The Hot Corner: Harriman was the hero Bates football needed

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Winning percentage doesn’t always tell the whole story.

I know that’s contrary to the sporting world’s economy. Players are evaluated through results-oriented goggles, and coaches are hired to be fired if they don’t perform up to the expectations of the most vocal and influential in the fan base.

Try living in the belly of the beast that is Southeastern Conference football if you require specific examples. The coaching offices are equipped with revolving doors because Alabama and Nick Saban have wrecked the curve. Even though everybody but the SEC’s absolute cellar dwellers go to a bowl, half the head coaching jobs in the league turn over any given December.

People living inside that Thunderdome surely would be shocked at the fuss being made of Mark Harriman’s retirement after two decades at Bates College.

Bates won 46 games and lost 115 during his tenure. That’s a .286 clip, which is unlikely as a batting average even to get you into the Baseball Hall of Fame unless you bashed 500 or more home runs. Certainly it’s a not-for-long success rate for a leader of men in the pressure-packed environment we’ve created for college (and high school) athletics these days.

But the New England Small College Athletic Conference and Bates, its second most northeasterly outpost, reside far from “normal.” That NCAA Division III league is one of the last remaining bastions in which players’ success in the classroom and the impact of a coach’s character and positive influence still matter.

The Bobcats will miss the man who carved out those deceptive numbers on the sometimes-cruel scoreboard, but they will benefit from the culture and sense of pride he developed for the next 20 years and beyond.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Harriman and his generation of players probably saved Bates football. If the program wasn’t dead when he arrived on the scene, it was on a respirator. If the Bobcats weren’t a certifiable laughingstock, at least they were a punchline.

Bates’ 37-game losing streak over a five-year period from 1991 to ’95, one that finally died only because neighbor and rival Bowdoin sank to a similar level of ineptitude, was documented in a feature by no less a publication than Sports Illustrated. Not many years later, an unscientific ESPN reader poll ranked the Bobcats the sixth-worst college football program in America, regardless of division.

In the six seasons before Westbrook native Harriman was plucked from his post as Harvard’s defensive coordinator to save the day, Bates played 48 games, a number kept mercifully low by NESCAC’s academics-first policies of starting the season in late September and eschewing postseason play.

It won two. T-W-O. And his mix of homegrown and Ivy League credentials aside, there was no reason to expect that Harriman could make chicken salad out of, ahem, meat by-products.

Winning in this area against the NESCAC’s heavy hitters from Massachusetts and Connecticut meant competing against athletes who probably could have walked on at Ivy or Patriot League programs and held their own. All he had to offer prospective recruits at the time were a complete lack of recent success, a grass field surrounded by ramshackle bleachers, and a landlocked campus inside a beleaguered city that was three hours from the supposed glamour of Boston.

Slowly but surely, however, Harriman pushed the correct buttons. He molded the elements that were within his control.

When choosing his staff, Harriman wisely surrounded himself with other fertile football minds from the talented pool of Maine high school coaches, most notably Chris Kempton of Winthrop and Lewiston’s own Skip Capone.

Rather than be a figurehead who delegated authority, Harriman shrewdly changed his own job description every few years, putting himself in charge of a different position group. It was an easy way to sharpen his understanding of the game and of his team.

Harriman also helped overcome his team’s athletic liabilities through the use of misdirection on offense and aggression on defense. His teams were masterful at shortening games by forcing turnovers, then bleeding the clock with long, drawn-out drives.

That stability and restored relevance absolutely played a role in the success of a fundraising drive that hit the top of the thermometer in no time, giving Garcelon Field a makeover of metal bleachers and artificial turf it had needed for generations.

A program that hadn’t known a winning season since Christopher Cross’ last No. 1 hit finally celebrated one in 2012. Bates piggybacked that with two more .500 campaigns. It started owning teams such as Tufts and Williams, which it hadn’t defeated in many presidential administrations, and hanging tough with Trinity and Amherst, who were accustomed to delivering first-quarter knockouts.

Oh, and the CBB title? The unofficial state championship that trumps all? Bates shared or won it outright in Harriman’s final seven autumns at the helm.

I promise you all that seemed seven million light years away when Harriman accepted this impossible job. He approached it with humor, humility and ingenuity, and he made it happen.

The guy who takes over the Bates football office will have his work cut out for him. That will never change for myriad reasons.

But that person will have a fighting chance. That’s a squeaky-new concept along College Street and Central Avenue, and it is forever changed thanks to Mark Harriman.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Stay in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.

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