John Harvill, longtime Gaithersburg High football coach, dies at 88


John Harvill coached Gaithersburg football for 43 years and only had one losing season during that stretch. Harvill died Friday at the age of 88. (Michael Lutzky/TWP)
December 28, 2013

After Gaithersburg High’s football season ended with a playoff loss to Northwest in November, Coach Kreg Kephart had to make a difficult phone call. He had developed a practice of calling his former coach and Gaithersburg legend, John Harvill, after every Friday night football game this fall, and he had hoped to deliver the news of a victory to the man many call the grandfather of Maryland prep football. Instead, Kephart was pondering how to explain all the turnovers and missed opportunities.

After Kephart gave Harvill a blow by blow account, Harvill simply replied: “Well, you all had a hell of a year anyway. You all will get them next year.”

The soothing voice of Harvill will not be on the other end of the line next season for Kephart, but the wisdom will remain. Harvill died Friday from complications of a bacterial infection. He was 88. He is survived by his wife, Betty, two daughters and several grandchildren.

“He always had words of encouragement,” said Kephart, who played for Harvill in the early 1970s and coached with him for nearly two decades in the 1980s and ’90s. “He had been through it all.”

As Maryland’s all-time winningest high school football coach, Harvill went 312-97 over his 43 years as head coach at Gaithersburg (he was there 48 overall).

Born in Georgia, Harvill grew up in the District, where he was a standout athlete at McKinley Tech. After graduation, however, he turned down an athletic scholarship at Maryland to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps flight training program. He played football at Maryland after three years in the military, spent another three years playing baseball in the Boston Red Sox organization and earned his master’s degree in education from Maryland in 1950.

He once told Kephart his baseball career didn’t work out because he couldn’t hit a curveball, but Harvill’s gift for coaching football was unrivaled, according to longtime Good Counsel Coach Bob Milloy. Harvill was famous for picking the brains of college coaches at every turn, and in the early 1970s he perfected the powerful veer offense run by the University of Houston. Milloy, then a young coach at Whitman High, would spend half his offseason reviewing tape of Harvill’s offense, never fully understanding how to stop it.

“Harvill was a visionary,” Milloy said. When Harvill and Milloy traveled to Atlanta for a coaching clinic in 1988, they were approached by then-Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.

“Holtz gets up close and he goes, ‘Coach Harvill, how in the hell are you? It’s good to see you,’ ” Milloy said. “I saw this rock star, and he comes up to Harvill like he’s the rock star.”

Harvill’s impact continued through five decades of coaching. He won two state titles with the Trojans in 1986 and 1992 and had four undefeated seasons before he retired in 2000 after 43 years. During that span, Harvill helped engineer the creation of a state-playoff system in Maryland, which the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association implemented in 1974. He helped Maryland win its first Big 33 Football Classic game in the mid-1980s, and many Gaithersburg players went on to play college and professional football, establishing their futures on the school field that now bears Harvill’s name.

“He was more than just a good coach. He was really a good person,” former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “Every time you’d meet him he always had a smile on his face. . . . Every time you’d meet him, he just kind of made you feel good.”

The mark of a good high school coach is making your players feel good, Kephart said, and one of Harvill’s best accomplishments was the fierce loyalty his players carried for him long after they had graduated. Harvill, who was named Maryland coach of the year in 1966, would often see people watching practice from a distance, Kephart said, and in many cases would send over an assistant to make sure it wasn’t a spy from another school. It was usually a former player. Kephart was working odd jobs in the area in the early 1980s when he visited practice one day, only to be offered a coaching job by Harvill on the spot.

“He was a leader and a molder of young men,” Kephart said. “He taught you not only how to play the game but how to be a responsible young man and how to play with character.”

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