On the night of March 5, 2011, 400 Harvard undergraduates gathered in a cramped, aging building on the far side of the Charles River. They cheered and chanted, and they believed their team would win. And indeed it did, as the Crimson defeated Princeton to win a share of its first-ever Ivy League championship.
One year later, the Harvard men’s basketball team managed to pull it off again.
Penn’s 62-52 loss to Princeton Tuesday evening let the Crimson clinch the school’s first-ever outright Ivy League championship and send it to its first NCAA tournament since 1946.
The story of how it reached that milestone—one that overcame 112 years of on-court mediocrity—involves far more than just a 19-man roster that went 26-4 during its regular season.
It encompasses a coach in search of redemption, an athletic director determined to oversee the rebirth of one of the most maligned programs in college basketball, and an impassioned group of Harvard graduates with the resources to do something about it.
THE DARK AGES
Exactly five years before the ebullience of clinching its second consecutive Ivy title—which it did on Saturday at Cornell—the Harvard men’s basketball team was down and defeated on the final night of the 2006-07 regular season.
That evening, the Crimson fell at Columbia, dropping its ninth conference game and bringing an another disappointing season to an end. The 2006-07 campaign was like many others that the program had experienced—the Crimson’s 12-16 overall record marked the team’s fifth straight losing season.
Harvard hadn’t been faring much better in conference play, either; the 2006-07 season marked the fifteenth time in then-head coach Frank Sullivan’s 16-year reign that the Crimson failed to finish with a winning record, extending Harvard’s Ivy League title drought. Despite its success in other sports, the Crimson was the only team in the Ancient Eight never to have won a basketball championship.
“We underperformed, for sure,” says Drew A. Housman ’09, the Crimson’s starting point guard during the 2006-07 season. “[After the season] we all felt like...something needed to be shaken up.”
Two days after the Crimson’s season-ending loss to the Lions in 2007, the Harvard athletic department announced it was making a change: Sullivan, at the time the longest-tenured coach in Harvard basketball history, was being let go. That choice set in motion a series of events that would lead to the emergence of the Harvard men’s basketball program on the national stage.
JUST NOT ENOUGH
Eight hundred miles west, the University of Michigan men’s basketball program was experiencing similar feelings of disappointment.
Heading into the 2006-07 season, expectations were high for the Wolverines. Michigan’s coach, 41-year-old Tommy Amaker, was entering his sixth season at the helm and had assembled a talented roster led by seniors Courtney Sims and Dion Harris that appeared primed to take the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
But after jumping out to a 14-3 start, the Wolverines faltered midway through conference play and were forced to settle for a spot in the National Invitational Tournament, where they were bounced by Florida State in the second round.
“It was a really ugly end to the season,” recalls The Detroit Free Press’ Mark Snyder, who has covered Wolverine basketball since 1998. “They just got blown out of the gym, and I think that was enough.”
On March 17, two days after the loss, the University of Michigan announced it was letting Amaker go.
“The bottom line was that he never reached the NCAA tournament, and that’s why he was fired,” Snyder says. “It was basically that simple.”
And just like that, Amaker was in search of a new job.
Back in Cambridge, the Harvard Department of Athletics, led by Athletic Director Robert L. Scalise, was setting the stage for an extensive coaching search by meeting with alumni to garner support.
For a program that had experienced so much mediocrity, Scalise had a grand vision of success. And a crucial step in reaching that goal was finding the right person to lead the charge.
“Bob Scalise made it pretty clear that he wanted somebody who could bring the program to the next level,” says Carmen J. Scarpa ’86, co-chair of the Friends of Harvard Basketball—an alumni organization that supports the basketball program—who was approached by Scalise in the early stages of the search. “Really what [Scalise] wanted was somebody who could win the Ivies, but really just make Harvard a program that year-in, year-out could always compete for an Ivy League championship.”
Before he could realistically go after top-tier coaching candidates, Scalise, who declined to comment for this story, sought a financial commitment from the program’s boosters to make the Crimson’s financial offer competitive with other Ivy League and upper-level programs.
According to Tom G. Stemberg ’71, the honorary chairman of the Friends of Harvard Basketball, the Crimson had been paying Sullivan well below the average Ivy League coaching salary.
