The Gonz Show: Tommy Amaker

Harvard’s new men’s basketball coach has a winning plan for his team—but it doesn’t include taking advice from John Gonzalez.

What happened at Michigan? When you started there, the program was reeling from NCAA sanctions. You cleaned it up, but never made it to the NCAA tournament. I’d like to reflect back on the positive moments. I definitely disagreed with the decision, but I understand the world of college athletics, and the dynamics that play into things like my dismissal. I have no bitterness about the opportunity I was afforded. Sometimes life takes you in a different path.
The Ivy League is perennially dominated by Penn and Princeton. Let’s test your institutional knowledge: When was the last time Harvard won the league? We’ve never won.
How is it possible that Harvard can mold multiple presidents but not a single champion men’s basketball team? That’s one of the strong attractions to be here. There aren’t many places on this campus where you can go and say, “This hasn’t ever been done here before.”
James Brown from CBS’s The NFL Today show was one of the Crimson’s all-time great hoops players. Maybe he has some eligibility left. I bet he could still dominate the paint. I’ve already checked on it. The call went in, and he doesn’t have any eligibility left.
So how do you plan to whip your players into shape? It’s going to take time, but it’s a journey, and we’ll fight, claw, and build and be hungry. We’ll be happy about what we’re doing and who we are.
When you’re on the sidelines coaching, you’re a big fan of the sweater or turtleneck-under-jacket look. Are you anti-tie? No, I never gave it much thought. I’ve never been that calculating about it in terms of how I’ll look. I just want to be comfortable.
But now that you’re at Harvard, what do you think about upgrading to an ascot? I appreciate your thoughts, but I’ll respectfully decline. I’m not sure that would be fitting for me. Maybe for someone else, but not for me.
 
 
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You played at Duke, and you also served as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K is a legend. What did you learn from him?
I need to learn a lot more from him. I was very fortunate to play for him and work for him as an assistant and to be around one of the greats of the game. You learn a lot from how he mentors people. At first you marvel at his basketball success, but as you get older, you marvel at his success in life.

Yes, but did you learn how to spell his name.
I always know how to spell his name. K-r-z-y-z-e-w-s-k-i.

That’s so impressive. The Harvard guys will love that.
[Laughs] He’s my guy.

Are you still a Duke loyalist? Because growing up I was a UNLV fan, and back in ’91 Duke beat an undefeated Rebels team in the Final Four. I was 13. That was the day my childhood died, Tommy. I’m not bitter, but if you want to apologize for crushing me, I won’t stop you.
[Laughs] That’s my alma mater. We’re all incredibly loyal to our alma mater. I’m appreciative of all the nurturing that came with being part of Duke. I was part of some special moments. Including 1991.

As a player, you were part of the 1986 World Championship Team. It was the first time in 32 years that the U.S. won. What did you do with your gold medal? Do you sleep next to it at night?
I still have it. It was the first time in 32 years that we’d won a gold in the World Championships, but it was also the last time that an all-college team won a gold medal in any of the major events—World Championships or the Olympics. I have the medal with all the things that I’ve kept in a display area—trophies and memorabilia.

So tell me about what happened at Michigan. When you started there six years ago, the program was reeling from NCAA sanctions. And you cleaned it up, but you never made it to the NCAA Tournament.
I’d like to reflect back on the positive moments. I’m fond of Michigan and the chance to work at a great university with great people. I have no bitterness. I definitely disagreed with the decision, but I understand the business and the makeup and the dynamics that play into my dismissal as a basketball coach. But I have no bitterness about the opportunity I was afforded. Sometimes life takes you in a different direction.

The Ivy League is perennially dominated by Penn and Princeton. Let’s test your institutional knowledge. When was the last time Harvard won the league?
We’ve never won.

How is it possible that Harvard can mold multiple presidents but not a sufficient basketball team?
That’s one of the strong attractions to be here. We get to come in on the ground floor and build on that. We have some fantastic men here. And we want to build on what they’ve done. We want to take it to a level that we aspire to—to be Ivy League Champions one day. It’s a challenge, but with those kinds of challenges come great opportunities. There aren’t many places on this campus where you can go and say “this hasn’t ever been done here.” We have that opportunity.

Well, it’s not like the school is completely without achievement. They did make the NCAA tourney back in ’46, but they lost to Ohio State University. A joker at the Ivy League office said Greg Oden had 14 points in that game.
[Laughs.]

You know, James Brown from the CBS NFL studio show was one of the Crimson’s all-time great hoops players. Maybe he has some eligibility left. I bet he could still dominate the paint.
[Laughs.] I’ve already checked on it. He doesn’t have any eligibly left. Which is a shame. But he’s one of the more prominent basketball alums. He’d love to see our program prosper.

So how do you plan on whipping the current Crimson players into shape?
It’s going to take time to achieve the level we want, but it’s a journey and we’ll fight, claw and build and be hungry. We’ll be happy about what we’re doing and who we are. To be at this school and this conference, I think we should be very thankful.

When you’re on the sideline coaching, you’re a big fan of the sweater or turtleneck under your jacket look. Are you anti-tie?
[Laughs]. No. I never gave it much thought. It’s a little more comfortable to coach basketball in. I’ve never been that calculating about it in terms of how I’ll look. I don’t know what will happen with me now. I just want
to coach and be comfortable.

Ok, you said you haven’t put much thought into it. But I have. Let me run this by you. Now that you’re at Harvard, what do you think about upgrading to an ascot?
[Laughs] I appreciate your thoughts, but I’ll respectfully decline. I don’t think that would work for me. Maybe for someone else, but not for me.

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