Legendary coach John Tharp heads to Hillsdale

Phil Roy

Lawrence Athletic Director Bob Beeman announced Mar. 28 that men’s basketball coach John Tharp had accepted the same position at Hillsdale College in Michigan.
The news took many on campus by surprise, and although we congratulate his promotion into a D-II program, we realize that we are losing a Viking sporting legend.
Tharp will be replaced, in the interim, by his assistant and former Viking star, Joel “JoJo” DePagter.
We at The Lawrentian thought it appropriate to pay tribute to the great leader of our prolific basketball program and I asked Lawrence center Andy Hurley about his time with Tharp.
John Tharp’s legacy at Lawrence is clear, and is best illustrated by the staggering 204-108 record he has compiled during his tenure. Tharp’s success has the silverware to show for it, with four Midwest Conference Championships on the shelf and as many appearances in the NCAA national tournament, including reaching the Elite Eight in 2004.
His ruthless dominance against top teams in the conference is accentuated by the Vikings’ unblemished record within the four MWC tournaments he steered them to.
Tharp’s coaching style was one of on-the-court intensity and undying support for his players. On-the-court presence – really . ON the court – and a never-dying enthusiasm were characteristic of the 37-year-old coach and all those who traveled over to Alexander Gymnasium for a basketball game were greeted by it.
“Tharp feared no one”, said Hurley. “He always stayed aggressive, and vocal.”
Along with being a great technician, Tharp was a great motivator and his players always knew they had someone in their corner, no matter what the score was.
“He wouldn’t look good in the uniform [cheerleading],” joked Hurley, “but he sure got the job done.”
The highlight of Tharp’s 13 prolific years with the Vikings was the 2005-2006 season, which saw the Vikings complete an undefeated regular season and achieve a No.1 ranking from D3hoops.com for the first time in the school’s history.
The unprecedented achievements brought much media attention to our small school in Wisconsin, compounded by the several accomplishments of a certain Chris Braier.
The games which stood out during that 25-game unbeaten streak were not the annihilations of teams like Beloit, Knox and IC, but the harder-fought competitions against the St. Thomases, Carrolls and Ripons of the world.
It was in those battles that the sheer heart of the Vikings program was exposed, as they fought back from large deficits and pulled off buzzer-beaters to stay the only undefeated team in the country.
Tharp’s stamp on each of those encounters was clearly evident as he stuck to his brand of team basketball, especially in games that saw the Vikings as underdogs based on individual match-ups.
The Vikings, and their diminutive coach, reached great heights and met their success with grace and modesty, values Tharp embodied.
The lackluster result from what will go down as his penultimate season with the Vikings, will take little away from Tharp’s legacy.
His players, including returning starter Hurley, emphasize that he will not be primarily remembered for the wins or losses, but for the relationships he shared with his players.
“As close as a father, a best friend,” said Hurley.
The newly named interim head coach DePagter surely has big shoes to fill, but will benefit from his firsthand experience with Tharp.
DePagter, who has coached alongside Tharp during the prolific seasons of the recent past, was also a star player at Lawrence not too long ago. The slender guard helped lead the Vikings to the 1997 MWC Championship, under none other than Coach John Tharp, and was also named conference player of the year that same year.
Hurley voiced his excitement at JoJo’s appointment and trusts that “he will build on the great tradition that Tharp has established.”
One end, another beginning . we seniors know how it is. So, thank you Coach Tharp for the many great memories and your invaluable contribution to Lawrence athletics and the lives of the student athletes you mentored. Go Vikes!