Per his pre-dawn custom, Eckerd College athletic director Tom Ryan was playing Wordle the day after Jim Harley — his former coach, boss and de facto second father — passed away.
Intuitively, he sensed the five-letter word he was trying to guess would somehow relate to Harley, the tall Georgia native with the deep South drawl and flat-top haircut who essentially built intercollegiate athletics at Eckerd. When the second and third letters turned out to be ‘O’ and ‘A,’ Ryan’s heart nearly stopped.
The word was coach.
“He organized that somehow,” Ryan said Saturday. “He was just special.”
The Tritons’ athletic director for 39 years (1963-2002) and its men’s basketball coach for 33 (1963-1996), Harley died of natural causes Wednesday in Soperton, Georgia. A married dad of two, grandfather of two and great-grandfather of four, Harley was 90.
When he arrived at Eckerd (then known as Florida Presbyterian) after a brief coaching stint in Miami, the St. Petersburg liberal arts school had no intercollegiate athletic program. Over time, he set the foundation for Tritons athletics, helped establish the Sunshine State Conference (still one of the NCAA’s most prominent Division II conferences), won 421 basketball games and crushed racial barriers.
In 1965, he recruited Harry “Red” Singletary, who became the first Black student-athlete to play at a four-year, predominantly-white college in the South. Singletary was among the school’s first Black graduates in 1968.
“He’s the man. He was the linchpin. He was the guy who started all this,” said Bill Mathews, who played baseball at Eckerd in the late 1970s and ultimately won more than 500 games in 24 seasons as Tritons baseball coach.
“He was the most honest, understanding, compassionate man. One day in my first year of coaching, when I was still an undergrad coaching the (junior varsity) team, he said, ‘Any time you meet somebody, when they walk away from you they should look at that as the highlight of their day because you made them feel that way.’ That’s just the kind of guy he was. Never heard him raise his voice.”
Steeped in Southern affability, and devoid of pretension or profanity, Harley amassed a 421-350 coaching record at Eckerd and led the Tritons to a Sunshine State Conference regular-season title (in 1995) and three NCAA Tournament berths. During his tenure as athletic director, the school earned 21 NCAA Division II postseason appearances, including a baseball national runnerup finish in 1977.
“I never heard him curse,” Mathews said.
“He’d just say it matter-of-factly, ‘Hey, that was wrong, that was a bad decision,’ ” Ryan said. “He never had to raise his voice or yell or anything, he’d just say, ‘Think about that, think about what you just did, and how we can handle it next time.’ Just an educator.”
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But Harley always seemed prouder of his players’ classroom achievements. All except two of his four-year players graduated, according to the school. Upon his retirement, he told the St. Petersburg Times that 14 Ph.D.s passed through Eckerd’s athletics program on his watch.
“He was just such a kind person to anybody,” said Ryan, who played for Harley from 1983-1987, and later assisted him for nine years.
“He would sit down in the cafeteria next to a student, and treat them just like they were one of his basketball players. Just a kind person, funny, and he really, really loved seeing young people grow. And he wanted to help in that, in every way.”
Ryan said Eckerd is planning a celebration of Harley’s career and life, likely to be held at a basketball game this upcoming season.
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