Scalise approached Stemberg and other members about raising money to fund a salary increase to make the Harvard position competitive with other positions in the Ivy League. But according to Stemberg, it is practice that no Harvard coach can make more than a University Professor, effectively setting a cap on Amaker’s salary.
“Scalise said, ‘Look, the University is not going to give us more money. So if you guys want to see us get good at basketball, I’ll try to get us a really good coach and what goes with that. But you guys have to raise the money to pay for it,’” Stemberg recalls. “What happened is a very large group of us got together and said, ‘[Scalise] is serious about this.’”
Led by Stemberg, Scarpa, Thomas W. Mannix ’81, Joseph D. Carrabino ’84, and Fred Schernecker ’89, the Friends of Harvard Basketball called on former players to commit to supporting the program.
With the support in place, the search committee—which, according to Mannix, was composed of Scalise, Harvard football coach Tim Murphy, then-Assistant Director of Athletics Pat Miller, Scarpa, and himself—began its pursuit of top-tier coaching candidates.
Although the committee began sifting through candidates immediately after Sullivan’s dismissal, Amaker did not emerge on its radar until late in the search, after he was fired from Michigan. But it did not take long for him to become the clear frontrunner.
“Everybody in the basketball world knew him, and the Tommy Amaker brand was class and dignity,” Mannix says of the former Duke standout, who was named a third-team All-American as a senior and then served as an assistant coach on the Blue Devils’ 1991 and 1992 NCAA championship teams. “[He came] from a pedigree program...and the whole alumni network just lit up because of the image he has.”
According to Mannix, the fact that Amaker is African-American added to his appeal. Twenty-three days after Sullivan was let go, The Boston Globe ran a piece noting that Harvard did not have a single African-American among the athletic department’s 32 varsity head coaches and 13 senior administrators.
“Tommy’s like the Holy Grail,” Mannix says. “You get everything with him. You get a kind of name recognition they used to have with [former Crimson basketball coach and NBA Hall of Famer] Satch Sanders, with a guy that everybody knows. You get the integrity and honesty you had with Frank Sullivan, and you get the kind of charisma and African-American younger face that [former Harvard basketball coach and current Northeastern Athletic Director] Peter Roby offered.”
“Tommy’s all of the above, and on top of that, Tommy’s just passionate about the game and bringing the level of integrity, talent, and recognition to the program that we only dreamed of,” he adds.
Among the handful of coaches interviewed for the job, the decision came down to Amaker and Mike Jarvis, another big-name African-American coach who had been fired from St. John’s in 2003 despite leading the Red Storm to the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Big East tournament championship a year later.
For some members of the 2006-07 squad, the pedigree of the two finalists came as a surprise.
“At that point, you had no idea whether [members of the search committee] were just out of their minds and shooting too high and there was no realistic chance of actually getting these people, or if they really felt like they could go after some of these guys like Coach Amaker and get them,” recalls Andrew R. Pusar ’09, who captained the Crimson during the 2008-09 season.
But the committee’s seriousness became clear to Pusar when Jarvis and Amaker arrived on campus for interviews.
“When they finally brought in Mike Jarvis and Coach Amaker, it opened our eyes to how big the athletic department’s eyes were and what their objectives were,” Pusar says.
Jarvis and Amaker met with the team individually, and it quickly became clear that Amaker was the top choice.
The team “immediately gravitated to his vision of our future,” Pusar says. “Everyone came out of that meeting saying, ‘I want to play for that guy. I want him to walk in the next day. We’re on board with him and what he’s doing.’”
“Honestly, he had it won on his pedigree,” Housman says. “And then we met him, and he seemed really personable and a cool guy, so it was an easy decision for us.”
According to Scarpa, the Friends were prepared to make a financial commitment to the former Michigan and Seton Hall coach. But a large part of Amaker’s hiring relied on a commitment from the administration as well.
Amaker spoke with the admissions department to get a feel for the admissions standards for potential recruits, according to Scarpa.
“[Amaker] went to the athletic department admissions,” Scarpa says. “They weren’t going to admit players that didn’t belong, but I think [Amaker] needed to feel like, if he brought the proper players, that he could work cooperatively with admissions.”
On April 9, 2007, Amaker was offered the job, and he accepted, signing a five-year contract two days later.
“I can’t say how proud I am to be the committee’s selection,” Amaker said at his introductory press conference on April 15. “I certainly feel like it is going to be a joyous ride.”
