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Monday, Jul 29 2013 10:16 PM

Influential BHS coach, CIF commissioner Harrison dies at 82

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    By John Harte/ The Californian

    Driller Football Hall of Fame inductees Don Harrison, left, and Frank Gifford laugh during the 2007 induction ceremony.

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BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer jevans@bakersfield.com

Don Harrison, a longtime coach at Bakersfield High School and then a noted administrator for the Kern High School District and the Central Section of the California Interscholarsic Federation, died Monday after a lengthy illness.

Harrison, 82, coached at BHS from 1956-1979, then moved to the KHSD in the fall of 1979 until retiring in 1992.

He was the Central Section South Area Commissioner from the fall of 1979 until the early 2000s.

"He had Driller blood," said the Rev. Craig Harrison, Don Harrison's son and the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church on H Street. "He spent most of his time dedicated to Bakersfield High. And that's how we were raised. That was the only school."

Don Harrison suffered from four kinds of cancer, his son said. Don's wife and Craig's mother, Dorothy, also has terminal cancer, Craig said. They celebrated their 59th anniversary in December.

Craig Harrison said his father brought many coaches to Bakersfield and helped many get their first job.

"We just have really appreciated the love and support of the community," Craig Harrison said. "It's just unbelievable. ... We're lucky that he's touched so many lives and he very much touched ours. We're going to miss him."

Pat Skrable, a standout athlete at Bakersfield High from 1963-65 and who now works in commercial real estate in Bakersfield, visited Don Harrison daily near the end, Craig Harrison said.

"Next to my own father, I would have to say that the people that have been influential in my life, Don Harrison would have to be at the top of the list for sure," Skrable said.

"For a lot of us, he was the father that wasn't there. He kind of interceded and led us along the path," Skrable said. "For my money, there wasn't a finer man that lived than Don Harrison."

Harrison coached 24 teams in his 11 years as a coach for the Drillers with 20 winning championships. His won-lost record was 327-61-3.

In 1967, Harrison led the Drillers' varsity baseball team to a 26-3 record, which remains the best single-season baseball record in the school's history.

But even with all that coaching success, Harrison eyed something else: athletic administration.

"The proudest thing for me is athletic administration, especially in the area of athletic commissioner," Harrison told The Californian in a 1997 interview when he was inducted into the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame. "I've enjoyed that more than anything."

Harrison became director of general services when he moved to the KHSD in the fall of 1979. He oversaw athletics, drivers' training, district transfers and attendance.

Another part of that job was serving as the Central Section's South Area Commissioner.

The CIF position separated from the high school district in 1990, and Harrison stayed on with the CIF for several more years after retiring from the district in 1992.

Because of his lengthy tenure at BHS, Harrison often was accused of favoring the Drillers in disputes with other schools. That was a charge he hotly denied.

"I hear that all the time," he said in the 1997 interview. "I do like Bakersfield High, but I like Centennial, East and Foothill, too. All the schools. Kids I coached in high school are (teaching and coaching) at all the schools.

"I never allow myself to rule in favor of Bakersfield High just because I spent a lot of years there. I couldn't live with myself if I did that."

"I've known him since 1959," said Mike Keese, who succeeded Harrison as the district's director of general services and spent 38 years as a teacher, coach and administrator in the KHSD. "He was my freshman baseball coach and I had him when I played varsity football. He was very instrumental in my life.

"Don was young in 1959, right out of the Marines, a no-nonsense guy. I loved the guy."

Former BHS standout athlete Pat Preston, who later had great success as the Drillers' head football coach, played on several teams that Harrison coached.

"Back when I was a student there, BHS stood for (Paul) Briggs, Harrison and (Earl) Sargent," Preston said. "Don was just a great role model and one of those people you wanted to play for."

Preston said Harrison played a big part in Preston going into coaching. Preston returned to Bakersfield after seven years as a teach and coach at Hanford High.

"He was a mentor to me and I appreciate it," Preston said.

Kevin Sneed, the newly hired Centennial High football coach, has coached in the KHSD for 36 years.

Sneed, a West High graduate, said he was a senior at West when he joined a teammate in driving over to BHS during first period one Friday. They were wearing their football jerseys.

"We spun our car around a bus with the band," Sneed said. "Don Harrison saw the numbers and called over to West. We both wound up sitting out the game that night.

"But once I got into education, Don was extremely helpful.

"It was a smaller district then, a much different situation than (current sports coordinator) Stan Greene has now, like apples and oranges.

"But Don had a way of bringing everyone together -- coaches, officials, the community. He always had a barbecue at the beginning of the season. Coaches were there, officials were there. It was a bonding thing so off the field you got to know them as a person. I didn't appreciate it then but I appreciate that now.

"There's not the camaraderie and respect that the coaches and officials had back then. Don was a big part of that."

Sneed added: "He was always up front with you. If he didn't like something, he'd tell you. There's no question he was a Driller, but I always thought I had a fair shake with him when I was at West and the head coach."

Harrison grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, where he played golf, baseball, basketball and football. He graduated from the University of Idaho where he lettered in baseball and basketball.

Harrison's first coaching job was the freshman baseball coach at the University of Idaho in 1952. He coached a year at Deary High School in Idaho and then went into the Marines.

Harrison had teaching offers from the Nevada cities of Carson City and Gardnerville.

Carlton Samuelson was the dean of students at BHS and later principal of McFarland High. He was also the uncle of Harrison's wife, Dorothy.

Harrison was strongly considering a job offer from Carson City, Nev., but his wife urged him to speak with then-BHS principal Les Hedge first. Harrison was offered the JV coaching job at BHS but initially turned it down. But he reconsidered.

"I found out the salary would be $100 more a month than in Carson City and my wife wanted to get away from Nevada," Harrison said in the 1997 interview. He came to Bakersfield and never moved away.

Harrison was a tireless volunteer for various Kern County organizations, including the Jockey Club for 25 years, Jack Frost football for nine years, the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame board for 12 years and was on the Mayor's Athletic Committee.

Services will be held at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 900 H St. The Rosary will be a 6:30 p.m. Thursday with the funeral set for 10 a.m. Friday.

Harrison had a daughter, Nancy Harrison Frey, who preceded him in death in 2008.

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