewart said Earlham wants to be the ideal place for the student-athlete to come, and Sadler Stadium is just one piece of it.

“We hope to do this in football, soccer, basketball, tennis. We do want to go back to that particular image and vision for the college,” Stewart said.

“We want to provide a well-rounded, excellent education and this is part of that.”

Josh Chapin: (765) 973-4463 jchapin@pal-item.com or twitter.com/JoshChapinPI

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