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?”