Dick Harter, former Penn, NBA coach, dies at 81

Posted: March 13, 2012

90-47.

It's the most famous score in Big Five history.

And for 41 years Penn's lopsided loss to Villanova on the doorstep of 1971's Final Four haunted Dick Harter.

"It seared him," said Alan Cotler, a reserve guard on Mr. Harter's '71 Penn team. "I don't think he ever, ever forgot it."

Mr. Harter, the Pottstown native who became one of the NBA's most well-traveled and respected assistants, died Monday at 81. The cause of death was cancer, said Penn athletic director Steve Bilsky, a cocaptain on that '71 team. Mr. Harter died at a hospital at Hilton Head, S.C., where he had a residence.

Mr. Harter's last two Penn teams went 28-0 in the Ivy League, 8-0 in the Big Five and won 51 of 52 regular-season games. He initiated a basketball renaissance there that, eight years after his departure, would culminate in the school's only Final Four appearance.

But that legacy will forever be linked to his last game at Penn, the stunning 43-point loss on March 20, 1971. Nearly a decade later, the repercussions and the wounds were still being felt.

In 1974, when he was Oregon's coach, Mr. Harter gleefully rolled up the score against Villanova in a 116-77 Ducks rout. Six years later, at Penn State by then, he had to endure a 98-53 loss to a vengeful Villanova.

Mr. Harter was born and raised in Pottstown. A 1953 Penn graduate, he played there for future Detroit Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey.

A born leader with a fiery and intense personality, Mr. Harter, before beginning his coaching career at Germantown Academy, served in the Marines.

"And that," said Bilsky, "sums up his approach to coaching."

He returned to his alma mater as McCloskey's assistant in 1958, then, in 1965, got his first head-coaching position, at Rider.

"I thought I would be at Rider forever," Mr. Harter told the Gazette, Penn's alumni magazine, in 2009.

But when McCloskey left a season later for Wake Forest, his former pupil replaced him as Penn coach. Mr. Harter hired an ambitious 27-year-old named Digger Phelps as his freshman coach. Phelps said he wanted to broaden Penn's recruiting base, and Mr. Harter allowed him to do so.

"You just got a different feeling from Harter and Phelps as to what they wanted to do," Jim Wolf, an Ohio high school all-American who was the '71 team's center, told the Gazette. "You felt that they were really going to do this."

Mr. Harter's first three Penn teams went 11-14, 9-17, and 15-10 before the talent he and Phelps had landed took hold. The 1969-70 Quakers were 25-1 before an NCAA tournament loss to Calvin Murphy's Niagara.

With a veteran unit returning in '71 - Bilsky, Wolf, Dave Wohl, Corky Calhoun, and Bobby Morse - Mr. Harter told them he expected big things.

"First day of practice he gathers us all and says our mission is to go to Houston [site of that season's Final Four] and win the NCAA title," said Cotler, a Philadelphia attorney.

Penn nearly did, winning all 26 regular-season games and climbing to No. 3 in the nation. The Quakers defeated Duquesne in the NCAA tournament's first round, then a very good South Carolina team. That set up an East Regional Final with Villanova in Raleigh, N.C.

Mr. Harter's teams had beaten Jack Kraft's Wildcats three straight times, including a 78-70 win earlier that season.

"Maybe they thought we hadn't been gracious winners," said Bilsky.

Mr. Harter's Quakers were so confident that airline tickets to Houston had been purchased.

But the Wildcats, with four future NBA draft picks in Howard Porter, Tom Inglesby, Chris Ford, and Hank Siemiontkowski jumped off to a quick start and kept their foot on the accelerator.

"There's just no way to explain or understand that game," said Cotler, though his coach believed his team's inexperience with defeat that season might have played a part.

When Mr. Harter cleared his bench with eight minutes left, Kraft didn't reciprocate. An already galling defeat turned embarrassing. Afterward, Mr. Harter heaved the regional runner-up trophy against a locker-room wall and vowed revenge.

"The last thing he said to us before he left for Oregon," Bilsky recalled, "was, 'Somehow, some way, I'll get back at those guys.' "

His chance came two years later, on Dec. 23, 1973, when Villanova came to Eugene.

Characteristically, Mr. Harter had built a team there that played so relentlessly they were called the Kamikaze Kids. Kraft was gone from Villanova and in his place was first-year coach Rollie Massimino.

Oregon poured it on, pressing throughout, playing its starters to the bitter end. Driving home after the 39-point victory, Mr. Harter recalled he "stopped the car and laughed for 20 minutes."

The cycle continued seven years later when Mr. Harter brought his Penn State team to Villanova. This time it was the Wildcats coach's turn to run it up and gloat.

Late in the Wildcats' 98-53 romp, Massimino punctuated a Stewart Granger dunk by leaping off the bench and pumping a fist.

Mr. Harter compiled a 295-196 record in college before moving on to the NBA. In 1½ seasons as the expansion Charlotte Hornets' coach, his overmatched teams lost 90 of 118 games. A defensive specialist, he became a much sought-after assistant for six NBA teams, including the 76ers, Pat Riley's Knicks, the champion Pistons of Chuck Daly (his Penn successor), and Larry Bird's Pacers.

Mr. Harter was remembered by Sixers coach Doug Collins: "A very, very very well-respected guy. A lifer in the game. He was a guy who was always his happiest when he was in a gym coaching."

Though Mr. Harter would never acknowledge any satisfaction, that life-altering '71 loss was later erased. The NCAA punished Villanova and vacated its records after it was discovered Porter had signed with an agent prematurely.

But it didn't change the memories.

"Even now," said Bilsky, "someone asks me about that game every day."

When Penn's Gazette published an article on Mr. Harter's '71 team 40 years later, it prompted a letter from an alum in Connecticut.

"Fast-forward to 1989 and a job interview at a large company in NYC," wrote Richard Freeman. "The senior executive [a Villanova grad he would learn] at the last stop on my interview day looked at my resumé, looked at me, and his first words were, '90-47.' "


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|