The Natrona Mustangs suffered two painful defeats to end the football season. One after another, varsity starters fell to injury, forcing the team to play inexperienced underclassmen.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Mustangs faced their crosstown rivals, the Kelly Walsh Trojans, who’d beaten them earlier in the year. Despite the obstacles, Natrona upset both Kelly Walsh and Gillette in the playoffs to earn a spot in the state championship.
Steve Harshman, who’s coached the Mustangs for 26 years, credited preparation and work ethic for his team’s playoff success. Both are part of something he refers to as “the process” — the melding of work, planning and tradition.
On Tuesday, the coach will receive a new title — speaker of the Wyoming House. He’ll have to lean on a cast of new lawmakers as they work to address an unprecedented drop in state revenues.
Of the 60 members of the Wyoming House, 21 will have no previous legislative experience when Harshman pounds the gavel and calls the chamber into session.
Expect Harshman to tie in his experience as a coach with his leadership in Cheyenne.
Lawmakers must confront a massive hold in state education funding. Harshman’s experience as a teacher and coach will inform the debate, as will his time as a chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee – the group of lawmakers who take the first stab at the state budget. His understanding of state finances is among the clearest in the state, observers of Wyoming’s political process say.
Harshman will employ methods that have earned him success on the football field to lead lawmakers during a difficult time.
“Practice matters, hard work matters, the whole process matters,” he said. “I think those things are identical to the legislative process. We have 125 years of legislative process and history and decorum. I think all that matters.”
Harshman, 53, was raised in Midwest, the small Natrona County town on the edge of the oil patch, as the youngest of five sons. His father was an electrician by trade who went into the natural gas business.
With one television station and a telephone cord that stretched only 3 feet, he spent his childhood outside, running around, playing sports and shooting everything that moved, he said.
Work came early for Harshman, who said he was docking sheep before he was 5. By 13, he’d taken a job at a truck stop. When he was 16, he landed on a workover rig, changing pumps.
That work ethic remains.
Harshman anticipates having to add at least four additional hours to his time on the House floor each day — reviewing bills, meeting with the governor and Democratic leadership and counseling lawmakers.
For college, Harshman headed to Spearfish, South Dakota, where he played football at Black Hills State and wrestled there for two years. When he entered college, his goal was to work in the Foreign Service.
“I was a total history, politics geek,” he said. “I loved sports, too. But I was probably the only guy – think back to the ‘70s – I knew every country and every capital and every leader. I was a storehouse for useless knowledge. I won a lot of trivia games.”
But his plans shifted after coaching a summer football camp. He switched his major to physical education and later enrolled in graduate school at Oregon State, where he worked as a graduate assistant coach.
He began his teaching career in Colorado before returning to Wyoming, where he and his wife, Becky, have both been teaching for over 30 years. She teaches first grade at Oregon Trail Elementary and together they have raised two sons and two daughters, ranging in ages from 17 to 26.
Harshman teaches physical education at Natrona County High and enlists the help of long-term substitutes while he’s at the Legislature.
During the session, lawmakers earn $150 a day. But the Natrona County School District requires Harshman to return his legislative salary to the state, and he’s paid his regular teaching salary, he said.
Despite his successes as a coach and educator, Harshman downplayed his reputation as one of Wyoming’s best.
“If I die on a Monday during the season, they’re still going to kick off Friday at 7,” he said. “So all this stuff is bigger than any one individual.”
His players would disagree. Hundreds have donned the NC black and orange and are proud of what the program has become under Harshman’s leadership.
“Coach Harshman has done an amazing thing with our school,” Natrona senior linebacker Thomas Robitaille said. “I’m convinced there are few other coaches and programs that compare to ours in the nation, if not any at all.”
Not a lawyer
This session will be the first in eight years without an attorney for a speaker.
On the House floor, Harshman speaks plainly and directly, like a coach. He looks like one, with a square jaw and imposing frame.
And he strategizes like a coach, too.
During past conference committees, which are organized when a bill emerges from the House and Senate with different amendments, Harshman would meet with other members to lay out a plan before walking into the negotiation. It’s a tactic he likely learned as a coach, said Rep. Don Burkhart of Rawlins, who is serving on the leadership team as speaker pro tempore.
“I think some other people, when they go to conference committee, they say, ‘We’re going to talk about it,’” Burkhart said. “They don’t have a plan on how to build support for their position. Steve did.”
Most Democrats who spoke with the Star-Tribune declined to go on the record about his leadership, saying they needed to be open-minded and collegial ahead of the session. Some said they hoped Harshman will give their bills a fair shot. Harshman has promised he will, unless a bill was designed to embarrass certain lawmakers or “cause mischief.”
Ken Esquibel, an outgoing Democratic representative who served with Harshman on Appropriations, said he usually supported the new speaker’s budget goals. While serving on Appropriations, Esquibel said he tried to persuade the committee to divert 1 percent of severance taxes the state receives from mineral development to sock away in education accounts.
“I think had we been more proactive, then they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in now,” he said.
Republican Larry Wolfe, a retired attorney and lobbyist in Cheyenne, worries Harshman will lose the big picture.
“Harshman as speaker will approach all problems like a football game, just get this score or stop that pass and we are OK for this game,” he said. “Unfortunately, in this funding debate it is the longer-term view that is needed, and that is in woefully short supply.”
Harshman’s face is the first that people in the House gallery will see. He will bring bills up for vote and call on lawmakers to speak for and against them. The speaker accepts legislation for introduction on the floor and influences the schedule of bills up for discussion each day. He’ll assign bills to committees.
But the job in 2017 may be as much about hand-holding as it is about power.
Harshman and his leadership team have been answering questions from the newly elected legislators. They’re sitting in on the three-day orientation for new lawmakers, unusual because it’s presented by the nonpartisan legislative staff.
“All of us have a portion of training to give,” said Burkhart, who will be the third-ranking Republican in the House. “We plan to be there the entire time to answer questions, that sort of thing. Sometimes how things work and the training are a little bit different.”
Departing Casper lawmaker Tim Stubson recalled a moment at last year’s session that he said was Harshman at his best. All the Democrats in the House rejected the budget. Each hammered on the bill, arguing there were too many cuts that hurt too many people.
Harshman delivered a lengthy speech.
“And he spoke really pretty eloquently about the philosophy of our budget and building our state,” said Stubson, who served on the Appropriations Committee under Harshman. “In doing that, he did something I hadn’t see anyone do before: essentially unite the Republicans. You always see 10 or 12 Republicans voting against the budget because it was spending too much money.”
In 2016, all Republicans except one rallied behind the state’s spending bill.
Six months later, Harshman added another improbable feat to his resume when his inexperienced Mustangs sealed their first victory of the season in the final moments of the game.
Having suffered two shutout losses to start the season, Natrona willed its way to a lead over Laramie in the last minutes. When Laramie attempted to retake the lead on a field goal with less than a minute remaining, junior Riley Shepperson dove in front of the ball and blocked it, preserving Natrona’s first win of the season.
The sense of relief and excitement afterward was palpable. The Mustangs persevered through a potential loss to a stunning win.
“We really focus on the process, and when all that starts coming together, you see that improvement,” Harshman said. “The big credit is to the kids — the people who are doing it — that hang in there. People who keep working and learning, struggling and overcoming. That’s all part of it. It’s a beautiful life story, man.”