James Harrison was a winner no matter what he coached or where he went.
The longtime Miles Macdonell coach helmed Buckeye basketball and volleyball teams to 10 provincial titles — and even led a small-town Australian volleyball team to a state championship. Harrison also has 10 national medals, including six gold, through his work with the Buckeyes.
On Jan. 27, the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association announced the 72-year-old will be inducted into its Hall of Fame as a builder. The induction ceremony will take place May 10 at the Holiday Inn Winnipeg South (1330 Pembina Hwy.).
Harrison, a physical education and music theory teacher at the school, said volleyball was still "in its infancy" when he began coaching, and he saw the sport develop before his very eyes.
"It was still a high-ball game — set it from the middle to the outside," he said. "We changed that when I came in. We were bumping to the corner, and the setter wasn’t setting any back sets, only front sets — front to the middle and front to the outside."
Harrison added the Buckeyes were able to play a quick style that often left blockers with little recourse to stop the ball from its downward trajectory.
He was reluctant to name a championship that stands above the others, but feels his first championship, in 1972, gave him a great basis on which to build.
"I realized then that I had to have a really good captain, and I always had good captains. I had to have a really good setter," said Harrison, who said he only ever cut one player in his coaching career. "That same year, I realized that the most important thing was passing."
Harrison feels "skills are all learned in volleyball," and emphasized footwork and quick passing in order to prepare the team for stiff competition at the national level later that year.
Harrison, noting winning wasn’t the most important thing, said he would ask his players before each season if they wanted to win or just play for fun. Upon getting that go-ahead to challenge for a championship, he would strive to help the players be the best that they could, always finding areas of their respective games that could be improved.
"I got to a point to where I felt I could win all the time, but I knew it was going to take a hell of a lot of work," he said, noting the team sometimes practised three times a day. "I spent six nights a week with the game, and that included every Saturday. Sunday, I would come home, and in the morning, in a closed room by myself, and I critiqued every kid on the team.
"I pretty well said almost everything bad. However, I didn’t want to kill his desire, so I threw in something good. Sometimes it was just ‘your uniform was clean’ or ‘your hair looked OK.’"
Harrison told players’ parents at the start of the season he’d be seeing the players more than they would, and would not allow the players to have girlfriends.
In 1991, Harrison went to teach in Gin Gin, a town of about 1,200 at the time in the Australian state of Queensland. The school didn’t have a gymnasium, so the team practised outdoors in the grass, and eventually won the state championship, even beating teams from the much larger centre of Brisbane.
Harrison also coached gymnastics and badminton during his time at Miles Macdonell, a place he never initially expected to end up.
When attending the University of North Dakota, Harrison entered thinking he would end up as a doctor, but his opinion quickly changed after taking some medical courses, noting it takes a special kind of person — more than just an intelligent one — to serve as a doctor.
"I wound up in teaching as a fluke, because I didn’t know what to do," he said, adding he took sport-related courses in addition to education courses.