Harry Fails took Spartans to Sweet 16 in 1969-70 season
By CHRIS LARICK
Harry Fails is one of a handful of Ashtabula County basketball stars — Gene Gephart, Bob Ball and Bob Walters come immediately to mind — who returned to this county to excel as coaches, too.
Fails served a relatively short time — three seasons — as Conneaut's head coach before moving on to lead Alliance's Aviators to dominant years. But his contributions on the county's courts and sidelines more than qualify him for induction into the Ashtabula County Hall of Fame.
Fails will join 11 other luminaries who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame on Sunday at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.
As a player at Rowe High School, Fails averaged 19.3 points per game as a junior to rank as the county's leading scorer. He followed that by averaging 19.5 points as a senior, second in the county, and was selected to the first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County first team both years.
"I could flat-out shoot it," Fails said of his contributions to the Rowe team coached by Stan Humphrey.
" I think we started out at 7-0 my senior year, but then we didn't practice over Christmas. When we came back, Pymatuning Valley romped us. We weren't ready for the press, didn't get the job done and got beat."
Despite his impressive numbers, Fails didn't play basketball in college after graduating from Rowe in 1959. In fact, he found college studies tough to handle in his first go-round at Kent State.
"I was on the verge of flunking out the first time," he said. "I got out while the getting was good. I wasn't ready for college."
When he was ready to return to Kent, Fails had his act together and wound up graduating with honors in 1963.
"I studied my butt off," he said.
After graduating from Kent State, Fails was fortunate enough to land a teaching-coaching position at Conneaut. He guided the eighth-grade Spartans team to an 11-3 record, then moved up to freshmen the next year and went 16-1. He was JV coach the following season, with the Spartans posting an 8-10 record.
In 1968, legendary coach Andy Garcia retired from the head coaching job and Fails took over. He showed his mettle immediately, coaching Conneaut to a 17-5 record and to a sectional championship.
But the next year was even better. In 1969-70, the Spartans went 19-4 and won a district championship, the first Conneaut team to do so since 1934-35 and, to this point, the last. Both years, he won the Northeastern Conference championship and was named as the Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year, the first man ever to accomplish the latter feat.
That Spartans squad, led by Scott Humphrey, Al Razem, Jeff Puffer, Tim Richards, John Colson, Mike Mucci and Dave White, wound up losing by two points, 62-60, to Akron Central in the regional semifinal. Conneaut was the first county team to make it to regionals since the 1961-62 Pymatuning Valley squad coached by Joe Shantz.
"We were down about 19 (points) with 2:43 to go and came back and lost by two," Fails said. "One of our kids missed a layup with 11 seconds to go that would have tied it. But we've had to play Boardman (in the regional finals). They were big that year."
"That was a tough loss," Humphrey recalled later. "(Fails) hadn't been able to scout them. We got behind by 16 points. We pressed them and came within two. If we got to overtime, I'm sure we could've beaten them."
Humphrey was on almost all of Conneaut's teams.
"He came up in the seventh and eighth grades," Humphrey recalls. "He kind of came up with us.
"He also played for my dad. He was a heck of a coach. I played for Harry — that's kind of a cool thing. He was a great player.
"He wasn't a whole lot older than us. He had a lot to do with us being successful. Every time we got in a tough game, he diagrammed a play and it worked. We won a lot of close games like that.
"He was very innovative. We played every kind of defense. We pressed all the time; it was a big change from Andy. We pressed and scored off the press. If we needed to slow it down, we did."
After that big 1969-70 season, the Spartans went 12-7, making his three-year record with Conneaut 48-19 (.716). But it would be his last season as head coach for the Spartans. He got fed up with his teaching load and went to Alliance High School.
"It's a long story," Fails said. "The principal was Larry Colson. The year before, I had volunteered to take the girls team for him. I said I'd do it and we went 5-1 and were co-champs of the girls league.
"The next year, they assigned me to six classes [to teach] with three preparations. I said, ‘I'll be leaving,' said I wouldn't be there."
Fails moved on to Alliance, where he continued to coach winning teams. In 16 seasons, through 1986-1987, as the Aviators' head coach, he posted a 228-103 (.689) record, making his overall mark 276-122 (.694).
At Alliance High School, his teaching load was four classes with one preparation, in American History-American Government. He was named Teacher of the Year in 1975-76.
Asked to compare his Conneaut and Alliance teams, Fails said, "I think Alliance kids were tougher. We played Canton McKinley and Barberton, year after year."
Overall, he liked playing better than coaching he said. He had no regrets when he quit coaching in 1987, either.
"I'd had enough," he said. "My son was going to be playing for Alliance, and if I was coaching it'd put him in a no-win situation."
Fails had a stroke in 1994 and took disability retirement from education [He had become an administrator, an assistant principal, then athletic director, as time went on]. He's now almost fully recovered and attends games.
In fact, someone (who prefers to remain anonymous) spotted Fails at a Louisville-Alliance game this year.
"He was yelling at the refs," the anonymous source said. "The refs stopped the game and warned him."
"That was the only time all year I yelled at an official," Fails said. "This guy was terrible. I called him ‘Pretty Boy.' He said, ‘Let's not get personal,' and I blew him a kiss. All the other fans supported me.
"I'm on medication to calm me down since my stroke in 1994. The biggest mistake of my life was going into (school) administration. I went from the most popular person in the school to the most hated. I didn't give much slack to anybody."
Fails has his opinions about what makes a good high school coach.
"You have to care about kids and they have to know that," he said. "A lot of them understood that I cared about them. One of my best players, Kevin Gaffney, who went to the University of Cincinnati and started two years, called me Dad. He was a good kid. His mom was even better."
Fails married Rosemary (Reo), "my beautiful sweetheart," as he calls her. "She lived up the block from me."
The couple has four children. Tammy, 39, has had two strokes. Fails admits he's mystified why he and his daughter have had strokes, which have not run in the family.
Diana, 37, teaches in Alliance; Tim, 32, works in management for Fidelity and Mary Beth is the fourth of the children.
Tim was named after Tim Richards, one of Fails' former players at Conneaut.
"Tim Richards was one of the greatest kids I ever coached," Fails said. "When I had to leave the team, he was going to be a senior. He was a good player who started for me as a sophomore."
One of the area coaches Fails knew while coaching at Alliance was Tim Mizer, now Jefferson's' assistant boys basketball coach and a former head coach for the Falcons.
"He used to coach basketball at Massillon Perry and used to be a baseball coach," Fails said of Mizer. "He's a good guy."
The news of his induction into the ACBF Hall of Fame came as a surprise to Fails.
"I'm really surprised, but happy about it," he said. "I told my wife about it and she was pretty excited. I think that's a great thing they're doing."