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Moving from player to coach

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By Scott Johnson
Herald Writer
Published:
Long before he became a Hall-of-Fame basketball coach, Lake Stevens native Marv Harshman was a heck of a player. Football player, that is.
Harshman was a gridiron star for Pacific Lutheran College in the late 1930s and 1940s, opening so many eyes that he eventually got drafted by the NFL's Chicago Cardinals.
That Harshman went on to become a Hall-of-Fame coach in another sport is not as surprising as the fact that he went on to coach at all.
The long-standing axiom is that superstar athletes rarely make good coaches. Harshman, who is in the PLU Hall of Fame as an athlete and the National Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, is one of the few who have proven that it's possible to do both.
"I always thought, from the eighth grade on, that I was going to be a coach," the 90-year-old Harshman said earlier this summer.
A new generation of successful athletes from Snohomish County is trying to follow in Harshman's footsteps.
Former Olympian Brett McClure is now the assistant gymnastics coach at the Air Force Academy. Former Snohomish High school and Stanford University basketball star Milena Flores traded in her WNBA uniform for a clipboard as Princeton's top assistant.
Women's hockey star and Snohomish native Brooke Whitney is head coach at the Lawrence Academy in Groten, Mass., and former Major League Soccer star Chris Henderson spent a year as an assistant with the Kansas City Wizards before moving into the front office of Seattle's new MLS team earlier this year.
"You learn pretty quick that just because you're a good player, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a good coach," said Henderson, a Cascade High graduate who now serves as technical director of the Sounders FC. "And vice versa. You can be an average player and be a great coach."
The latter happens more than the former. Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was a backup quarterback in college. Former Everett Silvertips coach Kevin Constantine played just six games of college hockey before he went into coaching.
For every Larry Bird, Wayne Gretzky and Lenny Wilkens, there are dozens of coaches who never had much success as players.
"Sometimes the hard thing is to give someone a feel for the game," Flores said of the difficulties in making the transition. "You can demonstrate something, but getting someone to actually comprehend it can be difficult.
"But that's the challenge. As a coach, you get into it for the challenge."
For some, the transition is easier than for others. Flores, a Snohomish High School graduate who turned 30 in October, said that her playing position helped prepare her for the future.
"Sometimes even as a point guard, you can't get someone to do something on the floor that you want them to do," said Flores, who begins her seventh season of coaching this winter. "So (coaching) is not too surprising that way."
The coaching profession has checked the egos of plenty of Hall-of-Fame players over the years. Magic Johnson and Ted Williams are among the superstars who found it easier to do something than to teach it.
"Just because you're an Olympic-caliber athlete doesn't mean you'll make a good coach," said McClure, a Mill Creek native who retired from gymnastics in 2006, two years after competing in the Athens Games.
Henderson said that one of the difficulties for star players is getting used to the overall team concept.
"Some of those superstars, they were the main guy," he said. "While they may have been a team player, and most of them are, they were used to everything going through them. So their focus was on that role: how could they lead their team to victory?
"Whereas, another guy who is not as good might look at it like: What can I do to make the team better?"
Henderson has not closed the door on returning to the coaching profession in the future. His father, Dick, was a former baseball player who studied soccer when his children developed a passion for the sport, and he eventually led Chris's Cascade High School team to a state title.
McClure was also planning to follow in his father's footsteps -- Les McClure owns a contracting business in Mill Creek -- before the coaching bug bit him hard last fall.
He initially took the Air Force position as a "transition" job, as he put it, while pursuing his degree in business management. Instead, McClure may have stumbled onto a new career path.
"The most surprising thing was how much I enjoyed it," he said. "When I was competing, I kept telling myself: 'I'll never be a coach. When I'm done, I'm done.' I wanted to do something else.
"But I found out I loved it. The pleasure for me is seeing kids do skills that they never thought possible."
During the summer, McClure continues to coach gymnasts of a younger age group during camps put on by former Olympians.
"I've got to learn just as much as the kids," he said. "I'm learning what it takes to be a coach.
McClure's career goals have changed in a big way.
"If everything worked out perfect," he said, "I'd be a head (gymnastics) coach at a major university, have a couple athletes who made the Olympic team, then I'd go on to coach the Olympic team."
The dean of local athletes-turned-coaches said making the transition is much easier if you live by one simple rule.
"You need to teach," Harshman said of his chosen profession. "There's not much teaching anymore, coaches have staffs without many teachers on it.
"They know the game and can tell kids, but they never show them why you should do it the way they want you to do it."
For the rest of our series on Snohomish County's most successful coaches, go to www.heraldnet.com/topcoaches

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