After he agreed to coach the program, one of Amaker’s first requests was to renovate the locker room, and with that came small changes to other aspects of Lavietes Pavilion, such as improving the coaches offices and installing new video and stereo equipment in the facilities.
“He’s taken it in steps,” Scarpa says. “There’s been some money raised to renovate Lavietes and make it much more of a home court advantage.... I think these are things that have elevated the program in general.”
According to Schernecker, who played basketball at Harvard from 1985-89, alumni in the pre-Amaker era played less of a role in terms of supporting the program, with a few exceptions.
“The alumni support for basketball prior to Tommy Amaker’s arrival had been close to nonexistent,” Schernecker says. “We were woefully short in terms of our alumni and friends donations prior to Tommy’s hiring.”
With that precedent in mind, the Friends of Harvard Basketball began working after Amaker was hired, attempting to garner support for the new coach and his vision for the program.
“Getting right out, we did a little tour,” Mannix says. “[We took] Tommy to go out and meet-and-greet at different cities in the country and just say, ‘This is what I want to do, and this is why I need your help.’”
The Friends brought Amaker to Harvard Clubs in cities across the nation, including New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. And the alumni responded exceptionally well to Amaker.
“It was just fabulous,” Mannix says. “He had an immediate response that was unprecedented. Alumni who had never given or who had never shown interest were suddenly showing interest, giving money, and coming back to games. It was just a radical transformation in the energy level.”
And, just like that, a symbiotic relationship between Amaker and the alumni base was formed.
Given an unprecedented level of support from the University, Amaker was ready to make good on the promises he had made on his tours across the country. But in his first season, the Crimson struggled mightily, opening the year with a 55-point loss at Stanford. Harvard went on to finish 8-22 and winless on the road.
While the losses piled up, Amaker’s first campaign in Cambridge was quickly marred by controversy. On March 2, 2008, a day after the Crimson lost by 33 at Cornell to drop its record to 8-20, The New York Times reported on the front page of its Sunday sports section that Amaker had changed far more than simply the team’s offense since his arrival.
The article by Pete Thamel, titled “In a New Era at Harvard, New Questions of Standards,” alleged multiple recruiting violations by the program.
One of the piece’s most pointed accusations was leveled at Kenny Blakeney, who played at Duke in the early 1990s when Amaker was an assistant there and was hired as Amaker’s assistant coach when he came to Harvard.
Blakeney reportedly traveled to Virginia to play pick-up basketball with then-high school seniors Maxim M. Kenyi ’12 and Keith A. Wright Jr. ’12 in the summer of 2007, during a period when in-person contact with coaches is not allowed.
Harvard had announced the hiring of Blakeney on July 2, 2007, and Blakeney insisted that he had not been officially working for Harvard when he visited Kenyi and Wright, who both enrolled at Harvard a year later.
“I was unemployed,” the assistant told The Times. “I didn’t have any type of agreement with anybody. How could I recruit them to Harvard if I’m not employed?”
Harvard was eventually cleared by a league investigation several months after the initial New York Times report; an Ivy League release in September 2007 announced that both Amaker and Blakeney acted in a way that was “entirely consistent with NCAA and Ivy League rules.”
But some did not feel that the accusations against Blakeney had been fully resolved. In July 2010, Harvard reported an unintentional secondary violation to the NCAA in connection with the summer 2007 incident and self-imposed recruiting limitations for the 2010-11 season.
“Secondary violations” are defined by the NCAA as “inadvertent” and as providing at most a “minimal advantage” to the offending institution, said the league release, which also mentioned that the NCAA processes more than 2,000 secondary violations per year.
The release stated that Harvard chose to acknowledge the violation due to an NCAA ruling that Blakeney’s conversations represented improper recruiting assistance to Harvard.
“These events occurred three years ago, and I’m pleased to bring this two-year review to a conclusion,” Amaker wrote in a statement to The Crimson after the 2010 announcement. “This extensive and comprehensive inquiry yielded one minor and unintentional secondary.”
Thamel’s story concluded with an anecdote concerning the recruitment of now-Penn captain Zack Rosen, who starred at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey for two years. Thamel wrote that Rosen’s father, Les Rosen, encountered Amaker in a Trenton grocery store in summer 2007 during a nearby basketball tournament. At that point in the recruiting calendar, coaches were restricted to greetings if they met prospects or their parents.
