SEATTLE -- For much of his seven seasons at UCLA, Jim Harrick has been an amazingly low-profile coach for such a high-profile school. If anything, his reputation has been as much for whining as for winning. Not quite the West Coast's answer to Jim Boeheim, but close.
Last night, Harrick did against defending national champion Arkansas what his counterpart at Syracuse couldn't do against Indiana in 1987: win the big one and lose his reputation forever.
"You walk through the lobby of my hotel and all you hear is, 'One more, Coach. Win the next one, Coach. You've got one more, Coach,' " Harrick said Sunday, on the eve of UCLA's first NCAA championship game in 15 years.
"You're only as good as your last game. I'm not going to reflect until the game is over. This is a great game to be in. I've dreamed my whole life to be in a game of this magnitude. And believe me, I'm not the only coach that dreamed it, too."
It is not unlike the dream Nolan Richardson held in Charlotte, N.C., a year ago, when his Razorbacks beat Duke for the championship. Their coaching careers have taken parallel courses, winding roads from deep pockets of obscurity to the biggest spotlight in the sport.
Both were high school coaches for a number of years. Richardson went off to a junior college before heading to Tulsa and finally to Fayetteville. Harrick left a high school job in Los Angeles to become an assistant at Utah State and UCLA, then a head coach for nine years at Pepperdine.
But there is one difference.
"He's in the shadow of a ghost, the greatest college basketball coach of all time," said Richardson, referring to the legendary John Wooden.
It is a ghost whose record of 10 championships in the last 12 years of his career made it impossible, until now, for any of those who followed to succeed.
When it became Harrick's turn to try to fill the tightly fitting Old Wooden Shoe, suddenly the perception of him as a coach began change.
Many thought he was going to be another in a list of not-so-great pretenders to the throne. It didn't matter that the Bruins went 66-30 and to the NCAAs his first three years or 28-5 and to the Final Eight the next. There was the first-round loss to Penn State in 1991, the 27-point rout by Indiana in 1993, the first-round loss to Tulsa last season.
"The pressure he's been under has been tremendous," said senior All-American Ed O'Bannon. "He's handled it well. He's always kept his chin up. He's always turned the negatives around and made them positives for the team. That's the sign of a strong coach to me."
But even O'Bannon said that last year's embarrassing defeat to Tulsa not only made the players grow up, but Harrick and his coaching staff as well. And O'Bannon's father, Ed Sr., told a Los Angeles columnist recently: "Harrick has done a much better job this year."
His peers can relate to what Harrick has gone through, but most of them were realists before last night's game: In one of the local papers yesterday, nearly to a man they were rooting for Harrick but predicted that the Razorbacks were going to end UCLA's 18-game winning streak.
"Once you get a reputation in this business, you never lose it," retired Southern Cal coach George Raveling said recently. "And Jim Harrick has had the reputation that he can't coach. It's not right. It's not deserved. If you can't see what he's done this year, you haven't been watching."
Things have quieted some for Harrick in Southern California the past couple of years, particularly this season. When Los Angeles lost its biggest all-sports talk radio station after Harrick's fifth season, the coach lost many of his critics. But many have remained, although Harrick answered them in the most articulate way with last night's victory.
"They build no statues for critics," he said Sunday. "And it really doesn't bother me a bit. I do get tired of the adjectives you use -- beleaguered and under siege and often criticized. I want them eliminated because I want to tell you something: I've lived a vanilla life."
Harrick has not used his team's run to the NCAA championship RTC game as a forum for self-promotion or a way to get back at the media for the manner in which he's been portrayed. He has let his players take center stage, not share it with him.
That Wooden was in attendance last night -- making his first Final Four appearance in 11 years -- was welcomed by Harrick, who maintains a close relationship with the 84-year-old ex-coach. Harrick said he was aware that even his first title wouldn't be enough for some UCLA fans.
"I learned from Coach Wooden that if you listen to too much criticism, it hurts your coaching, and if you listen to too much praise, it hurts your coaching, too," said Harrick, who has a higher winning percentage after seven years at UCLA than even Wooden did. "I'm proud of the tradition, and I'm not scared of the ghosts."