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Eckerd Athletics mourns the passing of legendary James R. Harley

By Amanda Green '16
Published October 4, 2023
Categories: About Eckerd, Athletics, Awards, Community Engagement, Student Life

Led by Coach Jim Harley (kneeling), the 1966–67 men’s basketball team starting line-up was (left to right): Dennis Lathem ’68, Jack McGuire ’67, Harry Singletary ’68, John Criswell ’69 and Marvin Clemons ’69.

Former Eckerd College athletic director, men’s basketball coach, mentor and friend James R. Harley, professor of physical education emeritus, passed away Sept. 27 in Soperton, Georgia.

Harley had stewarded generations of Eckerd student-athletes with his commitment to the principles of sportsmanship, leadership, grit and character.

“Coach Harley was the most caring individual I have ever met. He was a servant leader in every sense of the word. A true gentleman and a fierce competitor. He was a trailblazer, and his impact will be felt by generations of Tritons,” stated Athletic Director Tom Ryan ’87, who was Coach Harley’s successor.

Jim Harley is synonymous with Eckerd College and the NCAA Division II—having built the foundation of Eckerd Athletics, the Sunshine State Conference and Division II. He served on the Tritons’ sidelines for 32 years as the head men’s basketball coach (1963–1996) and spent 39 years as athletic director (1963–2002).

“Eckerd College Athletics lost a great man,” said Eckerd College Associate Director of Athletics Bill Mathews Jr. ’79.

“He gave all of us an opportunity to have a chance to coach and make people better. The thing I remember most about Coach Harley is, as he told me when I was a young coach, ‘Make sure that when people leave you, you make them feel like it was the best part of their day.’ I’ll always remember that.”

Coach Harley and players hold their trophies after Eckerd College men’s basketball, for the first time, won both the Sunshine State Conference regular season (1994–95) and conference championship (1994).

On the court, Harley amassed 421 wins at Eckerd, bringing the College its first SSC regular-season championship in 1994–95 and its first SSC Tournament championship in 1994. He led the Tritons to three NCAA Championship appearances in 1972–73, 1993–94 and 1994–95, building the Tritons into a powerhouse program.

He was a two-time SSC Coach of the Year (1982–83 and 1991–92) and two-time NABC District Coach of the Year. He also coached four All-Americans during his time on the hardwood.

But his accomplishments off the court are equally, if not more, impressive: He had a nearly perfect graduation rate among his basketball players, he was a pioneer in the creation of the Sunshine State Conference, and he helped break the color barrier in the South.

Harley recruited Harry “Big Red” Singletary to Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd) College in 1965. Singletary became the first Black student-athlete to play at a four-year, predominantly white college in the South. And he was among the College’s first Black graduates in 1968.

Singletary and Harley’s feat was not easy, as they both received racist chants and hate mail, and teams refused to play against the Tritons. But they pushed forward, defying the odds and making history. In 1968, Singletary became the first All-American in Eckerd Athletics’ history.

Back in the fall of 1967, Jeff Testerman ’71 was a first-year student at Florida Presbyterian College when Coach Harley asked him to try out for the basketball team. “They needed bodies,” Testerman recalls. “I played in high school but knew I wasn’t a college caliber player and passed. But we stayed in touch, and I worked closely with Jim on a work scholarship when I was a senior. He and I ran the intramural program.”

Testerman would go on to a 33-year career at the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay Times, where he worked as an investigative reporter and was nominated five times for a Pulitzer Prize. He also co-authored the book Call Me Commander: A Former Intelligence Officer and the Journalists Who Uncovered His Scheme to Fleece America (Potomac Books, 2021).

Coach in a huddle of men's basketball players, in black and white

Coach Harley huddles up with players including Marvin Clemons ’69 and Harry Singletary ’68 (late 1960s).

Testerman says Harley’s greatest success story was probably Singletary.

“For all the time Jim was [a] coach and athletic director, he had an oversized photo of Harry in his office. Harry had chased down an opponent who was trying to make a layup, and the Human Spring—that’s what we called him—had leapt up and pinned the ball above the painted square in the backboard. The caption on the photo was, ‘Quoth the Raven …’”

Harley’s admiration of Singletary went well beyond sports. In 1991, Florida Governor Lawton Chiles nominated Singletary to become the first African American to head the Florida Department of Corrections. After he had served four years as Florida’s top corrections official, Singletary’s confirmation for four more years was in jeopardy, so Harley stepped in. “I wrote a letter in support of him,” Harley told the Times in a 2010 interview. “I remember saying, ‘Whatever the budget was of the Department of Corrections, you could give it to him in cash and he wouldn’t have taken a dime of it.’”

Singletary served four more years.

As one of the founding five Sunshine State Conference athletic directors, Harley hosted the first-ever SSC contest on December 3, 1975, on Eckerd’s campus. He was inducted into the SSC Hall of Fame in 1993.

During his coaching career, all but two four-year players graduated. As athletic director, he guided the Tritons to 21 NCAA Division II postseason appearances, including a baseball national runner-up finish in 1977.

His impact on Eckerd is celebrated in numerous ways. He was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002; Eckerd’s basketball court in McArthur Gymnasium was named after him in 2010; and the Harley Award, established in 2002, is bestowed upon a male and female senior student-athlete each year, which is the highest honor a Triton can receive for demonstrating leadership and excellence in the classroom, on the field, and in their community.

Coach in tie with players in a huddle around him

Coach Harley with players during the 1982–83 season, including Roger Maris ’84, Mike Brummage ’87, Chuck Gaul and Reggie Sanford ’86.

Harley played collegiately and graduated from Georgia Southern College while obtaining his master’s degree at then–George Peabody, now Vanderbilt, University.

He spent time coaching at Miami-Dade Junior College; Georgia Southern College; and Brewton-Parker Junior College, where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1986.

In 2011, Harley was inducted into the Florida Association of Basketball Coaches “Court of Legends” Hall of Fame. But he couldn’t be defined by accolades and statistics alone.

According to Kathy Watson ’69, Ed.D.—Eckerd College’s professor of education, associate dean of faculty development and special assistant to the president emerita—Harley was known for much more than his signature, always-recognizable crew cut he’d sported since the 1960s. “What else never changed about Jim Harley?” she wrote last week in an email to the Eckerd community. “His commitment to racial and social justice. His Christian faith. His love for his wife and his pride in her work as an artist. His love for the College. His humor. His humility. And his place in the pantheon of honorable men whose presence makes all of us better people.”

Tom Zucco contributed to this report.