Class of ’53 | It’s not easy to get your mind around just how much basketball knowledge Dick Harter Ed’53 has absorbed—and imparted—over the years. He has been around the game for more than six decades: as a high-school standout and a solid player at Penn; as a highly successful coach at Penn, the University of Oregon, Penn State, and Rider; and, for the past 26 years, in the NBA, where his résumé includes stints as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and as assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Portland Trailblazers, Boston Celtics, and Indiana Pacers.
Today the 78-year-old Harter is in his third act with the Pacers—one of whose players, guard Jarrett Jack, was born the same year (1983) that Harter made his NBA debut. The fact that Harter and Jack can bridge several generations is a testimony to the staying power of one of the top basketball minds in Penn’s history.
“He doesn’t let you take any nights off,” notes Jack, adding that Harter’s expertise on defense transcends age barriers.
Harter grew up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and was enamored of Penn at an early age. A three-time varsity player for the Quakers, he played under Jack McCloskey Ed’48 GEd’52—“an excellent basketball coach, one of the best I have worked with, and that includes Chuck Daly to Larry Bird to Jack Ramsey to Pat Riley,” says Harter—whose own coaching has earned him membership in the Big 5 Hall of Fame, the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame, and the University of Oregon Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Penn was a great education and it was great to be in a city environment,” says Harter, whose frequent smile suggests a deep-rooted positive nature. “You had it all. If I had to do it again I would.”
In the three seasons Harter played (freshmen were not eligible in those days), the Quakers compiled a 62-21 record, going 22-5 his senior season and winning the Eastern Intercollegiate League championship. “We had a good team every year I was at Penn,” he recalls. “I was the sixth or seventh man. My senior year we had the Player of the Year in Ernie Beck” W’53.
After a two-year stint
coaching at Germantown Academy in Philadelphia, Harter returned to Penn as an assistant basketball coach for seven seasons, leaving in 1965 to take the head-coaching position at Rider.
“I was ready to be a head coach,” Harter recalls. “I thought I would be at Rider forever.”
But after one season at Rider, Harter came back to Penn to replace McCloskey, who had taken the head-coaching position at Wake Forest.
While Harter’s collegiate coaching record is an impressive 296-195, more important for most Gazette readers is the 88-44 record his five Penn teams compiled—and the pair of Ivy League championships and NCAA appearances they earned. The Quakers won just 25 games in his first two seasons, but in 1969-70 the team went 25-2, and the year after that went undefeated in the regular season, advancing to the NCAA tournament regional title game before losing to Villanova.
That 1970-71 Penn team, which went 28-1 overall, featured a backcourt of Steve Bilsky W’71 and Dave Wohl C’71 [“Alumni Profiles,” Mar|Apr 2007], not to mention future NBA stalwart David “Corky” Calhoun W’72, Bob Morse C’72, Jim Wolf W’71, and a bench that was known as the “Earthquakers.”
“I am positive that was the best team that ever played in the Ivy League,” says Harter.
Bilsky, now Penn’s athletic director, describes Harter as a “classic CEO-type coach,” adding: “He set the tone and expectations. He imbedded in me and every player how important every possession of every game was.”
Harter left Penn after that season to take the head coaching job at the University of Oregon, where he continued to make a name for himself at the national level for the next seven seasons. In his second season at Oregon his team beat Wichita State, whose head coach said that Harter’s team “played like Kamikaze pilots” on defense.
After Oregon, Harter moved to Penn State, where his teams compiled a 79-61 record over the next five years. Chuck Daly, who had succeeded Harter as head coach at Penn before moving to the NBA, tapped him to join the Detroit Pistons in 1983.
“Chuck got me into the NBA, and that has lasted 25 years,” says Harter, who quickly earned a reputation as a defensive guru. He says the style of play in the NBA has changed drastically since he came into the league, adding that the crackdown on hand checks and the use of zone defenses has made the NBA more of a “cut and drive” league.
Though one might think that the biggest drawback to NBA coaching for a 78-year-old married man is the late-night travel, Harter says that’s not the case. What’s really hard, he says, is “losing—the same as it was my first year coaching back in high school.”
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Basketball guru Dick Harter Ed’53