Photo by Bill Roseberry
Former CM and Roxana boys’ basketball head coach Mike Harmon stands at midcourt on Dec. 18 at Larry Milazzo Gym in Roxana prior to a game between the Shells and Eagles. Harmon is part of the 2016 class of the IBCA Hall of Fame as a coach and was honored with a plaque prior to the game between his two former teams.
When Mike Harmon got the call that he was headed to The Hall, the Wood River resident was stunned.
“Honored would be the best word,” said Harmon, selected to this year’s Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in the Career Coaching category.
He added, “I was also surprised. It never crossed my mind that this would happen. It came out of nowhere, but I’m very appreciative about it.”
Harmon, 72, shouldn’t have been shocked by his inclusion in the 2016 class. His long coaching legacy, covering more than four decades at Granite City, Civic Memorial and Roxana, speaks for itself. The 1961 East Alton-Wood River High graduate will join a long list of local luminaries for the 44th annual ceremony on Saturday, April 30, at Illinois State University in Normal.
“It’s the ultimate honor for a high school basketball coach,” Harmon said. “It means a lot to me.”
And it means just as much to those who coached with him and played for him all those years ago. Harmon began coaching at Central Junior High (now Grigsby) at Granite City in 1970 and continued through 2013 at Roxana.
“It’s hard to sum up all the things that Mike has meant to me,” current Shells’ coach Mark Briggs said. “He’s the most loyal guy I’ve ever encountered. He’s my best friend, mentor and like a father figure to me.”
CM athletics director Steve Carey served as an Eagles’ assistant for Harmon and absorbed plenty during those nine years (1985-94) working in the school’s coaching ranks.
“Mike changed the culture of CM basketball when he got here,” Carey said. “He was a no-nonsense coach and instilled instant credibility as far as his knowledge of the game.
“He was all business and all basketball.”
There was no other way for Harmon, who lives in Kendall Hill. He played to win, but layered it with professionalism and integrity. It’s no wonder his forthright style rubbed off on others.
“Coach Harmon was black and white. There was no gray area with him when he coached,” former CM standout and current Eagles’ girls’ coach Jonathan Denney said. “We were pretty successful when he coached here and I was fortunate to be part of some special teams. I’ve always looked up to coach Harmon and the way he did things.”
Doug Carey, the current CM boys’ coach, said Harmon always supplied the Eagles with a shot of confidence — no matter who they played.
“He was great at having everybody know what they were supposed to do and the best at making us feel like we could win every game,” Carey said. “He was the best coach I’ve ever had.”
It was Carey who gave the Eagles arguably their biggest boost in basketball history 30 years ago when he proved instrumental in one of their most memorable wins. His last-second shot gave CM an upset victory over Alton in the regional final. The favored Redbirds featured heralded players Larry Smith and Bobby Collins, but the Eagles beat them, thanks to Carey’s game-winning shot.
“It was hard to top that game because that win was one of the best memories of my career,” Harmon said about CM’s regional title in his first season at the school. “I remember that we played a 1-3-1 zone against Alton and Larry Smith got five charging fouls in that game. Mike Walker took all five of them for us.”
He noted, “I think that win over Alton really spurred things for the basketball program. We got more good athletes to come out, pulled some upsets and won a conference championship.”
That regional championship was only the second in CM annals — the first came in 1967 for a program that began basketball in 1949. However, it couldn’t be the last one for the Eagles, who finished 15-10 that season.
They went 15-12 the next year and won another regional championship. CM also captured regional titles in 1990, 1991 and 1993 under Harmon. The ’93 team, which went 25-5, knocked off East St. Louis Lincoln and East St. Louis Senior to reach the Edwardsville Sectional finals. Then the host Tigers defeated the Eagles for the sectional championship.
“Those back-to-back postseason wins over Lincoln and East St. Louis were right up there with the biggest ones we ever had,” Harmon said. “I remember that we beat Lincoln at CM and Ty Laux had a great game. He destroyed them. But Edwardsville then beat us at their place after we had beaten them earlier in the season.”
Harmon coached one more season at CM, directing the Eagles to a 23-5 mark. He compiled a 149-91 record in nine years, including 5 regional titles and multiple Mississippi Valley Conference championships.
Then it was on to Roxana for three years, where Harmon went 46-38 and snagged another regional title, plus two South Central Conference crowns. He spent the next 13 seasons assisting Briggs.
Curiously, Briggs was Harmon’s assistant with the Shells.
“He’s very honest with everybody and I think people respect that,” Briggs said. “Mike taught me a lot about basketball and a lot about life: honesty, loyalty, dedication, the importance of being punctual and giving your best effort.”
It has played out as a good life for Harmon, ever since Roger Smith hired him to work in the Granite City School District. When Harmon, a physical education teacher, was the victim of cutbacks following a 13-year stint, John Logan got him a job teaching math and coaching in Bethalto.
“We played a 1-3-1 defense that I learned from being an assistant for Don Deterding in Granite City,” Harmon said. “We liked doing it and it paid dividends for us at CM.”
His straightforward approach endeared him to the Eagles. What you saw was what you got.
“I was always from the old-school of coaching, a Bobby Knight disciple,” Harmon said. “I was the same way in the classroom. I tried to motivate the best I could.”
Steve Carey said, “He let the kids play and didn’t over-coach them or micro-manage things. But there was no question he was the coach and the players knew it.”
Briggs said Harmon’s ability to adjust was a big reason he remained relevant during his career.
“Mike is one of the few guys that has learned to adapt to changes in the game and changes in players through the years,” Briggs said. “That’s what has made him successful.”
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