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Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2009, 12:01 a.m.

Former collegiate national champ begins life as a coach

More than 20 years ago, Sean Higgins helped Michigan win the NCAA men’s basketball championship in Seattle. Now he’s back in the Northwest to take his first head coaching job with the Edmonds CC men’s team.

  • Edmonds Community College men’s basketball coach Sean Higgins watches as his team works out Tuesday afternoon. Higgins won a national title with...

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Edmonds Community College men’s basketball coach Sean Higgins watches as his team works out Tuesday afternoon. Higgins won a national title with Michigan in 1989.

  • Sean Higgins (left) and Glen Rice cheer on their Michigan teammates near the end of a Wolverines’ win over Virginia on March 25, 1989 in the NCAA regi...

    Ed Reinke / Associated Press

    Sean Higgins (left) and Glen Rice cheer on their Michigan teammates near the end of a Wolverines’ win over Virginia on March 25, 1989 in the NCAA regional at Lexington. Higgins scored 31 points.

LYNNWOOD — When it came time to start his college coaching career, it seemed fitting for Sean Higgins to return to the area of his greatest sports triumph.
Higgins, the new men’s basketball coach at Edmonds Community College, was a member of the University of Michigan team that won the 1989 NCAA Championship in Seattle. Even now, two decades later, he savors the memory of that title.
“It was the best moment of my playing career,” he said. “The team camaraderie that you develop (on a championship team), you never get that again. You develop a brotherhood that is undeniable.”
It happened in his sophomore season at Michigan. Led by future NBA players Glen Rice, Loy Vaught, Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills and Higgins, the Wolverines reached the Final Four at the Kingdome, where they defeated Illinois and Seton Hall — the latter in an 80-79 overtime thriller — for the national championship.
The setting, Higgins recalls, “was crazy. You’re talking about 50,000 people. It was the biggest venue I ever played in.”
He stayed one more season at Michigan and then moved to the NBA, where he played for six teams — San Antonio, Orlando, Golden State, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Portland — in eight seasons. He also played five seasons overseas, with stops in Russia, Greece, Turkey, Venezuela and the Philippines, before retiring in 2002.
It was his younger brother, Earle Higgins, who led him to Edmonds CC. Earle Higgins played for the Tritons the past two seasons, and a year ago former coach Fred Brown Jr. invited Sean Higgins to help with the team.
When Brown left after last season, the 40-year-old Higgins was named the new head coach.
“I never really thought about coaching until after I played,” he said. “But basketball was my passion.” Having worked with younger players in the years following his retirement, “I found I had a knack for teaching ... and a burning desire to teach young kids.”
At Edmonds CC, his teams will be fundamentally sound and his players “will play together because that’s just the name of the game,” he said. “We’re going to play hard, we’re going to play defense, and we’re going to be exciting for the community.”
The other goal, Higgins said, is to develop young men who can be successful in the classroom and in their lives off the court.
During the interview process, Higgins stood out for his commitment “to teach young adults the game of life, which is bigger than basketball,” said Edmonds CC athletic director Faimous Harrison.
Though every college athlete dreams of playing professionally, “there are no guarantees that any of them will make it to the NBA,” Harrison added. “What there is is the guarantee that they can use this opportunity to continue their academics. And if they work hard, whatever they do when sports careers are over, they’re going to have options in life.”
Higgins will focus his recruiting in and around Edmonds “because you want to give the local kids the chance to come and play basketball.” But he also expects to find players outside of Snohomish County, and even elsewhere on the West Coast as well as in Alaska, Hawaii and British Columbia.
“I’m looking for the type of player that has ambitions to play big-time college basketball,” he said. “I don’t want a kid who wants to come here and this is the end of the road for him. My expectations are greater than that. I’m looking for guys who have strong basketball ambitions.” Guys like Sean Higgins, basically.
“I also want intelligent guys and guys who are going to be disciplined. And I obviously need some talent. But I feel that I have the ability to take an average player and turn him into something special if he has those other elements,” Higgins added.
Acquaintances have asked why Higgins would agree to take on a two-year community college program, given the high turnover of players and the frequent problems of academics and discipline.
“And I tell them it’s the same way I started in the pros,” he said. “I was the last player picked (in the 1990 draft, No. 54 overall), so I had to do everything I could to stay in the league. I didn’t have the luxury of going off to the Bahamas for a (summer) vacation. I had to work out every day.
“And that’s why I wanted to start here. I want to start from the bottom up. If I can develop my skills — and my people skills for one — and then incorporate my basketball talents, and fuse both of those, then when I go to the next level, which is my ambition, I should be in pretty good shape.”
Likewise, Higgins hopes his players will benefit from his experience and knowledge.
“I spent three years at a major-college program at the University of Michigan and I was able to experience everything that comes along with it,” he said. “I come from that pedigree, so I have a model that these guys can visualize day in and day out. And for all these guys who want to get to a major-college program, who better to learn from than somebody who’s already been there?
“You use basketball as the vehicle to teach these young men to go off in their lives after they get done with school. I want them to learn life skills. And if we can do that, that’s a success for me.”
And whenever victories and championships come along, he added, “they’re just icing on the cake.”

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