Amaker took the Michigan job at a difficult time for the school. The Wolverines had just been hit with sanctions following the infamous Fab Five scandal, hampering their ability to compete at the highest level. In his third season in Ann Arbor, Michigan failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and instead accepted an invitation to the less prestigious National Invitation Tournament. Michigan ended up winning that tourney, but when his players were cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden that night in 2004, Amaker was nowhere to be seen. He had left the court to be by himself.
No one has ever accused Amaker of being a publicity hound, but even by his standards, his avoidance of the media while at Michigan bordered on the extreme. He had no radio or television show — unheard of for a bigtime basketball or football coach. He was just never comfortable with the attention brought on by his position. The Ann Arbor News once ran a profile of the coach headlined, “Who Is Tommy Amaker?” That the subject of the piece did not consent to an interview was not a surprise, the paper noted. More of a surprise, perhaps, was that the media was still seeking an answer to that question five years after Amaker arrived on campus.
If Seton Hall ended badly, Michigan ended worse. The Wolverines never did make it to the NCAAs in the six years Amaker was there. Even factoring in the sanctions he had to deal with, there’s no way to see that as anything other than a failure. In March 2007, Michigan fired him.
Less than a month later, he accepted the job at Harvard. The Ivy League. A historically horrible program, in a borderline Division I conference, in need of a dramatic remake. Some of Amaker’s friends, including Krzyzewski, were hardly enthusiastic when he took the Harvard job so soon after being sacked by Michigan. “I’ve heard that,” Amaker says. “People said, ‘What are you thinking?’ Every job has its challenges. I have never gone to a place where I didn’t think I could be there forever.”
Amaker and his wife, Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, looked at the situation “as a dual-professional couple,” he says. She is a clinical psychologist who works at McLean Hospital while also holding a position with Harvard Medical School. At Michigan, she was an associate dean of students. As Amaker likes to say, “she’s the smart one.”
After coaching in the Big Ten and in the Big East, Amaker says he knew exactly what he was getting into at Harvard. He embraced the challenge, confident he could look every potential recruit in the eye and ask him six enticing words: “Do you want to make history?”
ON THE NIGHT OF December 8, 2011, 24th-ranked Harvard traveled to the University of Connecticut to play the ninth-ranked defending national champions. The game was a contrast in styles — from the objectives and expectations of the two programs to the personalities of the head coaches.
With his trademark monogrammed mock turtlenecks and collected, cool behavior on the sidelines, Amaker is the polar opposite of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who is boisterous, profane, and demonstrative. Calhoun served a three-game suspension this season for recruiting violations. Amaker, by contrast, hasn’t been called for a technical foul since the first month of his first season at Harvard. That Amaker is not more like Calhoun — that he doesn’t care for trawling in the more unsavory recruiting muck — may have been a liability at Michigan, but it’s made the professorial coach a perfect fit at Harvard.