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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Bulls AD Harlan can finally take a breath

TAMPA — He was shot in the face when he was 15. For years, he played basketball with a bullet in his head. He was born in the Dominican Republic, but raised in New York City. His family was once homeless. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He won over top-ranked recruits in living rooms across the country for John Calipari and Kentucky. And here’s the most amazing thing of all about Orlando Antigua, the new South Florida men’s basketball coach:

He has his college degree. Pittsburgh ’95.

In other news, the new USF athletic director’s dry cleaning just came back.

“Which was good, because I’m down to the wire right now,” Mark Harlan said with a grin.

Harlan can loosen his tie. He can stop flying off to parts unknown, meaning Dallas, where USF’s trusty search firm (“We thought you meant high school diploma ...”) was located.

No more silly news.

In fairness, truly, how many ADs, on their first day on their new job, have their first coaching hire disintegrate?

It happened to Mark Harlan.

Harlan was terribly happy, maybe relieved and mostly forthright at Antigua’s introductory news conference Tuesday at the Sun Dome, where everyone said the right things, especially an emotional Antigua. Call him Coach O.

“His passion for life and the game of basketball are infectious, and you’re going to learn that,” Harlan said.

Steve Masiello could not be reached for comment. I think he was in study hall.

Live and learn.

Maybe Harlan has done some of that the last few weeks. This guy has energy and ideas and might turn into a game-changer for USF athletics. But The Road to Orlando was wild and wacky. You can call Harlan a victim of (pomp) and circumstance in the Coach Mas mess, but it was still an embarrassing glitch. His first choice go boom.

Harlan gently disagreed.

“I don’t think anything blew up in my face,” he said. “I think we had a process, and we emerged today with a great (coach). In this job, you get major decisions come at you. Sometimes they come in your first hour. Sometimes … I’ve had some ADs who have called me who have been sitting ADs for three years and they haven’t done a football or basketball search.”

This one came in the first hour.

“I think there’s always moments when you look at yourself in the mirror and you say, ‘Is it going the way it needs to go?’ ” Harlan said. “And I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say I had a few of those moments. But I knew it was about today and finding the person ... and the noise that was out there, to tune it out, to really focus. To say I wasn’t discouraged would be disingenuous. But to say I ever got negative or down on myself, or the belief in what I could do ... I kept pushing forward.”

Remember: USF caught Masiello. His previous employers didn’t.

Yes, it has all worked out for USF, provided Antigua, 40, gets the job done. He has never been a college basketball head coach. There is that. He wasn’t USF’s first choice. There is that, too. But if life stories win ballgames, he’s the next John Wooden. Antigua had me at shot in the face and lived. You don’t even have to throw in his days with the Globetrotters, though if you see a seltzer bottle or a bucket of confetti on the USF bench next season … duck.

Antigua struck the right tone on his first day, but so have all the men who preceded him in this job. One second, they’re here to rescue the program, the next second, they’re in quicksand.

“You’ve got win,” Antigua said. “That cures all ills, I believe.”

Maybe this time. Maybe this coach.

It has to be now. It had to be Tuesday.

Mark Harlan was down to his last clean suit.

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