Les Rosen told Thamel that he remembered Amaker saying, “We really have to get Zack up to Harvard,” and that he thought to himself, “Who goes to ShopRite in the middle of a basketball tournament?”
“It was suspicious,” Les Rosen told the Times, “but as much as it seemed obvious, he wouldn’t be found guilty in court.”
But in a recent interview with The Crimson, the father of the Quakers star remembered the encounter very differently.
“I couldn’t tell you in a million years why he was there...sometimes you run into your ex-wife at the supermarket,” Les Rosen says. “Yeah, it seemed like he may have been there to say hello to me, but even in the store, it wasn’t a dialogue. He said ‘Hello,’ and that was it.”
Rosen added that he now considers Amaker a friend, a friendly person to chat with after Harvard-Penn games.
“It was meaningless to me, but people made a big deal about it. It was stupid to me that people even continue talking about it,” Rosen adds. “I think it’s time to let it go.”
No punishment was ever applied by the league or the NCAA in relation to the incident, but Thamel was not yet finished tracking the actions of Amaker and his staff. Several months after publishing its initial story, The New York Times went on to report that Amaker had cut five players in early September. Thamel wrote that the move, which was made to allow room for Amaker’s first freshman class, was considered by many around the league to be in violation of the spirit of the Ancient Eight.
A look back at the 2008-09 men’s basketball roster reveals seven freshmen and a total of six juniors and seniors—none of whom were brought in by Amaker—but no sophomores.
Kyle B. Fitzgerald ’11, one of the three second-year players who was cut by Amaker, criticized the coach for not allowing former players the chance to compete for a playing spot as they had been promised in the spring of that year.
“Its [sic] tough to believe a coach doesn’t know whether or not he is allowed to have tryouts, and if he really didn’t, he really should have found that out before he told us all in the Spring,” Fitzgerald wrote in an email. “We were essentially kept on board as insurance.”
THE NEW WAVE
The first batch of new recruits, for whom Fitzgerald and others were cut, has been one of Amaker’s most significant contributions to the Crimson. Amaker’s opening group, which included Wright, Kenyi, Oliver R. McNally ’12, and Andrew F. Van Nest ’12, was the first Ivy class ever to be ranked in the top 25 in the nation by ESPN.
The strength of Amaker’s first crop of players came as no surprise given his history recruiting top players like NBA All-Star Grant Hill, Eddie Griffin—considered by many to be the nation’s best prospect—and Ekpe Udoh—the future No. 6 overall pick in the NBA Draft—at Duke, Seton Hall, and Michigan, respectively.
Amaker has not yet received the commitment of a Top-50 recruit at Harvard, but doing so is not out of the question. The coach has managed to quickly adjust to the particular demands of athletic recruiting in the Ivy League, which imposes stringent academic requirements and does not allow athletic scholarships.
In examining a very small pool of students with both the academic and athletic skills to be accepted to Ancient Eight teams, Amaker and his staff have preached the message that Lavietes Pavilion is one of the only school courts where players are offered the chance to contribute to something unprecedented.
“[Amaker said to me, ‘Harvard’s] the most famous school in the world,’” current co-captain McNally says. “In every field, athletically and academically, things have been done. Football’s won, soccer’s won, but basketball never had. You can make history. People will remember you and the team you played on as doing something Harvard had never done before, and you can’t really do that in a lot of other fields here.’”
“Harvard’s very easy to sell. It almost sells itself,” adds former assistant Will Wade.
Needless to say, plenty have bought into Amaker’s product. Prior to the 2008-09 season, Wade and company helped bring in a pair of three-star recruits in Van Nest and Kenyi, who received interest from Marquette, George Mason, and Holy Cross. Their rookie classmates also included eventual co-captains Wright and McNally, both two-star players.
“Coach Amaker didn’t have to say much to me,” Wright says. “I know that I’m not going to be able to play basketball all my life, so this was a decision I made for my family and the future, the family I will have. Harvard speaks for itself.”
The next year’s class strengthened the foundation for the first Harvard squads ever to win a share of the Ivy League championship.
In 2009, the team’s current juniors arrived, a group that included eventual all-Ivy players Kyle D. Casey ’13 and Brandyn Curry ’13, long-time starter Christian Webster ’13, and reserves Demetrius A. Giger ’13 and Jeffrey M. Georgatos ’13.
