After 45 years as a coach, including stops in Litchfield and Mt. Olive, John Harder ended his career on top.
On June 26, in Bismarck, ND, Harder was named the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Coach of the Year in girls basketball after a career that spanned more than four decades and included 905 wins and three state titles in Florida.
For 35 of his 45 years in coaching, Harder was at Southeast High School in Bradenton, FL. After two years as an assistant, Harder took over the girls basketball program and never looked back.
Taking over for Florida basketball legend Ben "Buzz" Narbut in 1985 after Narbut left Southeast to become head coach at Florida State University, Harder won the state championship in his first year.
To show it wasn't a fluke, Harder did it again, twice actually, in 1990 and 2014, and nearly picked up a fourth state title in 2019, before his Seminoles bowed out in the state semifinal with a 49-48 loss to Bishop Kenny to end their season with a 26-5 record.
That brought Harder's career win total to 826 at Southeast in 1,042 games. He also won 21 district titles and had 65 players earn basketball scholarships under his watch going into the 2019 season.
Despite his success, Harder gave credit where credit was due.
"I never made a basket in my life at this high school," said Harder in an interview with Jason Dill of The Bradenton Herald. "I never blocked a shot. I never stole the ball. I was never out there. Coaching is a different gig. To me, it’s all been these kids. They did it year in and year out for 34 years now."
Before he became a legend, Harder was a disciple of Highland Park coach Chuck Schramm and later Hillsboro and Litchfield coach Stan Horst. The Lansing native was an assistant under Horst at Litchfield in 1977 and 1978 and was named girls basketball coach at LHS in June of 1979.
Harder never coached the Lady Panthers though, instead resigning in July to coach football and take over as head coach of the Mt. Olive boys basketball team, where he went 7-38 in two seasons.
According to The Bradenton Herald, a vacation to the Sunshine State put the wheels in motion for Harder to end up in Florida. After a season as an assistant football coach at Southeast, he took the assistant job with girls basketball and the rest, as they say, is history, appropriately enough, the subject that Harder taught at Southeast, where he was a two-time teacher of the year.
After his final game, Harder told Dill that he plans to spend time with his children and grandchildren, who are spread out across the country. He added that it felt appropriate to end his career at Southeast where it started, at the state tournament.
"It’s storybook, couldn’t have been better scripted," Harder said. "It’s by the grace of God that I sit here. I sat here 34 years ago and I’m sitting here on my last day of my career."