How an accomplished college hoops coach landed at a tiny private school in rural Virginia

[READ FEATURE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

THE PLAINS, Va. — Butterflies surge through the old coach’s 6-foot-5 frame as he ducks into Activities Bus No. 2, a white, 14-passenger GMC van idling at the top of a steep and winding road. His teenage players file in giggling, their heads buried in their phones, their minds too preoccupied to dwell on the game three hours away.

At last, Joe Harrington wraps his right hand around the gear shift and his left around the steering wheel, the red-and-gold marker of an ACC championship reflecting from his ring finger onto the windshield. At Maryland he used to board a charter bus that cruised to the airport with a police escort in tow. At Wakefield School, Harrington drives the bus.

A former Boston Celtics draft pick after his playing days with the Terrapins, Harrington crisscrossed the country as a head coach at four Division I schools and as an assistant for the Toronto Raptors. He mentored the likes of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chauncey Billups. He chased rebounds as an 11-year-old Stephen Curry — the son of former Raptor Dell Curry — heaved three-pointers before games at Air Canada Centre.

This season Harrington, 71, is immersed in the unfamiliar realm of high school basketball. At 13-2, his Wakefield Fighting Owls have matched the best start in school history. And their sophomore-laden roster is doing it on a remote, 63-acre campus 60 miles west of where Harrington’s career took flight as the right-hand man for Lefty Driesell, the legendary former Maryland coach.

“We actually don’t know how he came here,” Wakefield senior forward Colby Weeks said. “That’s somewhat of a mystery to us.”

A winding road to The Plains

How Harrington got his coaching start in College Park four decades ago and how he ended up at Wakefield last fall owes largely to one man: Tom McMillen. After surpassing Wilt Chamberlain on Pennsylvania’s all-time scoring list, McMillen was the country’s No. 1 high school hoops prospect in 1970. It was the year after Driesell had boldly declared he would make Maryland “the UCLA of the East” at his introductory news conference. What better way to follow through on his promise than to sign a 6-foot-11 phenom some scouts compared to Lew Alcindor?

Harrington, who roomed with Tom’s older brother, Jay, during his playing days at Maryland, was close to the McMillen family, so Driesell hired Harrington as an assistant coach to help him recruit the sought-after big man. McMillen ended up spurning North Carolina for Maryland before embarking on an 11-year NBA career, while Harrington remained on Driesell’s staff for the next nine years. He went on to be the head coach at Hofstra, George Mason, Long Beach State and Colorado.

McMillen impacted Harrington’s life again last January. After spending 2½ years in Myrtle Beach, S.C., running basketball camps, Harrington dropped everything to move to Northern Virginia and reconnect with his 16-year-old daughter, Ava, after being granted full custody from a divorce. McMillen, who resides primarily in D.C., offered his farm house in Fauquier County as a place to stay, then suggested Harrington coach basketball at the private school nine miles down the road.

Now Harrington rises at 6:30 a.m. every weekday to feed McMillen’s flock of white peacocks, guinea fowl, roosters and chickens, not to mention the six dogs. He drives his daughter to school at 7:30 and spends the rest of the day mostly obsessing over his varsity team at Wakefield, a 303-student college-preparatory school geared more toward a liberal arts education than athletics. Ava transferred there as a sophomore last fall, and her father occasionally drops in to substitute teach.

“I just did it because I think I can make a difference,” Harrington said. “I don’t want to waste where I’ve been, what I’ve done and who I am.”

At Wakefield, Harrington wants to ingrain toughness in his players. Sometimes he makes them carry bricks in practice to encourage them to keep their hands up on defense, a trick he learned from Rick Barnes when Barnes, now the coach at Tennessee, was one of his assistants at GMU. He introduced them to charging drills and preached the importance of sacrificing your body on both ends. Against Fresta Valley Christian on Jan. 10, three Wakefield players elicited a charging call when they simultaneously toppled backward as an opponent barreled into the lane. The Wakefield bench erupted.

These are the things Harrington yaks about during his near-daily phone conversations with Driesell, who’s long retired in Virginia Beach. Sometimes Harrington gets so excited that Driesell thinks his protege just won a national championship.

“I say, ‘Joe, don’t work them too hard now. These ain’t professionals,’ ” Driesell said. “I have to calm him down a little bit.”

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‘Joe’s not the norm’

Harrington’s insatiable work ethic found nourishment on the recruiting trail at Maryland. He made 37 trips to Brooklyn in pursuit of top-rated prospect Albert King, whom he eventually swayed to College Park with a 50-page loose-leaf notebook he made out of various clippings forecasting the blue-chipper’s future stardom in the Washington area. His ventures into the Petersburg, Va., projects helped persuade Moses Malone to sign with the Terrapins before the future Hall of Famer reversed course to jump straight to the pros. And he totaled then-athletic director Jim Kehoe’s courtesy car on a highway outside Columbus, Ohio, after he fell asleep and rammed into a tractor trailer, one day into what was supposed to be a month-long recruiting trip.

“He’s still got scars on his head from it,” Driesell said.

Driesell’s intensity rubbed off on Harrington. At Long Beach State, where he coached from 1987 to 1990, Harrington once racked up four technical fouls in a two-game span, prompting a public promise to donate $1,000 to charity if he drew another.

One player dubbed Harrington “Crazy Joe” during his ensuing six-year gig at Colorado. Former N.C. State standout Dereck Whittenburg, an assistant under Harrington at George Mason, Long Beach State and Colorado, recalls his old mentor booting basketballs into the practice-gym rafters when the mood struck him, but one of Driesell’s most conspicuous antics took hold of Harrington in every game: the foot stomp.

“He used to stomp so hard I thought he was going to break his foot,” Whittenburg said.

Yet Harrington’s magnetism around players and coaches relates little to the volatility of his younger years. Former Raptors coach Butch Carter, who was an assistant under Harrington at Long Beach State, remembers the dirt seeping through living room floorboards during a 1989 recruiting visit to Bryon Russell in Riverside, Calif. The dilapidated neighborhood scared even Carter, himself a product of the projects, but Harrington was utterly undeterred, accepting cake from Russell’s mother and demonstrating something the prospect didn’t expect: that he cared.

Russell committed to Long Beach State shortly thereafter, a steppingstone to a successful 13-year NBA career.

Seth Greenberg, another apple from the Harrington coaching tree at Long Beach State, remembers the day his first daughter, Paige, was born 28 years ago. The Greenbergs’ hospital-room door burst open at 6 a.m. to reveal their first visitor outside the family: It was Joe Harrington.

No one in Harrington’s widespread coaching fraternity was surprised to learn that their old friend had since jumped from the NBA to high school ball.

“It’s not the norm,” Greenberg said, “but Joe’s not the norm.”

Back in The Plains earlier this month, Harrington parked the bus, waved goodbye to his players and ambled toward his sanctuary in the darkness. He unlocked the door and strolled through Wakefield’s upper gym (max occupancy 456), passing five rows of bleachers before settling into a cramped office by the water fountain.

It was getting late, and Harrington’s team had just won its fourth straight road game — already doubling last season’s win total — but none of that mattered. He pulled out his notebook and started scribbling furiously. He had some tinkering to do. He wasn’t going anywhere.

“I’m there for them,” Harrington said. “It’s not just this year. It’s next year and the year after and down the road.”

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