The legend is true

Harvill still goes hand-in-hand with Trojans football

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2005

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David S. Spence⁄The Gazette
Gaithersburg coaching icon John Harvill, 80, still has his hands in the program he helped bring to the forefront of Montgomery County football even though he retired following the 1999 season after 43 years of head coaching. His legacy includes two state titles and a state-record 312 wins.

John Harvill spent his final game as Gaithersburg’s head football coach in the press box. It was Harvill’s fifth appearance in the state final, this one against Eleanor Roosevelt, and he was suspended for telling a side judge the week before, ‘‘You are the worst damn group of officials I have ever seen.”

Talk about going out with a bang. It was an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable 49-year coaching career at Gaithersburg, 43 as head coach. It’s been six years since Harvill last roamed the sidelines, but he can still be found right where he left off — in the press box.

‘‘I enjoy keeping my hand in it,” Harvill said recently. ‘‘I go up in the booth. I sit there and never open my mouth. I usually see Kep [current coach Kreg Kephart] and them, and talk to them before the game.”

Harvill, 80, still spends many of his fall Friday nights at Gaithersburg in the stadium that bears his name. He was there on opening night this season, despite undergoing minor surgery four days earlier.

Harvill, the coach of two state championship teams and two others that went undefeated before the advent of the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association playoffs in 1974, retired after the 1999 season with the most wins by a football coach in state history. He is often referred to as a ‘‘legend.” But since hanging up his whistle, Harvill has been anything but a shadow or a myth. His fingerprints are all over the Trojans’ program, and his presence is still very immediate.

‘‘Even to this day, as much as he’s able, I can pick up the phone any time I’ve got a question,” Kephart said. ‘‘I ask him how to do this, what does he think about that. I take over our game film and ask him to critique us and see if there’s anything I’m missing.”

Harvill taught Kephart’s mother history in school. Then he taught football to Kephart, a linebacker on the undefeated 1972 Trojans squad and a Harvill assistant from 1983 to ’99. Most of Gaithersburg’s current staff, which won the state title in 2000, coached first under Harvill. So did first-year Watkins Mill head coach Ivan Hicks and Sherwood’s Al Thomas, a legend in his own right and a Harvill assistant in the 1960s.

‘‘He’s forgotten more football than the whole coaching staff could ever even try to remember,” longtime Trojans assistant Fran Parry said.

Harvill said that’s probably true — ‘‘The longer you’ve been out of it, the more you forget,” he said. But Harvill’s ‘‘retirement” from football has never been complete. In 2002, he lent a hand to Good Counsel’s Bob Milloy, his old rival at Springbrook and Sherwood, until he got tired of fighting traffic on Georgia Avenue. And through last season, Harvill could still be seen every so often at Gaithersburg practices, giving pointers from a golf cart.

Film study and strategy discussions with Kephart and staff help keep Harvill’s hands in the game. But it’s that direct contact with players that he said he misses most about coaching.

‘‘I miss the danged kids,” Harvill said. ‘‘Kids are so great, you know? There are bad ones, but there are bad adults, too. It’s just my general relationship with kids.”

That Harvill wound up at Gaithersburg, and spent the next half-century there, was anything but planned. He graduated from McKinley Tech in Washington, D.C., and served in the Army during World War II. He spent 1946 studying and playing football at the University of Maryland before signing a pro baseball contract with the Boston Red Sox.

‘‘In those days, once you were pro in one sport, you couldn’t play college athletics in another sport,” Harvill said. ‘‘So I guess after ’46, my next four years were spent in the minors.”

Harvill continued taking classes part-time at Maryland and earned his degree. When he gave up baseball in 1951, a friend recommended him to the supervisor of athletics for Montgomery County.

‘‘He said, ‘Well, we have an opening over in Gaithersburg,’” Harvill said. ‘‘I said, ‘Where the hell is Gaithersburg?’”

Harvill signed on as an assistant to head football coach Carroll Kearns, who today is Harvill’s next-door neighbor. In his first year there, 36 students graduated from Gaithersburg.

During his tenure, Harvill saw the school move into a new building on Route 355 and grow into one of the county’s largest. He led the fundraising drive to put lights on Gaithersburg’s field, in part by helping sell peas grown by the school’s agriculture teacher. He oversaw 312 wins (and 102 losses) as head coach, sent countless legions on to play in college and a handful to the NFL.

Today, Harvill still has his irons in many different fires. Parry said he is still on Gaithersburg’s substitute teacher list, but is so busy that he’s hard to get. Harvill and his wife of 60 years, Betty, are always headed off to some function or another and are omnipresent at Gaithersburg alumni gatherings. Lately, they’ve also been packing their belongings for a move out of their house, which is within walking distance of the high school.

Beyond that, Harvill said he enjoys working in his yard and reading.

‘‘You won’t believe this — I love poetry,” Harvill said. ‘‘My daughters came over recently to help us pack some stuff, and we get to talking about poems, and we’re down there for half an hour picking out poems.”

Given that, there should be some sort of poetic sendoff for Harvill. But as anyone involved with Gaithersburg can tell you, he hasn’t really faded into legend just yet.

Notes: Last Wednesday marked the passing of Calvin Fitz, whom Harvill remembers as one of the greatest athletes he ever coached. Fitz played on Harvill’s first undefeated team, in 1966. Speed was Fitz’s hallmark. Harvill remembers a story about him and current Landon football⁄lacrosse coach Rob Bordley.

‘‘It was probably 1966 — Calvin and Robby are on a job during the summer,” Harvill said. ‘‘Calvin’s wearing work boots, and Robby has on tennis shoes. And Robby says he can beat Calvin running. I think Calvin gave him a head start, and at the end, Calvin was ahead of him by yards.”

Fitz also won the county track meet in 1966, according to Harvill, without ever taking his sweats off. Fitz was laid to rest Sunday in Frederick County.