“We were competing with other high academic schools,” says Wade, who served as the recruiting coordinator for Amaker’s first two years. He points to Vanderbilt, Stanford, and William & Mary as schools which lost players to Harvard.
“Everybody was different: Kyle liked the idea of staying local, getting a great education, and being a part of something special,” Wade says. “Brandyn Curry—his mother was just a huge reason he came to Harvard. She was more than convinced that that was the place for him.... She was a driving force behind his recruitment.”
Wade departed for a post at Virginia Commonwealth University in April 2009, but Amaker has not missed a beat since.
Former Oklahoma graduate assistant Yanni Hufnagel took over as recruiting coordinator, and he and fellow assistant coach Brian DeStefano have helped Amaker steal highly touted prospects away from not only Ivy rivals but also major-conference schools.
Current freshmen Kenyatta A. Smith ’15 and Wesley S. Saunders ’15 held among them offers from Vanderbilt, Colorado, and USC, while breakout rookie E. Steve Moundou-Missi ’15 was named to the top 150 players in the nation by one analyst.
Next year’s group of freshmen already includes Mike Hall—ESPN’s No. 19 center in the country—along with Agunwa Okolie, Siyani Chambers, and Evan Cummins.
“An Ivy League school staying in the mix with these guys is shocking,” Jeff Borzello, a college basketball writer at CBSSports.com, told The Crimson in September. “There’s been high-major head coaches at mid-major schools before, and it doesn’t work like this. I think it’s really impressive.”
Having guided Harvard from mediocrity to a national ranking, Amaker and his staff are not holding back with members of the high school class of 2013; consensus top-100 players Davon Reed, Stephen Domingo, and Brannen Greene—who later committed to Kansas—visited campus in October.
“To score a single commitment from that package of players would be a very big deal for Harvard,” ESPN senior basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep told The Crimson in September. “It doesn’t really happen in the Ivy League.”
“You had to get some guys early on who believed in your vision,” Wade says. “Now they can see that vision playing out, it’s probably a little bit easier, and maybe you can get involved with a player a step up from what we were involved in. It’s a natural progression.”
Along with high-level conference experience, Amaker was also fortunate to be hired shortly after significant changes were made to the school’s financial aid policy.
In 2006, Harvard announced that families with incomes of $60,000 or less would not be expected to pay anything for their education and families earning between $60,000 and $180,000 would be expected to contribute no more than 10 percent of their income. Over the past several years, Amaker and his fellow Ivy coaches have benefited from further changes that often allow students to avoid loans, even without full-ride scholarships.
He may have also been given advantages that his predecessors did not have. One of the 2008 New York Times article’s most damning allegations was that Harvard lowered its academic standards to improve the basketball program.
This led to criticism from former Harvard coaches—including Sullivan’s assistants Lamar Reddicks and Bill Holden, who declined to comment for this story—and other Ivy League schools, who cautioned that a desire to compete in basketball could tarnish Harvard’s “sterling reputation.”
For their part, Amaker and the Friends of Harvard Basketball deny the claim that the team’s Academic Index—a score ranging from 60 to 240 based on a combination of an applicant’s high school GPA and SAT scores that is used by Ivy League institutions to determine whether an applicant meets academic standards—has been changed.
According to Stemberg, increased availability of financial aid, not any change in standards, played the biggest role in securing commitments from highly-touted recruits.
“The change is financial aid. That’s the change. You look at the Academic Index—I haven’t checked this year—but the last few years, you look at the Academic Index of the recruited kids coming in, it is unchanged from the Sullivan years,” Stemberg says.
But Thamel stands by his reporting.
“Harvard can play semantic gymnastics, but it was laid out to me convincingly and on the record that they were lowering standards,” Thamel wrote in an email. “And they’ve only made it worse by denying it. The point of those Harvard stories was that Harvard is playing ball like everyone else—loosening academic standards, sending an assistant out on unethical recruiting trips, and cutting recruited kids from the program in September without having them try out.”
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 denies those claims.
