When it comes to Robert Morris basketball as a successful Division I mid-major, it all began with Chipper Harris.
Harris, the starting guard for Robert Morris’ 1982 and 1983 NCAA Tournament teams, passed away on Saturday. He had been in poor health for a number of years.
“Our entire team and staff was saddened by the news of Chipper’s passing,” said Matt Furjanic, Jr., who was Harris’ coach all four years at Robert Morris. “We have been calling and texting each other. We were all one family and have been through the years.”
Furjanic’s job in the late 1970s and early 1980s was to turn the Robert Morris program into a something after it had made the big jump from junior college to Division I in 1976. Furjanic focused on local talent to get the Colonials over the hump, and his recruitment of Harris, a Valley grad, along with Belle Vernon’s Tom Parks and Beaver Falls’ Forest Grant paid dividends.
“We had the best backcourt in those years in Pittsburgh, Chipper Harris and Forest Grant,” Furjanic said. “They complimented each other for four years together. Their chemistry was something you couldn’t teach.”
During Harris’ four-year career at Robert Morris, he averaged 16.5 points per game and shot 51.4 percent from the floor.
“Chip was so quick,” Furjanic said. “Could do it all. Great outside shooter, attack the basket, pass, press breaker and one of the best defensive players I’ve ever coached. One of the NCAA’s leader in steals. Could anticipate when to go for a steal on a pass. No one better. A leader by example. Always gave 100 percent. State champ in high school at Valley and led us to two NCAA’s.”
Harris was the Northeast Conference Player of the Year in 1984 and was the first player named to RMU’s Basketball Ring of Honor. He was also inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame as well as the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Hall of Fame.
“He was such a likable guy and he was always smiling,” said Randy Cosgrove, who called play-by-play and was the sports information director for the Colonials during Harris’ career. “I broadcast every game the kid played, and there was always something he did that made me say ‘Did he just do that?’”
What his presence meant to the program is nearly incalculable. It was those early championship teams that sparked an interest in Robert Morris basketball and put the program on the map nationally as a mid-major.
“(They) meant everything to it,” said current Robert Morris play-by-play announcer Chris Shovlin. “They were the guys who put Robert Morris into the national conversation as far as low Division I mid-major basketball, and Chipper, he was the top star.”
After his playing days were over, Harris remained a visible part of the program, attending alumni functions and other events. His was a part of the ceremony when uniform No. 10 was raised to the rafters in the Sewall Center as part of his Ring of Honor induction in 2014.
“He meant everything to the program,” Shovlin said. “He was always coming back. We had all-time reunions. The first guy that got invited back was Chipper and the first guy that showed up was Chipper.”
After his Robert Morris career, Harris was drafted into the NBA by the Kansas City Kings, but he never played for the club. He remained in the Pittsburgh area throughout his life.