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Smeltzer: Amid the Madness, Penn State Basketball Fans Should Remember John Harrar

Penn State Basketball Player John Harrar
Photo from Penn State Twitter (USA Today): John Harrar

Who knows what all Penn State basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry thought about in the moments after his team’s overtime win over Northwestern Friday night in Chicago? 

He was probably thinking about how the game ended. How the old “foul up three late” strategy almost turned a win into a loss.

Maybe the big picture rolled through his mind.

The win put the school in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2018.

Penn State all but sealed its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011 by beating Illinois the night before.

Conquering Northwestern erased any possible doubt that it would be going dancing, and Shrewsberry is surely aware of that.

For all we know, Shrewsberry was already thinking about who Penn State would play in the semis– Indiana or Maryland– before that game, which ended up being an Indiana win, even started. 

Shrewsberry could have been thinking about all of these things at once.

Now, I’m just as much of a basketball coach as I am a mind reader, but I’d guess that’s how the brain of a DI boss works, especially one of a team playing meaningful basketball in March.

While Shrewsberry was still processing everything in the moments after Penn State’s win and with a million things going through his head, Big Ten Network analyst Andy Katz asked Shrewsberry when he started to believe his team could make it to the semifinals. 

In his response, Shrewsberry mentioned three of Penn State’s best current players; Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk and Seth Lundy. 

But before he mentioned those three, Shrewsberry gave a shoutout to somebody who won’t play a minute for Penn State this season.

“I give a lot of credit to John Harrar,” Shrewsberry said. “He was a part of establishing this culture of what we needed to do and how we needed to play to win basketball games.”

One of Shrewsberry’s most used slogans at Penn State, if not No. 1 on the list, is “Gritty not pretty.”

Harrar personified that phrase.

Harrar wasn’t known for highlight reel plays or eye-popping stats; he was known for hard work, and because of that, he developed a cult following.

It’s hard for a Penn State basketball player to captivate the campus. The football program dwarfs basketball’s importance in Happy Valley, and basketball is well behind wrestling on the food chain. But Penn State fans loved Harrar. 

They loved his intensity. They loved his toughness. They loved that when he would have been well justified in leaving the program after his fourth year– and, in fact, almost did through the transfer portal— Harrar decided to stay.

Nobody loved John Harrar more than Micah Shrewsberry. 

Coaches aren’t supposed to have favorite players.

Shrewsberry might not admit that Harrar was his favorite during his first season at Penn State, so it’s not 100% confirmed.

But read these quotes and tell me Harrar wasn’t Shrewsberry’s favorite.

“What I hear Penn State is, I see it every day, and I see it in John,” Shrewsberry said after Penn State’s loss to Ohio State Dec. 5, 2021. 

“John’s a warrior, man,” Shrewsberry said after Penn State’s upset win over Michigan State Feb. 15, 2022. “He’s a warrior. He gives you everything he has. There is no, ‘did John play hard tonight?’ Yes, John plays hard.”

My favorite Shrewsberry quote about Harrar came after Harrar’s second-to-last game at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Penn State played Northwestern on a Friday and ended its home season against Nebraska less than 48 hours later. 

After the Northwestern game, Shrewsberry had an idea. 

“I have a petition on Saturday I’m going to work on,” he said. “I need all you guys to sign it. I need everyone that comes into the BJC on Sunday; we’re going to get that started. If (the NCAA doesn’t) accept it, John’s not going to be here next year.”

Shrewsberry knew Harrar, a fifth-year senior, would be back the next season, and he wasn’t.

When Penn State lost to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal last year, Harrar knew his college career was done, and after the game he shared his vision for the future of Penn State basketball

“I’ll be right behind the bench cheering for him,” Harrar told reporters. “That will be one of the happiest moments of my life, seeing Penn State win a Big Ten championship. I’m Penn State forever.”

If Penn State does shock the college basketball world and win Big Ten Tournament for the first time in school history, Harrar won’t be there in person. He’s currently playing professionally in Spain. 

This commitment also means Harrar won’t be there in person when Penn State plays in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

But anybody who knows about Harrar knows how much he loves Penn State basketball and his former teammates, some of which are still on the team. 

Not being at the Big Ten or NCAA Tournament isn’t ideal for Harrar personally, but No. 21 embodies the phrase “team player” perhaps as much as anybody that ever played at Penn State. 

So, Penn State fans, as you’re cheering on Pickett, Lundy, Funk and the rest of the Lions for however long you can this March, remember what Harrar meant to the program.

Micah Shrewsberry always will.


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