“Harvard has maintained unchanged our high academic standards for all students and student athletes, including men’s basketball,” Fitzsimmons told The Crimson in an emailed statement. “The Ivy League has the most rigorous academic requirements of any athletic conference, and we are in full compliance with those standards. In fact, comparing the academic index for men’s basketball across the Ivy League, Harvard’s position relative to our peer institutions has also remained largely unchanged over the past decade.”
TOUGHER THAN IT LOOKS
But even with the new financial aid program in place, Amaker has not always been able to get his top targets into Harvard uniforms. The player initially mentioned in The New York Times article as emblematic of Harvard’s altered academic attitude for basketball recruits was Frank Ben-Eze, who reportedly chose the Crimson over Marquette, Virginia, and West Virginia.
But nine days later, Thamel reported that Ben-Eze had reopened his recruitment after being unable to reach the minimum Academic Index of 171. The 6’10” senior eventually went to Davidson, where he is currently preparing for the NCAA tournament.
The Ivy League’s high academic standards have played a significant role in the recruitment of other prep stars who ended up playing collegiate basketball elsewhere. An August 2009 Sports Illustrated story about Harvard reaching the lists of elite recruits featured Pe’Shon Howard, who was quoted as saying, “If the admission office clears me, I’m going to Harvard.” That turned out to be a big “if.”
“Test scores, SAT scores, the way the application had to be filled out—just the whole process became a little stressful for me,” Howard says. “It took a little of the joy out of deciding on which school you wanted to go to. Trying to figure out how to make things work, I think time just kind of ran out.”
Howard committed to Maryland in Jan. 2010. There, he averaged six points and four assists per game before tearing his ACL in February.
“If it would have worked out, I probably would have been in a Harvard uniform,” Howard says, “But Maryland definitely picked up my interest, and I was really excited about them as well.”
The league’s academic standards have only increased in rigor. Over the summer, the minimum Academic Index score required for prospective student athletes to gain admission to the Ivy League was adjusted from 171 to 176, according to Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris.
Announcement of the adjustment has led to speculation that the change will hurt the Ivy League’s ability to compete on the national level—particularly in sports such as men’s basketball, hockey, and lacrosse—because it will reduce the pool of high school athletes from which Ivy coaches can recruit.
Boston College men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue, who served as head coach at Cornell from 2000 to 2010, said he anticipated the change since class rank was replaced by high school GPA in calculating the Academic Index.
Harris said that admissions deans had noticed applicants were receiving higher scores on the Academic Index when calculated with GPA instead of class rank. Therefore, Harris said, a change in the minimum was necessary in order to maintain the Ivy League’s academic standards from past years.
Rather than being perceived as an “increase” to the minimum floor, Harris says, the change should be seen as a necessary “adjustment.”
Like Harris, Donahue believes the adjustment should not impact the competitiveness of Ivy League teams on the national level but stated that the occasional recruit who, in recent years, was admitted with an Academic Index calculated based on GPA while the floor was still at 171 might no longer be able to gain admission with the adjusted standard.
One player hurt by the new policy may be current Harvard-Westlake High School senior Zena Edosomwan, whose final list is currently Harvard, UC Berkeley, USC, Wake Forest, Texas, Washington, and UCLA. ESPN’s tenth-ranked player in the Golden State, the 6’8” forward is waiting for his latest set of SAT scores to qualify him academically for the only Ivy League school he is considering, according to Harvard-Westlake coach Greg Hilliard.
“He wants to go to Harvard,” says Hilliard of Edosomwan, who was initially 100 points shy of the score he needed but has since cut the deficit. “It’s up to getting the necessary score on the math side for the Index.”
“I’ve talked to all the coaches that are still waiting and hoping he comes to them, and none of them have ever run into somebody who has the options that he has and is waiting for a non-scholarship school, which I think is pretty amazing,” Hilliard adds. “His heart and mind are definitely in the right place.”
It remains to be seen whether Harvard will be the place for him.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
But more than just the Academic Index stands between Amaker and his highly sought-after prospects.
“I think the biggest hurdle still is financial,” said Donahue of the Ivy League’s lack of athletic scholarships. “It’s way more difficult to find kids that can afford this education and turn down scholarships than it is to find kids that are academically qualified. There are a lot of kids that are academically qualified.”
Even with Harvard’s financial aid policy, many potential recruits have been unable to resist down the temptation of a full scholarship.
Four-star small forward Rod Odom Jr. included Harvard among his final choices and visited campus along with other top recruits Dwight Powell and Andre Hollins in fall 2009.
