Chris Harney’s car has 188,000 miles on it.
He drives that 1993 Toyota Corolla to work every morning to his job in St. Mary’s City, Md., about two hours southeast of Washington, D.C.
Harney comes from a family of Irish immigrants. His Brooklyn-bred father, Raymond, worked for the New York City Public School system for 32 years. A generation before, his grandfather worked as a security guard and his grandmother worked as a hotel attendant.
Here in 2011, there are aspects of Harney’s job that are not unlike the blue-collar work of his father and grandparents.
Some days, he washes clothes, other days he is washing cars or selling cupcakes.
But Harney is not a custodian. He does not work at the local gas station, nor is he a small-time baker.
Chris Harney is the head coach at a blossoming Division-III powerhouse, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a team that has gone 72-15 overall in the past three seasons and made the Division-III Sweet 16 three of the past four years.The clothes he washes are his team’s practice gear and those cleanly scrubbed cars and homemade cupcakes help to raise money for his program.
“You have to wear a lot of hats,” says the two-time Capital Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. “I’m not complaining. I really relish it. I’m like a Border Collie. I always have to be working.”
This is Division-III college basketball.
Trade the Division-I roadtrips in fancy hotels for a night in the Comfort Inn–free continental breakfast and all. There are no multi-million dollar facilities, just a humble, newly renovated gymnasium that finally looks collegiate.
Even on the bench, there is no staff of handsomely paid assistant coaches, player development personnel, or recruiters.
Harney’s staff is composed entirely of volunteers.
That makes this low-budget operation driven mostly by pride and hard work, the sacrifice of “individual” for a shot at collective glory.
“When we recruit, we don’t have that scholarship to offer,” says Harney, speaking to Division-III’s lack of athletic scholarships. “So, instead, we have to sell the experience; the experience of possibly cutting down the nets, being at a close-knit college with a beautiful campus, playing in games where you see your professors and friends in the stands.
“It makes recruiting really different because we don’t have the resources to cast a wide net, like Division-I or II. I’ll tell you, we do it the old-fashioned way. I’ve driven all over to see recruits. I’ve slept in my car. I can tell you every sub on the [local deli] menu because I lived off that for a summer,” he says with a laugh.
Harney may lack tangible assets that come with the constraints of Division-III, but he has a spoil of riches that are inherent to St. Mary’s: a vibrant campus that sits alongside the Chesapeake Bay waterfront, with small class sizes and an engaged student body, all of which he uses as selling points.
“It’s different because we have to focus and identify possible recruits, based on both skill level and attitude,” he says. “I don’t always like putting it this way, but it’s like picking a horse at The Derby. Once you commit to that guy, you hope he comes to your program.”
And with that philosophy, Harney has gone from having a 9-16 team in his first season with the Seahawks to having a 25-6, Elite 8 team in 2010-2011. Just as he and his coaching staff have built the program through a dedication of their time, his players have as well.
“There’s definitely more sacrifice at this level,” says 6-5 senior forward Mikey Fitzpatrick, who was named a team captain for this upcoming season. “We’re students first and my primary focus is to graduate. But then, you’re paying to play in D-III. You have to pay tuition and you sacrifice your Christmas break and weekend is probably full.”
Fitzpatrick has started on and off for the Seahawks for three seasons and is majoring in Human Studies with hopes of being a schoolteacher. He was recently accepted to the St. Mary’s graduate program and will be a graduate assistant for Coach Harney next season.
“Our top assistant coach’s wife just had a baby,” he continues. “You really appreciate the time they spend away from their family. They’re paying their own dues through the process and you can definitely appreciate it.”
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I will prepare and some day my chance will come.”
Chris Harney has prepared, as the 188,000 miles on his car and the hours spent in the college’s laundry room could attest to, and, while at the Final Four in Houston this past Spring, his chance finally came.
While at the Final Four with part-time employer The Hoop Group, an organization well-woven into the basketball community as organizers of camps and AAU tournaments, Harney had a chance run-in that would change the course of his team’s 2011-2012 season.
“There is always a lot of networking that goes on down there,” Harney begins the story, which is quickly becoming St. Mary’s folklore. “Rob Engemann, who runs tournaments for Hoop Group, called me up and said I should come out to a restaurant and get something to eat.”
As the story goes, St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin was friends with the restaurant’s owner and was hanging out in the restaurant that night. Harney struck up a conversation with the owner, who soon introduced him to Lavin.
“Coach Lavin and I get to talking, and the friend jokingly goes, ‘You guys should play each other in an exhibition,’” Harney recounts. “At that point, both of their exhibitions were filled, so he said he’d give me a call if something changed.”
“The way I took it, it was kind of a ‘We’ll call you, don’t call us’ kind of thing,” Harney laughs.
A month had passed and Harney says he had almost completely forgotten about the possible arrangement. Then he got a phone call.
“I was in my office around four o’clock one day and the phone rang,” says Harney. “I pick it up and I hear, ‘Hey Chris, it’s Steve Lavin. I was wondering if you still wanted to do that game.’ I was shocked.”
Lavin, who played Division-II college basketball at San Franscisco State before transferring to Division-III Chapman, put the plan into motion and the Red Storm are set to play St. Mary’s on November 1st at Carnesecca Arena in Queens.
““I pick it up and I hear, ‘Hey Chris, it’s Steve Lavin. I was wondering if you still wanted to do that game.’ I was shocked.” -Chris Harney
“It says a lot about him. In a time of big names and big salaries, most guys wouldn’t have remembered to call. It speaks volumes about him,” says Harney.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us,” says Fitzpatrick. “We try to take it seriously. It’s a privilege to play a team in the Big East. We don’t want to take it lightly.”
St. John’s defeated Division II C.W. Post in their first exhibition game, 110-80, on Tuesday night, and the coaching staff says they will be approaching this game the same way.
“I think [St. Mary’s] will come in and test their talents against a D-I team,” said St. John’s assistant coach Tony Chiles. “We’ve scouted as much as we could have. They’re going to come in and play us tough.”
But, for the St. Mary’s Seahawks, this trip to New York isn’t just about playing basketball. Harney has made it a point that this will be about an overall experience for his team, both on the court and off.
The team plans to stay two days and tour Manhattan, including Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination,” Harney says. “We’re making the trip to have them experience New York. A lot of our guys are from Baltimore, so they’re used to the city, but, I mean, New York is New York. There’s really no other city like it.”
St. Mary’s played an exhibition against The Citadel last season, but Harney sees this as an even bigger stage, and rightfully so.
“We’ll be David versus Goliath, no doubt about that. But this is great, even outside the game. It creates a buzz–a buzz in recruiting, a buzz for St. Mary’s, and, really, a buzz for Division-III, as a whole. We just want to go up there and play well.”
St. Mary’s also looks to these games to earn extra money for the program, and St. John’s will be paying the Seahawks to make the trip to Queens, as is standard practice with preseason exhibitions.
“We’ve only been a four-year institution since 1970, so our oldest alumni are just now reaching retirement,” says Harney. “We don’t have a ‘Daddy Warbucks’ who can cut us a big check and fundraising is so tough during the year. These games help and we’re really grateful for that.”
The Seahawks may not be used to the opulence that high-major Division-I basketball carries with it, but they more than make due with what they have.
Harney and St. Mary’s have built a foundation for a successful future at the Division-III level, all while scrapping funds together like an old-school handyman, willing to do any job, so well as it can help pay the bills.
“We make it work,” says Harney. “It’s champagne tastes on a seltzer water budget.”