Jason Harlow thriving at ECSU as an assistant basketball coach.
WILLIMANTIC – Let’s see, you lead a program to its first post-season win in five years and then find out you won’t be hired back the next season. And to add a bit of unprofessional salt to the wound, you find out from another coach in the same conference who saw the announcement on the internet.
So, what do you do? If you are Thomaston’s Jason Harlow, you put the past behind and go get another job. It’s that simple. So, it was so long Western Connecticut State University men’s basketball program and hello Eastern Connecticut State University men’s basketball program. For Harlow, the game has always been bigger than the location.
Harlow had good cause to be a bit miffed under his basketball collar this summer when he found out that his two-year tenure as interim head coach at WCSU had come to an end. The long-time interim tag was courtesy of the state of Connecticut which had instituted a hiring freeze at all universities not allowing the hiring of a permanent coach.
Harlow had posted a 26-25 mark in his two seasons after replacing long-time coach Bob Campbell who retired in 2016 and spent three years as an assistant under Campbell prior to that. While there were no promises made as to the permanency of the position there was still a sting at the decision and the way the news reached him.
“Lori Mazza is the Athletic Director and was hired about two weeks after I got the job and she made it clear it was interim and that there were no guarantees I would get the job,” said Harlow. “However, I know the (selection) committee looked favorably on me. When I went looking for (Mazza) after I heard, all she would say was that, ‘I’m doing what I think is best for the University.
It hurts when you put so much time there. I even volunteered the first year. About 80 percent of this year’s roster are kids I recruited. It was hard to say good-bye.”
But as much as Harlow knows the x’s and 0’s of the game he also understands the business side. There is much to the business that goes beyond the court. Early in his career he got the same kind of treatment in his first head coaching job at his alma mater Thomaston High. Let’s just say it wasn’t the Golden Bears’ finest hour.
He cut his basketball coaching teeth as an assistant for Gregg Hunt at Wamogo before the Thomaston job opened up. After two seasons he was not rehired and Litchfield, undeterred by the decision, proceeded to scoop him up. “I don’t think Thomaston realized what they had,” said Litchfield Athletic Director Don Jacobs at the time. In nine years (2003-3012) Harlow and the Cowboys had three Berkshire League titles, two BL Tournament crowns and were in five BL Tournament finals. Jacobs knew what he was getting.
Harlow knows the hoop pot holes are plenty numerous; he’s been in a couple. Couple that with the idea that he is also a basketball junkie. The kind of guy you would find watching a game in a sweaty gym on a sweltering summer night when everyone else is barbecuing and sucking down Lite beers or at the beach around the camp fire. He knows how to move on. The game isn’t a labor, it is a love.
Bottom line? Harlow has never dwelled on the past. It took him about half a day to find another job and these winter days and nights you will find him in the Geissler Gymnasium at Eastern Connecticut State University as an assistant coach under the league’s most successful coach, Bill Geitner.
With a Jacobs-like feel, Geitner saw something in Harlow.
“Obviously we had crossed paths with him at Western and I respected how he went about his job,” said Geitner. “I respected his work ethic and when he didn’t get the Western job, I half-heartedly asked him to come join us. I knew his desire to stay in the game.”
For Harlow it was all a no-brainer.
“(Geitner) is such a good guy. He reached out to me,” said Harlow. “He threw the offer out and we stayed in touch. It was easy to say yes.”
Going from being the head man to an assistant is not always an easy transition, a subject that was broached in the hiring process.
“I was more concerned for Jason with that and we talked about it,” said Geitner. “But we quickly alleviated that. It is great that he has experience and that he has coached in the league so he can help us prepare for that. He gives me some knowledge that we may not have seen in our preparation. He is also a tireless recruiter and that is a huge part with his connections.”
“It’s a huge difference but it doesn’t bother me,” said Harlow. “Now I am making suggestions. He asks my opinion. It is a huge difference sitting a couple of seats to the left or the right (of the head coach) but working for good people is easy. When I was at Western, I tried to model our program after his. He’s won five straight Little East titles.”
Harlow has moved in a seamless fashion. There has been a blast of the not-so-distant pass, however. Eastern tangled with Western in Danbury earlier in the season. It proved to be the Warriors only loss in league play up until a defeat at the hands of UMass-Dartmouth on Feb. 2.
“It was weird going back there,” admitted Harlow. “There were all those kids I recruited, and I didn’t want it to turn into a circus. We said hello, but they just played.”
Eastern is having another banner season, leading the conference with an 11-2 mark as of Feb.9, 16-5 overall. Harlow is glad to be a part of it.
“The kids accept me, and I know the coaches,” said Harlow. “They have reached out to me. Everybody has been super.”
The 49-year-old Harlow is good for now, but what’s next? You get the idea that the basketball journey doesn’t end here. He doesn’t rule anything out except the idea that he would leave the game.
“I’d love to be in charge of a Division III program, I think I’m good at it,” he said. “But I could be a full-time assistant and if a high school job opened up I would do it. I’m not getting out of the game any time soon.”
As for now he is happy to be at Eastern and Geitner is happy to have him there.
“During our games, he has been in those shoes and we lean on him for his suggestions, his points,” said Geitner.” He is another set of knowledge of the game. We are fortunate he was able to join our program.”
Harlow is just glad for the opportunity. He knows the game and he knows when the game is over there is always another game somewhere. And he has always found that game. It is what he does and does well. No looking back. Always landing on his basketball feet to some team’s benefit.