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October 18, 2012
CHAMPAIGN - Stephen Bardo. Kendall Gill. And Sean Harrington?
Yes, Harrington joined some elite company becoming the latest former Illini basketball player to hop over the scorer's table and join the media throng. The Big Ten Network hired the former Illini sharp shooter, who had spent the last four years on Bruce Weber's staff, as an analyst for games and in-studio work.
"It's a whole new career for me, but something I'm really interested in and something I'm excited about and passionate about and I'm really looking forward to it," said Harrington, who was let go from the UI with the rest of Weber's staff last spring.
With no previous media experience outside of being interviewed as a UI player and staff member, Harrington had to work to prove himself for the new gig. The Big Ten Network put him through a series of auditions. He participated in a mock pregame, halftime show and post-game show for a taped game. He provided color analysis for a pre-taped game, and also asked questions in a mock interview.
"That's kind of how they judge you, especially with someone like me who hasn't had any experience in it yet," said Harrington, the Illinois director of basketball operations the past four seasons. "There was no footage or film for them to take to break down. You go in there, and it's kind of lights, camera, action and see how things go."
Harrington - the son of longtime Elgin High School coach Jim Harrington, a member of Illinois High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame - is an articulate, well-schooled X's and O's man. His longtime affiliation and familiarity with the Big Ten as a player (from 1999-2003) and staff member (2008-12) also helped Harrington land one of the hard-to-get analysts positions.
"It's a lot like coaching," Harrington said. "It's a difficult field to get into. It's a small group of people that are in it, and it seems like a lot of people want to get into it. Fortunately for me, having played in the Big Ten and having been on staff in the Big Ten was a big plus. The Big Ten Network likes to keep a lot of Big Ten people involved. Obviously, it's faces their viewers are going to recognize and know. Obviously, their analysts know a lot about the Big Ten because their analysts spent a lot of time in the Big Ten, so it's something they looked for. I think it was good for me to have both sides of the spectrum (as a player and a staff member).
"For the last four years, that's been my job: breaking down the opponent. So I have a pretty good feel for the Big Ten right now. There's always newcomers, incoming transfers and freshmen that you got to get a feel for, but doing a little bit of recruiting I've been able to see a few of the freshmen incoming the last couple years as well. I've got a pretty good handle on the Big Ten and their personnel."
Harrington majored in business at Illinois but only because the time-consuming lab work of being a broadcasting major conflicted with the time-consuming schedule of a Bit Ten basketball player. He hasn't quite given up on his coaching career but said the new direction was "a family decision" that will allow him to spend more time with wife, Christine, and toddler son, James.
"A lot of the breaking down film, getting prepared for an upcoming game, some of that can be done from home," Harrington said. "There's a lot of travel and obviously when you're calling games you're on the road, but you're able to see your family a lot more. That's the biggest thing. We have a 19-month-old boy, and it's our first. It's hard in the coaching profession to be away from your family, especially when you have young kids like that. So that was a deciding role."
The pressures of the past few seasons at Illinois and the difficulties in rising up the coaching ladder also pushed Harrington toward a media career.
"I think some of it also is the last few years taking its toll on you," Harrington said. "It's just trying to move up in that profession is really difficult, and I always wanted to be a coach, a head coach. I'm not saying that door is completely shut, but for right now, I'm really excited about the new profession and moving forward."
Harrington also took time to talk about Illinois basketball's collapse last season.
You're no longer a UI employee so you don't have to give the company line anymore. So what happened last year? You get off to a 15-3 start and end up 17-15. Simply, what happened?
Harrington: "I think it was a bunch of things. I think if you really look at the season and break it down, we got off to a good start record-wise. But if you look at some of the games we had early, we were just barely getting by. I don't want to diminish any of the teams on our schedule, but we didn't have a ton of powerhouse teams on the front end of the schedule. We were just getting by some of those teams that maybe you should've won by 10 or 15, especially at home. I think part of the silver lining was that we were winning close games and we hadn't done that in the past, so I think people were kind of feeding into that but I think it gave us a little bit of a false sense of who we were. Maybe we should've dropped one or two of those early games and it wouldn't have been as big of a drop at the end. I think that's part of that.
"Number two, I think we had a young team. I think early on it was good to get some of those victories, get some confidence, but the Big Ten is very, very good right now. It was very good last year. It's going to be very good again this year, and it's top to bottom. There are no bad teams right now in the Big Ten. I think when you get into conference play, every single game is extremely difficult. When we have a young team like we did last year, I think when things got tough, none of those guys could revert back to a situation where they had success. When you have a junior or senior on your team, you've been through the wars, you've been through a lot of Big Ten battles, and you always have that, 'Hey, we've been in this position before, we can pull it out.' I don't think we had that with any guys on the team last year, so when things got tough it was very difficult to turn it around. It becomes a snowball effect. Momentum is an incredible thing in sports. You're seeing it in all sports. When you get hot and you get on a streak or when you get cold and get in a slump, it's tough to turn the tide. I think leadership is big and experience is big in those situations to pull things out. The coaches got to do a good job as well, and I think it was kind of a snowball effect and it really took a toll on the team. The coaches felt a lot of pressure with what was going on with the season, and they weren't able to do as good of a job as they should've either."
One of the focal points toward the end of the season was Bruce Weber's postgame press conference after a loss to Purdue. Many thought it was a white-flag move with six games left on the schedule. Did it affect the team?
Harrington: "I don't know if that was the defining moment. It definitely added fuel to the fire. At that point, we were kind of in the midst of, 'What direction are we going to go?' There was still time in the season to turn it one way or the other. I think coach felt a lot of pressure at the time to turn it around. I think a lot of the public, and even people in the administration knew at that time that it was going to be the end for us. I don't think it was a secret that coach was going to be gone at the end of the year. I think at that time it all came to a halt and it was a press conference that kind of blew up nationally. Again, that did not help our young team. That's where our young guys needed a leader, and unfortunately we did not have that upperclassman on the team, so I think the leadership had to come from the staff. I think when some of the players saw that, they kind of started believing what some of the people were saying around town and what they hear on campus. Things didn't go well after that. I don't know if that was the defining moment, but that was definitely a time when things were low and we had to find a way to turn things around and that situation did not help it."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU