TAMING THE IVY
With his climb up the college basketball coaching ladder having hit a reversal, Tommy Amaker landed in a place that seemed unlikely to sprout success.
All he’s done since is make history and restore his status as an astute coach capable of producing championships.
Since becoming Harvard’s head coach in 2007 following his dismissal at Michigan, the former Duke guard has over the last three years led the Crimson to their first Ivy League title, their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946 and, last March, their first NCAA Tournament win.
“The journey that we’ve taken thus far has been very meaningful to me,” the 48-year-old Amaker said. “Having been fired at Michigan, I looked at this as a unique special opportunity that I was afforded six years ago. I felt something here with his brand and this school. This is a great community.”
As an institution known for producing U.S. presidents and Nobel Prize winners, Harvard certainly had a worldwide respected brand. Amaker, though, raised the level of basketball from the ground up.
BUILDING THE CRIMSON
When he arrived, Harvard had endured five consecutive losing seasons. The school had only played in the postseason five times and had never been to the NCAA Tournament.
It took two years, with records of 8-22 and 14-14, before Amaker proved he could win at Harvard. With future NBA guard Jeremy Lin leading the way, the Crimson went 21-7 in 2009-10, Amaker’s third season, and played in the lightly regarded College Insiders Tournament.
The following season, Harvard went 14-0 at home to set a new single-season home wins record. More importantly, the Crimson were 23-7 overall and tied for the Ivy League title with a 12-2 league mark.
That was the first time Harvard had even shared an Ivy League championship. Princeton beat Harvard 63-62 in a one-game playoff to earn the league’s NCAA Tournament bid, so the Crimson played in the National Invitation Tournament.
The following season, the Crimson improved again, going 26-5 overall and 12-2 in the Ivy to win the outright league championship and claim the schooll's second NCAA Tournament berth (the other was in 1946). The school was also ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time.
Back in Durham, two men who know Amaker well were not surprised with the job he was doing.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recruited Amaker to the Blue Devils as a player in 1983 and also employed Amaker as an assistant coach from 1988-97.
“Tommy has really put himself in position to be one of the top coaches in the country because he’s taken a school that has never accomplished an Ivy League championship and an NCAA bid and he’s done it,” Krzyzewski said. “But he hasn’t done it just for one year. He’s built an amazing program there.”
Amaker recruited Chris Collins to Duke as a player in the 1990s. Collins was an assistant under Amaker at Seton Hall when Amaker was a head coach for the first time.
Now in his first season as Northwestern’s head coach following his tenure as a Duke assistant, Collins is impressed with what Amaker has done at Harvard.
“There was no tradition in basketball before he got there,” Collins said. “What he’s been able to build in a number of years is the premier basketball program. It shows what a great coach, great communicator and great leader he is. He’s pushing the envelope, going after guys that in the past would have been above the Ivy League. He’s a good listener with a great personality. People are drawn to him.”
YET ANOTHER HURDLE
Last season, Harvard cleared another hurdle by repeating as Ivy League champions and beating New Mexico 68-62 for the school’s first NCAA Tournament win. But that accomplished came under difficult circumstances.
In the summer of 2012, Harvard became embroiled in an academic cheating scandal that included athletes and non-athletes. Two of the athletes — Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry — were co-captains on Amaker’s basketball team. They withdrew from school.
Casey had been the Crimson’s leading scorer in 2011-12. But Amaker installed freshman point guard Siyani Chambers in the lineup and Harvard made its surprising run to that historic NCAA Tournament win.
“We had to start from a ways away from where we normally would have been,” Amaker said. “That’s another reason why this year was very meaningful.”
Krzyzewski felt no coach did a better job than Amaker last season.
“To be quite frank,” Krzyzewski said, “I thought he should have been national coach of the year this past year.”
Amaker was honored with the Clarence “Big House” Gaines Award as the top minority coach in Division I. The award is named for the former Winston-Salem State coach and basketball pioneer.
“I know how proud Tommy was to receive that award,” Krzyzewski said. “Big House was a pioneer in the game and really someone who the younger African-American coaches looked up to. Class. Success. Not only great physical stature – he was a big man – but great personal stature. And for Tommy to be mentioned with his name is a terrific honor.”
READY FOR MORE
Even after all he’s accomplished at Harvard while compiling a 112-65 record, Amaker is primed to do even more with the Crimson. With Casey and Curry returning to the team, joining Chambers, Harvard is likely to be ranked in the AP’s preseason top 25 this November.
Another Ivy League championship appears possible as well as more NCAA Tournament success.
From having experienced success as a player at Duke by playing in the 1986 NCAA final to coaching Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 in 2000, Amaker knows plenty about winning. Being fired at Michigan after going 108-84 but not making the NCAA Tournament in six seasons set him back.
But Amaker is back in the winning spotlight again, with perhaps more to come, at a place that previously has known success in everywhere but basketball.
“We’ve made history here,” Amaker said. “It’s hard to find anything on this campus that hasn’t been done before. The things we have been able to accomplish — win the Ivy League, win the first NCAA game — we are very proud of that. The journey here and the time here has been as meaningful.”