Crimson Pride: How Coach Amaker Turned Harvard into a College Basketball Powerhouse
How coach Tommy Amaker turned his Harvard squad into a basketball powerhouse — and saved his career in the process.
ON A GORGEOUS OCTOBER afternoon, with the sounds of K’naan’s “Waving Flag” pulsing inside Lavietes Pavilion — out of darkness, I came the farthest — the Harvard University men’s basketball team did something it had never done before. With some 400 people in the stands, many of them fans, but also a fair smattering of curiosity seekers, a red Ivy League Champions banner with black piping and large white letters reading “2011 Men” was unveiled at the southern end of the arena. It joined 11 others that were already there — banners celebrating accomplishments by the women’s team.
[sidebar]As the wrapping on the championship flag was removed and allowed to descend slowly to the floor, the fans rose for a 45-second ovation while the players and their coach, 46-year-old Tommy Amaker, stood watching stoically from the sideline. They did not celebrate. Amaker, understated and private by nature, simply thanked everyone for coming. “We appreciate your support,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a wonderful season.”
At many campuses across the country, basketball season opens with Midnight Madness, a ritual of autumn when teams officially begin practice for the upcoming season at 12:01 a.m. on the first day the NCAA allows. Students fill the stands, getting revved up by the band, cheerleaders, and, perhaps, other stimulants. Then at midnight, the players burst onto the floor amid deafening noise and entertain the crowd with thunderous dunks, no-look passes, and the like.
Shocking as it may seem, the Ivy League in general, and Harvard in particular, hasn’t really embraced Midnight Madness. This is, after all, a league that has no athletic scholarships or post-season tournament, and that plays its league games on Fridays and Saturdays so as not to interfere with students’ more important pursuits. Two years ago, on the first day the players were eligible to practice, the Harvard team instead attended a ceremony honoring U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, an alum and former hoopster. Dubbed “Crimson Madness,” this year’s celebration was a first for Harvard — though it was held in the afternoon, some 16 hours after midnight, and was delayed by a day in deference to the universitywide celebration of Harvard’s 375th birthday.
“It’s Harvard,” Amaker says. “We do things differently around here.”
Amaker, too, is doing things differently. Harvard has qualified for the NCAA Tournament — what we today call March Madness — exactly once: back in 1946, a decade before the Ivy League was founded. In more than a half-century of official Ivy League play, Harvard’s best finish in men’s basketball had been a pair of second places. Until last season, every school in the Ivy League had won or shared at least one conference basketball championship — except Harvard.
But Amaker, now in his fifth season at the school, has quietly gone where no Harvard basketball coach has gone before. His teams have set and then reset school records for victories in a season. They’ve turned Lavietes Pavilion into a charnel house for visitors while selling out virtually every game. They’ve begun beating nationally ranked opponents. Amaker’s first recruiting class was judged among the top 25 by ESPN, unprecedented not only for Harvard, but also for the entire Ivy League.
And this year, in yet another first, Harvard found itself ranked in the top 25 by both the Associated Press and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches polls. That came after the Crimson, despite having a roster loaded with seven freshmen, won a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas that featured two top-25 teams, Connecticut and Florida State. Harvard also beat Boston College for the fourth consecutive year, with all of those victories coming at BC’s Conte Forum.
Photo by Jonathan Rutherford
All of this is wonderful, but there is one final piece of unfinished business. Last year, Harvard and Princeton had identical records in Ivy League play, which left them tied for the league championship. The teams played a one-game playoff to determine which of them would make the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson lost by a single point.
For the 2011–2012 season, then, the goal is clearly defined: an undisputed Ivy championship and the berth in the NCAA Tournament that goes with it.
Amaker and his staff, in other words, are well on their way to redefining what it means to be an Ivy League basketball team. “They are writing Harvard basketball history right now,” says Dave Telep, the senior college basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. “They are in uncharted territory.”
Which is saying even more than you might think. Because at the time he took the Harvard job, Amaker’s once-promising career was in danger of flaming out. He was in need of saving every bit as much as Harvard basketball.
THE LAST TIME Harvard was fired up about men’s hoops was more than four decades ago. In 1969, two of the nation’s top high school prospects, James Brown and Floyd Lewis, elected to attend the school, each prep star having been pursued by more than 200 programs.
Brown and Lewis both felt their class would be the one to bring Harvard its first league championship. It almost happened. In their sophomore season, Harvard went 11–3 in league play, losing twice to eventual champ Penn and once to Princeton. It was downhill after that, as Harvard barely played .500 ball (a combined 15–13) in the Ivy League over the next two years, finishing in a tie for third place in 1972, and in fourth place in 1973.
And that, unfortunately for Crimson basketball fans, was pretty much the golden era of Harvard hoops until Amaker arrived. In the 34 seasons from 1973 to 2007, Harvard’s four head coaches produced a total of seven winning records. Some big names passed through the coaching ranks, with the same depressing results. Among them was Tom “Satch” Sanders, who once briefly coached the Celtics and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year. KC Jones was an assistant in the early ’70s. In the mid-1980s, an ambitious young coach named Tom Thibodeau — who in later years would become Doc Rivers’s lead assistant on the 2007–2008 NBA champion Celtics, and the 2011 NBA Coach of the Year for the Chicago Bulls — joined Peter Roby’s staff. Roby, though, was unable to produce a single winning season in six years.
“The league was dominated by Penn and Princeton, and every time it looked like we might be able to turn things around, we could never sustain it,” Thibodeau recalls. “Arne Duncan missed one season to do research on his thesis. He was one of our best players.”
No one could win there. The man Amaker replaced, Frank Sullivan, was well liked, but in 16 years, he had just four winning seasons. Sullivan was fired in March 2007, leading Harvard to embark on what athletic director Bob Scalise called a “private-equity-like” turnaround. And the centerpiece of that transformation was the hiring of Amaker.
Harvard alum Tom Stemberg, best known for starting the office-supply chain Staples, has been a longtime supporter of the basketball program. He cited three reasons for the program’s turnaround: the unstinting commitment of Scalise, the overhaul of the school’s financial aid guidelines, and the hiring of Amaker.
“The feeling,” Stemberg says, “was if Duke could do it, and Stanford could do it, why not Harvard?”
BACK IN THE EARLY 1980s, Tommy Amaker was a celebrated high school player in northern Virginia — legendary Celtics boss Red Auerbach called him the best point guard he had seen in 10 years — who had his heart set on attending the University of Maryland. That’s where his sister was enrolled at the time, and also where his idol, John Lucas, had gone.
But everything changed one night at the Jeleph Summer League in Washington, DC, when Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski flew up to watch a game featuring Johnny Dawkins, a star player he was hoping to recruit to play for the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski had intended to head back to North Carolina after the contest, but Amaker’s coach talked him into sticking around for the second game to watch Amaker. Krzyzewski obliged. He was so enthralled by what he saw that he told Amaker’s mother, “Your son is going to look great in Duke blue.”
Amaker became a fixture in the Duke backcourt, starting 138 games over four years. He established school records for assists and steals (both since broken), and was a key member of the 1986 team that advanced to the NCAA title game, only to lose to Louisville.
“Tommy has always been a student of the game,” says ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played with Amaker for three years at Duke. “When we played for USA Basketball [in 1985], a coach came into our room to talk about our next opponent. Tommy had already seen them play, and he finished every sentence the coach started. It was crazy. Here we were, 21-year-old kids in Taiwan, and Tommy was already thinking ahead of everyone else.”
After college, Amaker was drafted by the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, but didn’t make the team. After that, he spent three days trying out for the Wyoming Wildcatters of the no-longer-operating Continental Basketball Association before deciding to return to Duke to work for a year as a graduate assistant under Krzyzewski. That was the beginning of a nine-year apprenticeship under arguably the most celebrated and successful college basketball coach of his time.
One of Amaker’s first tasks as an assistant coach was to go hard after top recruit Grant Hill, who was weighing offers from all of the best college programs. Hill eventually chose Duke, where he went on to become an All-American.
“He has this ability to connect with guys in recruiting, which is one of the big parts of having a successful Division I program,” Hill says. “You have to be a salesperson, to convince them to come and then to buy into your beliefs and into one another. He had that.”
By 1997, Amaker was ready for his own gig. He accepted a job at Seton Hall, a school in the powerhouse Big East conference. At 31, he was the youngest coach in the league, and he was an immediate success, leading the Pirates to the Sweet Sixteen of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. He also showed his ability to attract top talent by signing Eddie Griffin, the nation’s number one prepster, and pulling in the country’s best-rated recruiting class.
All of that led to a job offer from Michigan in the Big Ten conference. When Amaker accepted after such a short stay at Seton Hall, abandoning his recruits, he was criticized and criticized heavily, quite possibly for the first time in his entire basketball career. To one New Jersey columnist, Amaker had “crawled out of here on his belly, a reptilian bust.” Another wrote that “he seemed so charming and sincere, but he slipped out to Newark Airport on his way to Ann Arbor so much less.”
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.
Bigtime schools like UConn typically dot their schedules with easy “cupcake games” against small-conference teams like the Crimson before heading into tougher conference play. But Harvard was no longer anyone’s cupcake, playing its first game ever as a nationally ranked team. The Crimson trailed by only two points at halftime before finally succumbing, 67–53. The year before, UConn had beaten Harvard by 29 points. “Last year we didn’t belong on the court with them,” Amaker says. “[This year] was different.”
The difference between this team and Amaker’s first at Harvard is even greater. Amaker took the job so late in the cycle in 2007 that he had no chance that season to recruit. Using players brought in by his predecessor, he went just 8–22. Making matters worse, the Ivy League cited Harvard for an “unintentional secondary violation” after the New York Times revealed that a future assistant on Amaker’s staff — someone who’d not yet been officially hired — was improperly working out potential recruits. Such violations are deemed by the NCAA to be “routine” at Division I schools, including the Ivy League. The NCAA said it handles 2,000 such incidents a year.
The Times also reported that Harvard had bent its admission guidelines to accept players who wouldn’t have made it prior to Amaker’s taking over the program. The school disputed the story, and the league has said that the academic records of Harvard recruits “complied with all relevant Ivy League obligations.” (The league uses a complicated formula called the Academic Index, which basically demands that arecruit have at least a B average and a minimum score of 1140 on the math and verbal portions of the SAT.) There have been no other incidents or allegations since.
What is indisputable is that Amaker regularly goes after players Sullivan, and every other Harvard coach dating back to the late 1960s, would never have approached. After that rocky first season, Harvard improved to 14–14, helped by Amaker’s first recruiting class. The Crimson have gone 44–15 over the past two years, beating ranked teams (including BC) for the first time in the program’s history.
“They’re targeting top-100 guys,” Telep, the ESPN.com recruiting analyst, says of the caliber of players Harvard now tries to bring in. “They are the only ones in the Ivy League operating with this model. They’re selling Tommy as a players’ coach and Harvard as Harvard. They’ve had no fear in challenging or competing for [the kind of] player Harvard has never had before.”
Amaker is able to cast a wide net in part because of Harvard’s new financial aid guidelines, which happened to change dramatically just before the coach arrived in Cambridge. In 2006 the school announced that families with incomes of $60,000 or less would pay nothing toward the cost of a Harvard education, and that families earning between $60,000 and $180,000 would contribute between zero and 10 percent of their income. The new guidelines, which apply to all students, amount to de facto scholarships for some athletes. And the talent has followed. ESPN ranked two freshmen on this year’s team, Kenyatta Smith and Wesley Saunders, among the top 25 prospects in California. They were reportedly recruited by the likes of Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Stanford, and Southern California. Siyani Chambers, the second-rated player in the state of Minnesota, has committed to Harvard for next season, as has Mike Hall, one of the top prospects in Georgia.
“Why should we settle for less?” Amaker says. “We feel there are enough of those kids out there who are talented and bright.”
While the Crimson’s November and December victories this season, especially their triumph over Florida State, have been critical, they pale in importance to the Ivy League wins that must come in the next two months. Those are the ones that will determine whether Harvard makes its first NCAA appearance in 66 years.
“That is the motivation for this season,” says Keith Wright, the team’s co-captain and the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. “We want to get to the Dance. We just missed last season. We want to be the first Harvard team to do it.”
Amaker’s success has hardly gone unnoticed at other college programs. Last spring, in fact, he was approached about the head coaching job at the University of Miami. In return for staying put at Harvard, he reportedly secured pay raises for his assistants and guarantees of more improvements at Lavietes Pavilion. Undoubtedly there will be other opportunities following this season, especially if Harvard lives up to its expectations.
Is it possible that, somewhere down the line, he could even wind up as Krzyzewski’s successor at Duke? Amaker simply laughed at the notion.
For his part, Grant Hill called the idea “sacrilegious to even think about. But I get the sense that Tommy’s very happy at Harvard. He’d be on anyone’s shortlist when it comes to that. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed at Harvard for a long time.”