An article in Sports yesterday incorrectly reported the age of Gaithersburg High School football coach John Harvill. He is 74. (Published 10/30/1999)
His white hair is thinning a little, and he walks with a slight limp and hunch, the result of knee and hip replacement operations. At 76, he is old enough to be your grandfather. In fact, he is a grandfather--and a great grandfather, too.
Seeing John Harvill on the football field, the first impression is, "What is that guy doing out there?"
Then you find out the answer: He is having a lot of fun and a lot of success. Now in his 43rd season as the head coach at Gaithersburg, Harvill's team is soaring. The fourth-ranked Trojans are 8-0 and on track to earn the top seed in the Maryland 4A playoffs with two games remaining in the regular season. Tonight, Gaithersburg hosts top-ranked Seneca Valley (8-0) in a matchup of perhaps the two best public school teams in Maryland.
An overflow crowd is expected at Gaithersburg, where the stadium field already is named after the coach.
"I just love being around people and being active," Harvill said. "The kids are great, they really are. We get some no good [kids], but 99 percent of them are really good kids."
Many of Gaithersburg's players arrive at the school with a solid knowledge of this coach. Several have relatives who attended Gaithersburg, some of whom played for Harvill. Wide receiver Norman Smith, whose parents went to Gaithersburg, said he saw Harvill's picture in his parents' yearbook.
Still, it can be a shock for a newcomer to see Harvill coaching. He has had replacement surgery on his left hip and left knee; his right kneecap was removed in another operation, damaged by too much football and too much baseball. Harvill played center at McKinley High School in Northeast Washington and at the University of Maryland. After college he became a minor league catcher in the Boston Red Sox' organization.
"The kids respect him, and they respond to him," said first-year Gaithersburg assistant coach Ivan Hicks. "They aren't like, 'This old guy doesn't know what he is doing.' "
Harvill must know something. He has a career record of 309-95, with one losing season, and has guided the Trojans to state championships in 1986 and 1992.
"He's a legend," said Sherwood Coach Bob Milloy, who is 56. "He's been coaching longer than most of us have been alive."
After the 1992 title, there was rampant speculation that Harvill would retire. He stayed on then, but this season might be his last.
"I'm close" to retiring from coaching, Harvill said. "Not too many years back, I would look at a defense and say, 'Hey, this play ought to go against that regardless.' Now, I have to check on my notes too much to figure out when we do this and they do that. I don't think I'm as sharp as I was on the field mentally picking up things."
But his players said they have not noticed a change in Harvill, who has a reputation for being one of the area's most vocal coaches on the sideline.
"Even though he's getting older, he stays on us and let's us know when we're doing the wrong thing," said senior running back Jay Colbert, whose uncle, Tony Groomes, was a lineman on the Trojans' 1986 championship team. "But the assistant coaches always tell us, if you're hearing it, it's because he likes you."
If he is particularly upset, Harvill might crank up the volume on the record player in his office so the players are forced to listen to his older music.
Said Harvill: "I get after them some, but not that much."
Growing up, Harvill enjoyed pretty much anything involving a score or a winner. He played football and basketball and took up boxing, too, though he was never very good at it. After graduating from McKinley in 1941, Harvill entered the Air Force and married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth. They have two daughters, two granddaughters and one great granddaughter. Harvill graduated from Maryland in 1950. During a brief stint in the minor leagues, it became obvious he would never make it to the majors, so he returned to the area in 1951 with a yearning to become a teacher. A friend arranged for a job interview, and he was hired to teach and to be the baseball coach at Gaithersburg. Before the fall, Gaithersburg football coach Carroll Kearns retired from coaching and Harvill took that over, too.
At first, Harvill taught history, math and science. Then he moved on to psychology and finally to physical education. He retired from teaching in 1991. Now, he spends much of his day at the school watching game films and preparing for games, though he does take short breaks to ride an aerobic skiing machine in his office. In preparation for tonight's game, he said, Harvill has watched films dating from 1984.
"I've always been competitive," Harvill said. "I love to play golf, and I was fair until I had this trouble [with his knees and hip]. I love competing. I love to play checkers or chess or cards. When I go to the miniature golf course, I always have to have a little wager."
The years have taken a little toll on Harvill. He no longer can walk through the woods to hunt, so when he goes with friends on trips to Western Maryland, much of his time is spent playing cards. And he has given up his membership at Montgomery Country Club because he likes to walk a golf course and he is no longer able to walk that course; instead, he walks nine holes at Laytonsville Golf Course.
He drives his black truck from the school down to the baseball field where the football team practices because the walk is difficult for him. And he only coaches the offense, leaving the defense to his assistants.
Still, Harvill can think of no better way to spend his day than coaching football.
"If I was at home, I'd be working in the yard or I'd be walking three to five miles," said Harvill, who until a few years ago worked as a punchout man for a home builder, making last-minute fixes on new homes. "It doesn't hurt me to walk, just getting up and down. . . . I can live with that. I'm not in a wheelchair. It does frustrate me that I can't run anymore. I used to love to run."
And when he decides to call it quits, Harvill said he plans on telling as few people as possible. He said he is not interested in a farewell tour or party.
"When I retire, I just want to retire and do what I'm doing," Harvill said. "I've never been one of those types of guys [to seek publicity]. I just want to do a little hunting or fishing or something."
CAPTION: In 43rd season as Gaithersburg's head coach, John Harvill has guided his 4th-ranked team to 8-0 record. Tonight it plays top-ranked Seneca Valley.
CAPTION: "I get after them some, but not that much," Harvill says of his players. He has a career record of 309-95, with one losing season, and two state titles.