A moment of silence was observed Wednesday night at the court which bears Jack Friel’s name.
The man who took Washington State University to within one victory of an NCAA basketball championship died Tuesday in Pullman after being hospitalized for pneumonia.
John Bryan Friel - the winningest basketball coach in Cougars history - was 97.
Cougars games - including Wednesday’s meeting with Montana - have been played on Friel Court since 1977, when the floor in Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum was named in his honor. But Friel’s imprint on the game at WSU goes back to 1919, when he first enrolled at the school - later to become captain of the basketball team and an all-conference player.
He returned to campus in 1928 as head basketball coach, fresh from winning a state championship at North Central High School in Spokane.
Thirty seasons and 494 victories later, he retired - at the time, as the seventh-winningest coach in NCAA Division I history. He’s still 41st on that list.
The high point of those three decades came in 1941, when the Cougars went 26-6 and reached the championship game of the NCAA tournament before falling to Wisconsin 39-34.
But the hallmark of the Friel era was a mix of everyday values - dignity, consistency, a peppery competitiveness, innovation.
“We had a great coach,” said Vern Butts, one of the ‘41 Cougs, for a retrospective four years ago, “and I know former players always say that kind of thing. It’s just that if we had a tough game the first night (of a weekend series), Jack always had an answer for the next night.”
Aside from his players and his family, no one had a better window on Friel than the coach who succeeded him, Marv Harshman - especially since the two shared an office after Friel’s retirement, when he remained on the faculty as a professor of physical education.
“That could have been an uncomfortable situation,” Harshman recalled. “Jack made sure it wasn’t.
“He was one of the really great teachers of the game, one of the innovators. He was such a gentleman, but he had a real cord of steel running through him.”
And the graciousness he showed toward Harshman continued when the Cougars program segued into the George Raveling era.
“From the day I arrived at WSU to the day I left, Jack was a positive encouragement to me,” said Raveling. “That was especially true in my early years when we were trying to establish our program. He was a gentleman in a time in history when gentlemen were becoming more and more rare.”
By that time, Friel had already wrapped up a “second career.” He served as the first commissioner of the Big Sky Conference from 1963-71, and as the Northwest observer of officials for the Pacific-10 Conference.
Friel was born and attended schools in Waterville before military service took him to France during World War I. He returned and enrolled at Washington State College and earned six varsity letters - making the All-Pacific Coast Conference basketball team as a forward in 1922 and going 15-1 in 18 starts as a pitcher on the baseball team from 1921-23.
High school coaching jobs at Colville and North Central followed before he returned to Pullman.
Friel’s first Cougar team went 9-14, but Washington State didn’t have another losing season for 14 years - and then not another for eight more. His teams won three Northern Division championships during that stretch.
Jud Heathcote, who went on to win an NCAA championship while coaching at Michigan State, played for Friel during that run.
“He had a knack, as Marv did, of maybe getting more out of his talent,” said Heathcote, “because sometimes in Pullman, Wash., you’re not on a level playing field.”
He also left his mark on the game.
He’s credited as being the force behind the implementation of the one-and-one foul shot - a rule he based on heavily researched formulas.
And he was a champion of “two-platoon basketball” - often subbing out his entire starting five for a 4- or 5-minute stretch each half to keep them fresh for what Friel called the “race-horse game” that was evolving at the time.
“We finally forced every other team in the Northern Division to do it,” Friel recalled 10 years ago. “Even Johnny Wooden did it.”
His innovations and coaching record (494-377) helped grease his entry into several halls of fame - Helms Basketball, Inland Empire, WSU and State of Washington.
Friel is survived by his wife, Catherine; his son, Wallis, a Whitman County Superior Court judge, and a daughter, Janette, a veterinarian in Atlanta.
Memorial services are pending.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COACHING LEGEND Jack Friel’s record as men’s basketball coach at Washington State University: Yrs. Record Pct. (1929-58) 495-377 .568
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