Three tables sat along the wall near the entranceway to the gym at Southeast High on Tuesday. Cupcakes sat on the tables, with posters of nostalgic photos hung along the wall.
There was also a 3-D, life-size cut-out poster near the tables with a banner on the wall explaining just what the fuss was all about: “The Final Buzzer for Coach John Harder.”
Tuesday was the final regular-season home game of Harder’s illustrious 35-year career at Southeast High.
The Seminoles won 55-48, with fans filling both bleachers and many of the area’s longtime community members with ties to the school in attendance.
Last season, Harder, who wore his customary plaid jacket and dressy attire for Tuesday’s momentous game, won his 800th career game and said at the time there wouldn’t be a 900th victory for him at Southeast. Instead, he’s spent the past three seasons grooming assistant coach Brian Alexander as his successor.
Alexander first stood out to Harder when the then-high schooler was in Harder’s American History class years ago. Harder said he noticed Alexander, who played basketball for the Seminoles and later at the University of Southern Maine, was sitting in the back of the class helping a German exchange student, Nele Schmidt, adjust to American culture and living so far away from family.
“He wanted to help her, because she needed him,” Harder said. “And that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to have someone that wants the job, not because it’s a pretty job, but because it’s needed.”
Added Alexander: “Just saw someone that was a little lost and a little scared, and all they need is a friend. ... If I was in her shoes, I’d have hoped someone would reach out to me and assist as well.”
A few years ago, Harder was looking for an assistant coach. George Schrier, who is Manatee County’s director of student services, called Harder one day. Harder said Schrier knows basketball. Schrier told Harder he had someone to fill the assistant coaching role. When Harder heard it was Alexander, he instantly knew he’d be a great fit.
However, there’s no guarantee Alexander will replace Harder for next season. Southeast High principal Rosa Faison and athletic director Joe Collis will determine that when they choose the next girls basketball head coach.
And when the court inside the Benjamin “Buzz” Narbut gym at Southeast was dedicated in Harder’s honor in 2016 — Alexander’s first as Harder’s assistant — that view was reaffirmed by another Southeast coaching legend, former football coach and athletic director Paul Maechtle.
“Maechtle came up to me after the game, out of nowhere you’d think he’d congratulate me on the floor — he said, ‘You picked the right assistant,’ ” Harder said. “He knew. Maechtle’s the smartest and toughest there is. And he knew exactly we had the right guy.”
In addition to having his future successor in the program, Harder’s devotion to spending time with his seven grandchildren is another reason why he’s stepping down after amassing 899 wins over a 45-year career that began in Illinois and ended in Southeast.
“I am spread out between Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Charlotte, North Carolina, with these seven grandkids,” Harder said. “And I’ve promised my three children, who I should have been able to do more with when I was coaching basketball, that my time will start with these kids.
“I want to teach them how to do a jump shot. I’d like to throw a ball and spend this first year (of retirement) visiting in and out. To have a real Christmas without a tournament or a Thanksgiving without an away trip. I’ve gone 50 weeks out of the 52 every year for 45 years, and that includes six-day weeks when it comes to working Saturdays.”
Harder’s retirement will begin after the school year concludes, and his time coaching the Seminoles will end whenever their season concludes. They have at least one more home game in next week’s district tournament.
With a passion for history and American government, Harder wants to see every Civil War battlefield and has been to 48 states and their capitals — Alaska and Hawaii are on the bucket list. The passion for traveling and history came from his father Ray Harder, while his mother Grenadene introduced him to his love of basketball at the age of 5.
Transitioning into coaching stemmed from learning under mentors Chuck Schramm and Stan Horst in Illinois, before former Southeast principal Patricia Lucas, former athletic director John Kiker and Maechtle hired him at Southeast. Harder didn’t start as the varsity girls coach, only earning that position after Narbut left to coach at Florida State.
The Seminoles won a state title in Harder’s first season. They’ve won it twice more since, and they have a team with a 19-4 record aiming to make a run in Harder’s final season.