“[Amaker’s] an absolutely relentless recruiter,” says his father, Rod Odom Sr. “The reason why Harvard was there right until the end was because he’s a fantastic recruiter.”
The No. 66 player in the nation according to ESPN, Odom eliminated Harvard in October and first committed to Arizona but later switched to Vanderbilt, where he is now a sophomore.
“The thing that prevented Harvard from being in the last two was when we got the financial aid indication, which—compared to a full scholarship—couldn’t be a consideration for us,” Odom Sr. says.
Amaker has not always prevailed against power-conference institutions, as other high schoolers have been attracted to Cambridge but ultimately chosen to go elsewhere due to personal preference.
Center Dwight Powell, who was ranked in the top 100 by ESPN, made an official visit to Cambridge in Sept. 2009 but eventually committed to Stanford, where he is averaging eight points and five rebounds as a sophomore. Harvard was also in the final five of Andre Hollins, who was also considering Mississippi, Auburn, and Stanford. He visited campus at the same time as Powell, but the shooting guard chose to attend Minnesota instead. The freshman had 18 points in a loss to No. 15 Wisconsin last week.
Even the fact that the Crimson remained in consideration for such highly-touted recruits serves as an indicator of the progress that Amaker and his staff have made in just a few years.
“They recruited me just like they were a big-name school,” says Spencer Dinwiddie, who chose Colorado over Harvard, UNLV, Oregon, and UCLA. “The only difference was Yanni is probably the hardest-working recruiter in the NCAA. He’s the person who really made me think twice about Harvard and kind of opened my eyes to some things. Harvard is on that level basketball-wise, and they’ve proven it all season long.”
In a 2011 survey of more than 100 major Division I coaches, Hufnagel was dubbed the mid-major assistant most likely to make it big due to his recruiting ability.
“As long as Harvard continues to prove that they’re a high-level basketball program, then conference doesn’t matter,” Dinwiddie says. “It’s the same thing as a Butler or any other ‘mid-major’ school. If you can produce on the floor, there’s no reason Harvard shouldn’t be a prime option because of the academic standards it has.”
Yet, even without names like Powell, Hollins, or Dinwiddie on his roster, Amaker has delivered on his promises that his players would have the opportunity to make history.
ALL HE DOES IS WIN
Harvard improved to .500 in Amaker’s second season, finishing 14-14 overall and 6-8 in conference play. The squad was led by emerging guard Jeremy Lin ’10, who had been recruited by Sullivan and earned a starting job under Amaker.
The junior had 27 points in the Crimson’s Jan. 7 victory over then-No. 24 Boston College, which had won at No. 1 North Carolina just three days before. The win marked Harvard’s first-ever win over a ranked opponent and the Ivy League’s first over an ACC team in six years.
One year later, led by Lin—a Cousy and Wooden Award finalist—the Crimson won 21 contests and finished 10-4 in the Ancient Eight. But after being blown out by Cornell in a contest that is viewed as one of the biggest games in Harvard basketball history, the squad finished third in the conference. That record earned the Crimson its first postseason invite since 1946, but it lost at Appalachian State in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
In 2010-11, Harvard clinched a share of its first-ever Ivy title in program history. Led by Wright, who was awarded the Ivy League Player of the Year award, the Crimson won a program-record 23 games.
After losing its season opener at George Mason, Harvard won 15 of its next 17 games and jumped out to a 10-1 start in conference play before falling, 70-69, at Yale.
Back at Lavietes the following weekend, the Crimson had to sweep the Killer P’s to keep its tournament dreams alive. It easily topped Penn on Friday night, then on Saturday faced league-leading Princeton with the chance to clinch a share of its first-ever Ivy title in front of a celebrity-laden crowd.
The squad’s 79-67 win, combined with Princeton’s victory over Penn three days later, set up a one-game playoff with the Tigers the following Saturday for the right to go to the NCAA tournament.
On the final play of the game, Princeton’s Doug Davis brought a swift end to the Crimson’s tournament hopes, sticking a mid-range jumper at the buzzer to give the Tigers a 63-62 win.
