LEE, Maine — Thirty years as a high school basketball coach may have tempered Randy Harris, but the competitive fire remains firmly in place within the longtime Lee Academy mentor.
“Some people may say they can’t tell, but I certainly think I’ve mellowed,” said the 52-year-old Harris, who began his coaching career in 1984 while still a student at Husson University in Bangor.
“My first year [of coaching basketball], I probably got seven or eight technicals. We’d get beat 80-20, and it was tough to take because I was playing professional baseball back then and pretty competitive. I was probably wound too tight the first few years, but as you get older, you calm down and you relax more.”
While Harris’ sideline demeanor has evolved, much also has changed around him as his small-town private high school has coped with financial challenges stemming from a shrinking local enrollment common to most schools statewide.
Today, as both a coach and athletic director, Harris oversees a Lee program that blends local kids with an influx of tuition-paying international students and recognizes the ultimate value of that melting pot transcending any particular sports event.
“What’s gratifying to me,” he said, “is to see a kid from Lee hanging out with a kid from China away from the court, and you can see that they genuinely care about each other. It’s something to see kids from a town of 500 people bond with kids from a city of 8 million in China.”
Harris began his high school athletic career at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln, where he played football, basketball and baseball as a freshman and sophomore. But when his father, Ed Harris, purchased a hunting camp in Molunkus just north of Mattawamkeag in southernmost Aroostook County, he transferred to Lee Academy.
“My brother and sister wanted to transfer, and I had the driver’s license,” he said.
Randy Harris continued to star in three sports at Lee but replaced football with soccer, and after graduating in 1980, he spent his first year of college in Marietta, Ohio, before transferring to Husson. There, he played baseball for four years, soccer for three years and basketball for two seasons.
He also started coaching during his final year at Husson, arranging his class schedule to end early in the afternoon so he could make the 65-mile drive back to Lee to guide the Pandas’ boys varsity basketball squad.
“I got the coaching bug, even though we went 1-17 that first year,” Harris said.
Baseball was Harris’ best sport — perhaps not surprising since his father was a former semi-professional player and his grandfather, Garfield “Gippy” Harris, once shared rookie of the year honors with Hall of Famer Warren Spahn while both were minor league teammates. Harris was later inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.
“The next year, Warren Spahn went to the major leagues, and my grandfather went to the war,” Randy Harris said.
Harris earned NAIA District 5 accolades his last two seasons at Husson, and after graduation, the catcher earned a chance to play for an independent professional team in Miami, Fla.
A shoulder injury quickly derailed that opportunity, though he remained in Florida that summer with the offer to try out again once his rehabilitation was completed.
But as the new school year approached, Harris was offered a job at Lee along with the opportunity to continue coaching.
“I was a country boy who didn’t like all the people and all the heat,” he said. “They kept me around all summer, but I only got to play one inning so it was a long shot anyway. And I was a 23-year-old kid who had a job offer, so I took it.”
That spring, the Lee baseball job opened up, and Harris became a two-sport coach.
He has coached basketball for 30 years, coached girls soccer for 13 years and coached baseball for 26 years — taking four years off from that sport to watch his daughter Brooke play softball at Lee.
“The big thing with Randy is he’s got integrity. If he tells you something, he’s going to do it ,and you won’t need it in writing,” said Penquis Valley of Milo athletic administrator and retired basketball coach Tony Hamlin. “He’s someone you’d want in a foxhole with you because good or bad, he’ll tell you how he feels and he’s going to do do what’s right.”
Lee has had its share of athletic success under Harris, particularly in baseball where the Pandas won Eastern Maine Class C titles in 1991, 2002 and 2004.
That success came despite Lee typically being one of the smallest schools in its class, a rural reality that threatened the school’s existence a decade ago when its enrollment slipped consistently below 200 students.
“We were laying off teachers, we couldn’t buy new textbooks,” said Harris. “It got to the point where we were either going to close or we were going to have to do something about it.”
Enter Bruce Lindberg, hired as headmaster and who established an international student recruitment program starting in 2007. That not only has bolstered enrollment but enabled Lee to expand its academic offerings and upgrade its facilities.
The school now has approximately 265 students, including 100 boarding students, and the athletic program has grown to accommodate the increased enrollment.
“We’ve added sports teams, and we’ve been able to expand our soccer and cheering programs,” said Harris, who became the school’s athletic administrator a decade ago.
The changing demographics of the student body is sprinkled throughout the Pandas’ sports teams, perhaps most noticeably in the public eye within a boys basketball program that in recent years has ranked among the top squads in its division.
Lee won the Class C state championship in 2011 with a team that included Harris’ son A.J. and earned a second straight Eastern Maine crown in 2012.
Harris strives to treat all his players the same and focuses on developing team camaraderie. Team meals are held before each game, and the Pandas’ motto is “Be a Good Teammate.”
“As a coach and athletic director it’s pretty simple, it doesn’t matter whether a kid is from Africa or China or from Lee or Winn, you’ve got to work to earn your spot on the team,” he said. “Whether you’ve been here 18 or 20 years from Lee or 18 or 20 minutes from Beijing, China, you’re entitled to everything this school has to offer.”
Harris is aware of the potential for a local parent to be upset that their child might lose playing time to a player new to the school.
“When you have a son or daughter on the team it’s a matter of the heart, I understand that,” Harris said. “Parents aren’t bad people, but I try to make it very clear that everybody is entitled to the same opportunity.
“With some of my players now, I coached their parents or other relatives, so they know what to expect from me.”
Perhaps a larger issue for Harris, particularly early in a season when he and any players new to the program are acclimating themselves to each other, involves communication.
He often relies on international team members who are well versed in English as well as their native language to help interpret for other players who arrive at Lee less well-versed in English. Harris also focuses on making the most of his team’s timeouts.
“He doesn’t recruit kids, he coaches the kids who comes through the door,” said Hamlin. “He’s got quite a balancing act coaching the local kids and blending in the talent of the international kids that come in, and there may be more minuses than pluses because of the language barriers he has to deal with.
“We’d always change defenses coming out of a timeout, and he’s got kids out there speaking three different languages. That’s tough,” he added.
This year’s squad sports a 15-3 record good for a top-four finish in Eastern Maine Class C, and the Pandas again are expected to contend for regional and state honors at tournament time later this month.
Harris has no plans to step away anytime soon from what for him is as much passion as profession.
“I really love going to practice and teaching, I love working to try to make the team and the players better,” said Harris. “Being athletic director and being a coach are both things I love to do. It’s not like it’s a job to me.”