Jamie Russell has coached long enough to expect the unexpected from Randy Harris.
“He is difficult to prepare for. He’s not afraid to mix things up, not just game to game, but each possession, defensively or offensively,” Russell said.
He coached against Harris and his Lee Academy boys basketball team for most of his career.
“He used to have his players come out of an end-of-quarter break early and line up purposely on the wrong half of the court to take the ball out of bounds. The other team would line up with them and then he would break one player to the correct side and score a layup,” Russell said.
Harris will tell you the key to his nearly four decades on the sidelines is more about the fundamentals of hard work and building relationships.
The 59-year-old Harris has coached Lee teams in nearly 1,500 basketball, baseball and soccer games since accepting the boys basketball job in 1984 at age 22 while still a senior at Husson University in Bangor.
Even those initial 130-mile daily round trips for practices and games didn’t dissuade him from a lifetime of leading youngsters into competition.
Harris has coached 720 basketball games over 37 years — including win No. 400 last Thursday against Bangor Christian. He is among only 28 Maine coaches to achieve the milestone.
Harris also boasts nearly 600 baseball games in 32 years and another 200 during 12 seasons as girls soccer coach and the last five falls as boys soccer coach.
“What’s so great is it’s a small school so it’s the same kids,” Harris said. “I can’t believe they haven’t gotten sick of me yet, but they still have a really good attitude and they work hard, so I must be doing something right to keep them involved.”
Harris credits the quality of the relationships with his players in part to working at the school, whether as a teacher, coach or — since 2002 — as Lee Academy’s athletic administrator.
“I see the kids in the hall every day and I fist-bump them or we tease each other or talk about hunting,” he said. “I have an off-the-court connection with them, too, which I think is really difficult for coaches who work outside the school.”
He also appreciates what he’s learned over the years from such colleagues as Russell, former Lee Academy mentors Gary Osgood and Fernald Linscott, former coaches Buddy Wood of Washington Academy in East Machias and Tony Hamlin of Penquis of Milo, and Todd Thurlow, his longtime assistant at Lee.
Harris says the most significant lessons in nurturing relationships have come from his family, beginning with parents Ed and Lorraine Harris.
“It doesn’t seem like they’ve ever missed a game,” Harris said. “Back when I was in college, my father would drive from Molunkus, Maine, to Massachusetts to watch one basketball or baseball game, then turn around and drive seven or eight hours back. For them to show me that dedication and love really grounded me and made me realize how you’ve got to treat people.”
Harris’ original goal after college was to keep playing baseball.
After graduating from Husson he tried out with the Miami Marlins’ Class A affiliate in Florida, but suffered an arm injury that summer that ultimately sidelined his professional baseball hopes.
“They kept me around all summer trying to rehab me, but my arm never got any better and by the end of the summer Lee Academy called with an offer to coach basketball and baseball and work as a tutor,” Harris recalled.
“I had to make a choice between trying to continue my baseball career or taking a job at Lee Academy and when I came back I met my wife within a couple weeks, so everything’s worked out for the best.”
Randy and Patty Harris have been married for 36 years and raised two children, son A.J. and daughter Brooke.
“They’ve made me a much better coach,” he said. “I was wound up, and everything was just too much, for the first five or six years. Then once I got married and had a couple of beautiful children, it put things in perspective and I calmed down.”
The only years Harris didn’t coach both basketball and baseball at Lee was the spring he was still at Husson and then the four years Brooke pitched for the Pandas’ softball team. He kept the team’s scorebook during Lee’s 2006 state championship season.
Harris cites guiding the Lee boys basketball team led by his son to the 2011 state title among his top memories.
“Even some of the teams that weren’t so good record-wise were a lot of fun to coach,” Harris said. “I’ve never done it for the wins, I’ve just always loved sports.”
While Harris ranks among the state’s career leaders in varsity games coached over three sports — particularly at the same school — he has no plans to stop.
“My barometer is, I’ll stop when I don’t like going to practice anymore, but I still really enjoy practice,” he said. “I really don’t see the end in sight as long as they keep offering me the job.”