Chris Harriman navigates his way down the home stretch of the college basketball season with a unique blend of experience, perspective and a sometimes alarming amount of coffee.
And the third-year Lobos associate head coach – the lone holdover from the coaching staff from the Craig Neal era who also has assistant coaching stints under Tim Miles and Rick Majerus to draw from – firmly believes the trajectory of the program is pointed toward great things ahead.
But it wasn’t always so certain for the engaging Aussie.
“When I came here from the University of Nebraska, I don’t think I ever would have anticipated experiencing what I have over the past two and half years, I guess you could say,” Harriman said during a lengthy podcast conversation with the Journal last week. “Going through a coaching change, going through all the different things that have occurred here, in some respects, I guess you could say it’s been difficult. In others, it’s been terrific for me because it’s been a great learning experience.”
Learning experiences, of which Harriman is grateful for, have been plenty over the past 10 years, both on and off the court. And all of it has led to his feeling a bit of the role of the veteran on a young coaching staff under first-year Lobos head coach Paul Weir.
Harriman, who signed a three-year contract when he arrived in 2015 that is set to expire at the end of this season, and Weir had a bit of a feeling out process that lasted into the summer before it was clear, at least in Weir’s mind, that Harriman was an asset to the program and should be retained regardless of contract.
“There was a point, sometime over the summer, where he was still feeling out if he wanted to be a part of this and what we were doing, no different than the players, and I was still getting a feel for him and we just came to a good spot where I said let’s do this,” said Weir.
The first-year Lobos coach said Harriman’s ability to engage and communicate was invaluable toward establishing the early foundation of the program.
“He was just really able to bridge a lot of different gaps,” Weir said. “Whether for coaches, or past players and current players, his ability to engage and communicate ideas and concepts has been a big part of what we’ve done.”
Harriman draws every day from his seven years working for Majerus at Saint Louis (four seasons) and Miles at Nebraska (three seasons).
Miles, who Harriman says is “maybe the nicest person I’ve ever been around,” showed an analytical mind that Weir also has, but also stressed the importance of having a life balance outside of the job.
When it comes to the late Majerus, Harriman can’t tell enough stories about the crash course into “a basketball PhD” he received working for one of the sports all-time coaching greats, who also happened to be one of the most demanding.
“He’s the best thing, professionally, that ever happened to me,” Harriman said. “I miss him every day. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about him. I have notes on him. I pull out articles. I have every single practice plan.”
Harriman said he thought he knew a lot about basketball when he landed the job with Majerus.
“I realized I knew nothing,” Harriman said.
Of the lessons learned – from being agonizingly over-prepared, to dropping off late-night film to Majerus’ hotel (he lived in a hotel) to walking alongside a pool with a notepad to jot down thoughts that popped into Majerus’ head while swimming laps at 6 a.m. each morning – Harriman fondly remembers one he had over the course of two dinners at El Pinto in Albuquerque in 2011 when Saint Louis was playing the first in a home-and-home series with the Lobos.
At a dinner the night after the game, as Harriman glowed about the experience in the Pit – a 64-60 UNM victory – Majerus stopped him.
“He told me, ‘Son, if you ever have the chance to come work here, you run here. Because this is one of the greatest jobs with the greatest fan bases and you can always be successful,'” Harriman recalls of Majerus’ advice. “I never forgot that, so when the opportunity came to work here, that was the first thing I thought of.”
But the first couple seasons were tumultuous, to say the least, and attendance was dwindling. On an increasingly consistent basis, people would ask him about how hard the experience was or how tough it was going through the coaching change or seeing fewer and fewer fans at games.
Those are the times Harriman drew from life experiences, not coaching lessons, to gain perspective.
A week after his son, Avery, turned 2 years old in 2009, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Watching his son go through two bone marrow transplants since, about five years total of chemotherapy treatments, and countless visits in and out of doctor’s offices and hospital rooms, has put Harriman in a place today where he sort of laughs at the notion that the coaching life he lives is hard.
“There’s no way he should be alive right now in all honesty had it not been for all the terrific doctors and nurses and support that he’s received,” Harriman said. “He’s the happiest and healthiest he’s been right now in a long, long time. Hasn’t had a treatment in almost two years.”
Avery, who inspired “Avery’s Army” at Nebraska and now has a passion for Legos, inspires Harriman every day.
“I have a daily perspective,” Harriman said. “… Not to make this about myself because it’s not at all, it’s about him. It’s about a lot more people than him. But I’m a better person because of him. I’m a better person because of what he’s been through. I’m a better coach. I’m a better father. I’m hopefully a better friend.”
Tuesday: UNM at Wyoming, 7 p.m., AT&T SportsNet, 770 AM/94.5 FM