The next day, Harvard learned it would have to wait at least another year for its first NCAA Big Dance berth in 65 years, as the squad’s RPI of 35 was the highest of any team not to be included in the 68-team field. Instead, the Crimson was sent to Stillwater, Okla. to face Oklahoma State in the National Invitation Tournament. The No. 6-seeded Crimson was blown out in the first round, ending its season.
This year, the team finally got over the hump.
The squad started its season 8-0, highlighted by a Thanksgiving championship in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Over a three-game stretch, the Crimson topped Utah, then-No. 22 Florida State, and Central Florida to take home its first-ever tournament title.
On Dec. 5, Harvard earned its first-ever Top-25 ranking, appearing at No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.
It stayed ranked for seven of the following eight weeks, finishing with a program-record 24 wins and its first-ever tournament berth.
“[Harvard basketball] had been completely irrelevant,” says ESPN.com senior basketball writer Andy Katz, who grew up in nearby Newton. “And that’s what’s unbelievable about what Tommy has done.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
On Feb. 25, the Crimson fell to Penn, 55-54, in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,195 at Lavietes. The frustrating loss brought an end to Harvard’s 28-game home-winning streak, snapping what was then the second-longest such run in the nation.
Under Amaker, Harvard has had a great deal of success at its tiny home gym (of the 345 Division I men’s basketball programs in the nation, only 25 play in smaller-capacity venues), going 39-3 there over the past three seasons.
“There’s a lot to be said for having a place that might be a little bit smaller and cozier,” Schernecker said. “The crowds and the fact that we’re filling the place make [Lavietes] somewhere very difficult for opponents to play.”
But while Lavietes Pavilion has become an integral part of the Crimson’s success, there was a time not too long ago that it looked like Lavietes’ days as the home of the Harvard men’s basketball program might be coming to an end.
Prior to the 2008 recession and the steep decline in the University’s endowment, the construction of a new basketball stadium in Allston was in consideration.
“Before the stock market took that big dive it did and the endowment had that big struggle, there was a greater plan for all of those facilities on that side of the river to eventually be relocated,” Mannix says.
Those plans, however, were put on hold with the bad economy. Today, the construction of a new stadium in Allston remains in discussion.
“It’s still a subject of conversation,” Stemberg adds. “People are still talking about it. Nobody’s done anything yet because nobody’s given up the money, but I think, you know, if the money were there, I think we’d get it done.”
New stadium or no, Stemberg says he thinks the Crimson can retain Amaker, who will likely be wooed by high-major programs after this season given the turnaround he has accomplished in Cambridge.
After last season, Amaker was offered the head coaching job—and a significant pay raise—at the ACC’s University of Miami but decided to turn it down.
But, Stemberg says, “I don’t think to retain Tommy we need to do anything more than what we are already doing.”
Some members of the Friends of Harvard Basketball worry that the coach’s days with Harvard could come to an end if an attractive program extends a coaching offer.
Mannix opines, “If Duke ever lost Coach [Mike Krzyzewski], maybe [Amaker] would want to go back to where he played. And who would blame him for that, right? That’s his alma mater. That’s a premiere basketball program in the country. But outside of an opportunity like that, which I wouldn’t begrudge him or blame him one bit if he took that, I think Tommy Amaker is right where he wants to be, and I feel very comfortable that he’s going to be here for a long time.”
Katz thinks Amaker could not be happier at Harvard, where his wife, Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, is on the Harvard Medical School faculty.
“I think he and his wife love it there,” Katz says. “He knows he has a tremendous situation, so I don’t think he will [leave]—at least not in the near term.”
As long as he stays, Amaker should continue to attract top-level talent to Cambridge, and Lin’s success with the NBA’s New York Knicks this season will only help Amaker’s efforts.
“With the Jeremy Lin press, it’s easier for [Amaker] to go to a kid and say, ‘Hey, if you have NBA aspirations, you can still get an education at the greatest school in the world and still fulfill your dream,’” Scarpa says.
And the alumni who hired him five years ago are thrilled with the decision they made.
“I’m very impressed with what Tommy’s done,” Carrabino says. “He’s a very hard-working guy, but he’s a good person. He’s done a wonderful job resurrecting the program, and I couldn’t be more pleased for him.”
Indeed, with the Crimson’s first NCAA tournament matchup since 1946 on the horizon, it appears that Tommy Amaker, the Friends of Harvard Basketball, and all those who have donned a Harvard uniform finally have a program that they are proud to call their own.