A dinner, an expense report, a lie, then a coverup led to the firing of UCLA basketball coach Jim Harrick on Wednesday. Just 19 months ago, he was winning a national championship, but Wednesday afternoon he was accusing his employers of a witch hunt.
“I just feel the punishment is way, way out of line,” he said.
He and school officials held separate news conferences, and although Harrick admitted he was culpable for some unethical behavior, he intimated the UCLA athletic director, Peter Dalis, was out to get him.
“Dalis has been after me for years,” Harrick, 58, said.
“If that was the case,” Dalis said, “why would I have extended his contract last year?”
Steve Lavin - a 32-year-old protege of Purdue’s Gene Keady who was earning only $16,000 two years ago as a UCLA assistant will finish the season as interim coach and will have John Wooden as an intermittent “mentor” at practice. Lavin has all five starters returning from a team that won last year’s Pacific-10 conference title. Dalis said he will conduct a national search for a permanent coach over the next three months.
Larry Brown, now with the Indiana Pacers and a former UCLA coach himself, is one apparent candidate.
At the core of Harrick’s dismissal is a recruiting dinner with an All-American pair of twins, and the question of who sat at the dining table with them. Jason and Jarron Collins - identical twins and high school forwards from North Hollywood, Calif. and a Kansas City guard Earl Watson ate a meal on Oct. 11 with Harrick and five current members of the UCLA team: Jelani McCoy, Bob Myers, Kris Johnson, Cameron Dollar and Charles O’Bannon. But only McCoy, Myers and Johnson were official costs and allowed to be present under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules.
Harrick, according to UCLA officials, then filed an exorbitant expense report that raised a red flag in the athletic department. “It was significantly higher than any expense report we’ve ever processed in my 14 years here; that’s all I’ll say,” Dalis said Wednesday.
On Oct. 15, Dalis and his staff began an inquiry and, after interviewing players and assistant coaches, learned that Harrick had lied on the expense report. According to the school’s chancellor, Charles E. Young, Harrick “falsely identified who had attended the dinner by excluding the two players who were disallowed from being there and substituting the names of two other individuals who were not present.”
But, according to Young, Harrick went on to “exacerbate” the situation. Dalis and his staff asked Harrick for an explanation, and Young said Harrick not only “repeatedly misrepresented significant facts,” but encouraged another member of the basketball program to help with a coverup.
“He wanted that person to agree who he said was at the dinner,” Dalis said. “Coach Harrick just continued to misrepresent himself. If it’d been just one time, then it would’ve been treated differently. But he just continued.”
Dalis said he confronted Harrick for a final time after Tuesday’s practice, and told the coach he had a choice of resigning and earning this season’s $400,000 base salary or be fired without pay for violating the ethics clause in his contract.
Harrick, who signed a five-year contract extension after winning the 1995 national title, chose to be dismissed, and will now sue the school for the last four years of his contract - worth $1.6 million.
“I’m not saying I’m not at fault,” Harrick said. “If it was unethical, I apologize. Sometimes I use poor judgment. But it’s no violation. I just feel the punishment is too much.”
Asked if he indeed lied, Harrick said: “At one time, yes, but I came back and told him it was right. There’s a difference in cheating. Cheating is a planned thing. Something happened, but in my mind, nothing grave. Boy, to call you in after practice and lay it down on you without an explanation, that’s unfair.”
xxxx A FOUL ENDING The career head coaching record of Jim Harrick, who was fired by UCLA on Wednesday:
School Years Record Pepperdine 1979-88 163-97 UCLA 1989-96 191-63 Totals 358-60