Above photo of Larry Harmon (center) courtesy of UMHB Sports Information
BELTON- Even as a first-year head coach, UMHB football’s Larry Harmon knows the expectations will be high entering the 2022 season.
That is what happens when a program like the one at Mary Hardin-Baylor captures 17 American Southwest Conference Titles in 24 seasons, and wins national titles in two of the last three years. But the expectations do not worry Harmon. He has been in Belton long enough to have seen those expectations set.
“My life’s work is right here,” Harmon, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach following Pete Fredenburg’s retirement, said in a recent interview. “I played at South Dakota State, coached for a year and a half at Northwest Missouri State, and then I’ve been here ever since.”
Hired in 1999 as an assistant coach working with the secondary, Harmon witnessed the program go from its infancy stage to become a national powerhouse that is 231-39 all-time. After three years on the staff as an assistant, he was promoted to the defensive coordinator job; a position he held until Jan. 7, when UMHB announced Fredenburg’s retirement and Harmon as the next head coach.
“I feel like I was a big part of getting this thing built up to what we are,” Harmon said, “so there’s an ownership and a pride in it. There’s a sense of family. Coach Fred is as close to a second dad as anybody could possibly be.”
The impact of Fredenburg, who was UMHB’s only head coach since the program’s inception in 1998, is evident within Harmon, who worked closely with him through the years of building the culture of Crusader football.
“It was such a blessing for somebody like Pete to take a vested interest in me and my career,” Harmon said. “It’s easy to see something you don’t quite agree with and just let somebody slide with it. But he didn’t. He always made me reflect on what I was doing and if I truly had conviction in it. So there’s been a lot of conflict, but it’s all been very good and made me the person I am today.”
In November of 1999, there was conflict within the program. UMHB had posted a 4-6 record in its second season in existence, and the day after the season finale, several starters made the decision to leave the program. But in that conflict, the Code of the Cru was established, and Harmon was there to witness it, as a young coach coming off his first year on the staff. It proved foundational in the building of the championship culture now evident in Belton, and in 2001, UMHB captured its first ASC title.
“In 1999, we went 4-6, and in the last game of the year we lost to Texas Lutheran,” Harmon recalls. “The next day, six or seven starters came in and quit. It was a negative end to the year, and we spent a lot of time self-evaluating each other and everything that we’d asked our kids to do.
“[Offensive Coordinator] George Haffner was the one that said, ‘We need to develop a core group of guys that trust each other, that are committed to each other, and care about each other.’ Something that simple to say created us saying, ‘What do we want to be known for?’ And that’s the Code of the Cru. Out of that, an identity was created. And we’ve had it ever since.”
Four years later, with the winning culture having taken root, the Cru reached the Stagg Bowl, D-III football’s national title game, for the first time. That playoff run included four postseason wins, as UMHB narrowly fell to Linfield, 28-21, in the Stagg Bowl, and finished as the national runner-up.
“In 2004, we made that run, and it was that run that solidified that we had found the recipe,” Harmon said. “Right then and there, we knew we had it right. And we’ve been very careful in trying to keep it right for nearly 20 years.”
With Harmon now in the head coaching role, he is not anticipating making too many schematic changes when it comes to the product on the field. However, he has been tasked with finding two new coordinators, as offensive coordinator Stephen Lee took the same position at D-I Abilene Christian, and Harmon will no longer be calling the defense as the head coach. The infusion of new coordinators has the potential for minor changes, but from Harmon’s perspective, much of what he is planning to implement for now is in regards to off-field matters.
“I don’t quite know what my stamp is going to be yet,” Harmon said last Thursday. “I think it’s going to shape a little bit off my personality, just because Pete and I are a little different. But it’s going to be Name, Image, Likeness stuff. It’s going to be how the NCAA changes how D-III is allowed to practice, in trying to make sure the game is the safest it can be for our kids.
“There’s going to be some things in there that I’m going to be forced to decide what is the best thing for our program and tradition. But it’s not like things were broken when Coach Fredenburg decided to retire, and I think it would be selfish to sit here and think, ‘I’ve got to make this program all mine, so everybody knows it’s mine.’ That’s not what I did this for. I did this for the kids and the legacy of the guys who have come before.”
Having led the Crusader defense for 17 seasons, Harmon established one of the nation’s top point-limiting units. UMHB held nine opponents to seven points or less in 2021, and in 2017, ranked first in the nation in red zone defense. Entering spring practice and the 2022 season, the Cru will be without the veteran linebackers corps of Jacob Mueller, Mikkah Hackett and Akeem Jackson, who graduated, and leave a significant hole on that side of the ball. But a number of young standouts are expected to step into those roles this upcoming season.
“We had three senior linebackers who all graduated,” Harmon said. “We’ve got some young kids, very athletic kids, behind them. It’s time for them to step up and I believe Coach [Jack] Johnson will do what he does and mentor those guys and get those guys playing fast.
“We’ve also got to help ourselves at defensive end. We lost three incredible ends who played a lot of football for us. This place is always going to have good players. It’s always going to graduate good players and it’s always going to be the next guy up.”
The new role within the program is starting to sink in, Harmon recently said. And it is a role he has accepted with great pride and respect. For him, serving as the head coach at UMHB is about more than just the here and now. It is also about those who he helped coach in the early years of the program, who laid the foundation for what UMHB football is in the present day.
“I said it in the first press conference. I feel like, with Coach Fredenburg stepping down, I’m the only one that’s still left from the original group,” Harmon said. “I know our past. I’m going to be the storyteller.
“I’m going to be the one that can let this future group of kids know what the guys before them had to do. They didn’t have all these facilities. They just had a fieldhouse, a grass field, and played games at Tiger Stadium [Belton High School].
“But they had a dream. They had a vision. Those kids believed back then what these kids are reaping right now.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at email@example.com.