22 Mar 2016 Ready to retire: Harris reflects on life, basketball and retirement
by Mark Oliver
After 31 years, long-time high school basketball coach Len Harris is calling it a career.
“This is all I’ve ever done,” Harris said. “I started playing basketball when I was 6 years old. I played at Wonderview for nine years and devoted two years each to Central Baptist College and Arkansas Tech University before picking up the whistle and beginning my coaching career. I’m 56 now, which means that I’ve been involved in the game for 50 years. It’s time to step away and do other things. It has been a wild run — that’s the only way to describe it.”
Growing up on his family’s farm, Harris’ upbringing molded him into the player, coach and mentor he has become today.
“Hard work translated into everything we did as a family,” Harris said. “From working in the poultry houses or in the fields with the cows to building fences — all of these things made it easy to go to the gym and be a basketball player and put in the long hours required to be a coach. My parents instilled a strict work ethic in me that I am proud to say drives me to this day. Any success I’ve ever had in any area of my life goes back to those roots.”
In addition to hard work on the farm, basketball was also very important among the kids in the Harris household.
“I come from a family of basketball athletes,” Harris said. “My brothers Jeff, Steve and Greg, and my little sister, Lisa, gave me my competitive spirit that has served me well throughout my coaching career. They were all hard workers, great players and competitive people and helped me immensely along the way. I’ve tried to translate that to my players. If you have a strong work ethic and are dedicated to what you do and try to be the best that you can be, then you’ll be successful.”
Harris recalls his biggest basketball inspirations as those who helped him learn to love the game — and ultimately inspired him to begin coaching.
“I hold my high school and college coaches in high regard,” Harris said. “Bruce Davenport, Wesley White, Said Thomas and John Widner were men of high integrity and taught me how to love, appreciate and play the game. They appreciated the hard work that went in to being a good player. I felt like I had the same viewpoint about the game as they did and I wanted to pay that forward. For me, coaching was an easy career choice because of the feelings I had about those men who helped me grow up through my career as a player. I strived to take the best parts of each of those men and shape my career.”
Since picking up the whistle in 1986, Harris’ career has spanned many schools throughout Arkansas — from Wonderview to Clarksville, Valley Springs, Atkins, Perryville, Dover and Nemo Vista.
“I’ve worked for a lot of great people and made a lot of great friends throughout this journey,” Harris said. “I treasure the relationships and respect I have for my fellow coaches, teachers, friends and administrators that I have competed with and worked with through the years.”
Over the years, some of Harris’ fondest coaching memories were the competitive rivalries his teams have endured.
“I will always remember the games we played against our rival schools when I was coaching at Wonderview,” Harris said. “Playing against teams like St. Joseph, Guy-Perkins and Nemo Vista — or even when I coached at Nemo Vista and we would face off against Wonderview — those were always big moments for me. State tournament games were always a lot of fun, too.”
Harris describes the loss of his mother as the most difficult moment of his career.
“My mom was the hardest-working, most selfless person I have ever known,” Harris said. “Losing her was earth-shattering. It shook my whole family to the core and made us all question where we were in our lives, including myself. Through the support of our family, however, we grew closer and got through it together.”
As his years on the court grew, Harris knew that he would have to eventually say farewell to the game that has defined his life and career.
“Some of the old coaches whom I had met years ago told me that I would know when it’s time to put up the whistle and the tennis shoes and transition from being a coach to a fan,” Harris said. “They were right. I have four beautiful grandchildren — Alyssa, Levi, Hailey and Cora — who are all just beginning their journey as players and athletes and I want to spend more time supporting and helping them as much as I can. I have felt this coming for several years and I believe that the timing was finally right for me and my family.”
As his final season neared its finish, Harris saw his final game as one last opportunity to prepare a group of young men for their future.
“I told my seniors that one day the cheering stops for you as a player,” Harris said. “It happens to everyone. When they finally turn out the lights on the field or in the gym, you want people to cheer you as a human being. You want to know that you have a hand in helping these people become better people. Our team this year was young and inexperienced, but it was also as fun of a group of kids as I’ve had in recent memory. They gave me everything they had. I couldn’t have picked a better group of kids to go out with than these kids.”
Though Harris never tasted the victory of a state championship, the coach says that what he and his players accomplished on and off the court was far greater than any trophy.
“Although it would have been nice to add a state championship to my resume, I feel like I’ve been successful on a higher level in terms of teaching kids things that they can carry with them through life,” Harris said. “The majority of the players I’ve coached have turned out to be successful, productive people. I’ve had 14 different kids go on to play college basketball in the last 30 years or so. They were able to take some of their dedication that they gave to me on the court and translated it into paid college education and I feel fantastic about that.”
What’s next for the retired coach? A simpler life with his family.
“My family deserves for me to provide them with a little less stress,” Harris said. “People don’t understand how much time is invested into coaching.
“They see the success, the wins, the awards and the championships, but they don’t see the time away from your family. They don’t see the grind that they have to go through in order for you to do this. They celebrate your victories, but they also feel your losses, and it’s stressful on everyone. My family has also developed two successful business ventures and we want to put more time into them.”
As he finally puts his whistle on the shelf, Harris remains thankful for those who joined him on his basketball journey.
“I will forever be indebted to my former players for their dedication and effort through the years,” Harris said. “My wife, Vicki, and my two daughters, Heather and Amy, have supported me every step of the way. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my career is this — if you find a coach’s wife and family, you will find the definition of sacrifice.”