Column: For nearly five decades, Tom Harp uses old-school methods to coach

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Tom Harp has been coaching high school sports for so long (47 years) that no one probably remembers he used to be one of the best football coaches in the City Section. He and co-coach Darryl Stroh pulled off the monumental upset of 1987, winning a City title when Granada Hills stunned Carson, which was ranked among the best teams in the country.

Coaching volleyball started to enter his calling in 1982. “Some kid at Cleveland came up to me, ‘Let’s start a volleyball team,’” he said.

He’d go on to coach 15 years of girls’ volleyball at Granada Hills, winning seven City titles. He has won eight City titles coaching boys, where he continues to place his focus at age 70 after surpassing 500 career victories this season for the Highlanders. He even coached three years of girls’ soccer, getting to the championship match.

All the while, he has done this without getting sued or fired even though he admits to raising his voice on occasion.

“Rumor has it I yell once in a while,” he said.

Harp, Stroh and line coach Bill Lake were the football geniuses for the Highlanders in the 1990s. They quit in 1995, came back in 1998, then left Harp to coach a final season in 2004. Talk about guys who believed in old-fashioned ways, from short haircuts to discipline at an extreme level. Could it work today?

“If the kids understand and buy in to what you’re trying to do, I think they will respond,” he said.

Harp gets kidded by one of his former players, Sean Brown, a member of the 1987 championship team who went on to Colorado. “Coach, 10th grade year, you didn’t throw the ball enough to me,” Brown teases him.

The boys and girls volleyball players at Granada Hills have appreciated his commitment and dedication. More than 30 former players showed up for the alumni game, which says plenty. More than 70 students tried out for this year’s boys team.

“I like the drills we run,” said Andrew Nguyen, whose older brother played for Harp. “He makes us do a lot of team things to create chemistry.”

Valeria Bellodas-Lazo was so upset when she heard Harp wouldn’t coach the girls’ team this past season that “I bawled my eyes out for 30 minutes.” She said his insistence on holding players accountable is important. “It’s like tough love makes you tough,” she said.

Times have certainly changed. More than 20 years ago, Harp was primarily teaching the game to players to start every season because few were playing on club teams.

“You got young teenagers who never played the sport,” he said. “I got some from P.E. classes. They grew in size and maturity.”

During Harp’s early volleyball days, Steve Berk at Chatsworth, Neil Newman at University and Howard Enstedt at Palisades were dominating the City Section. Taft coach Arman Mercado met Harp 24 years ago and the two have formed a terrific bond even though their matches are intense and competitive.

“After every match, whether girls or boys and we’ve had some classic five-set matches, he’s very classy on the handshake, tells me how my players played well,” Mercado said. “And every league meeting, about my players, he says, “That was the best player, they deserve MVP of the league.”

About 14 years ago, Mercado started asking Harp, “When are you retiring?”

The only thing Harp ever decided to retire from was football even though he loves the X’s and Os of the sport.

“I don’t think any high school sport takes as much energy as football,” he said. “One little problem you have to take care of every day and it wears on you.”

As for words of wisdom to the future coaches, Harp said, “You have to overcome the obstacles that always get in your way. Today’s scoreboard didn’t work. In football, some kids get in trouble in class. I’ve been fortunate to have great guys and girls on the volleyball teams. A lot of valedictorians. And great assistant coaches.”

It’s the journey of his players that Harp enjoys most these days, seeing the gradual progress over the course of four years.

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