Amaker remaking Harvard hoops

When Harvard head basketball coach Tommy Amaker walks into a packed John J. Lee Amphitheatre on Friday night, he will receive his initiation into the traditionally fierce Harvard-Yale rivalry. But don’t expect him to be overwhelmed by the winter version of “The Game.”

The coach has dealt with crowds 10 times the size of the Amphitheatre’s capacity, not to mention the pressure of playing in a national championship game for Duke in 1986.

Amaker, who was fired in 2007 after six years as the head coach at Michigan, made news earlier this year when he agreed to a contract with Harvard, replacing long-time head coach Frank Sullivan. Harvard made an effort to recruit a high-profile coach like Amaker after 16 seasons under Sullivan yielded no Ivy League titles and only one season (1996-’97) over .500.

The change from the maize and blue of Ann Arbor to the crimson of Cambridge doesn’t represent a change of ideology for Amaker.

“Our goals and standards are always similar in any program — to strive to be the best you can be,” Amaker stressed. “Here at Harvard, we’re striving to become Ivy League champions.”

Amaker’s coaching resume made him an unlikely candidate for a program with such little basketball history. The former Duke basketball star stayed on as an assistant coach at his alma mater until 1997, when he was hired at Seton Hall. He led the Pirates to the Sweet 16 and attracted national attention as a much sought-after up-and-coming coach.

Michigan, a school with a rich basketball legacy, hired Amaker to clean up the program after several incidents of illegal booster activity. At Michigan, Amaker successfully restored the integrity of the basketball program but was unable to achieve sustained success on the court, winning an NIT title but never making the NCAA tournament in six years.

According to Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans, Harvard’s commitment to improving its basketball program and dissatisfaction with the status quo are evident in its pursuit of such an accomplished coach.

“That was a change of emphasis on Harvard’s part when they said, ‘We want to be more successful,’” Orleans said. “Any time a school puts a renewed emphasis on basketball, that’s a positive thing.”

The reverberations surrounding Amaker’s arrival are already being felt in Cambridge. On Dec. 1, Amaker socked it to his old employers, the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference, in a gratifying 62-51 victory in front of a sold-out home crowd of 2,050.

Orleans sees Amaker’s arrival less as a catalyst for change within the league than as a symbol of ongoing improvement.

“Tommy will make a difference, but the Ivy League will be better because we’re getting better all around the league,” he said. “In large part, [this is] because the coaching is solid and scheduling habits have changed. … Our teams have played better against some of the best teams in the country than some of their big conference foes would — it’s good to take on games no one thinks you’re going to win.”

Current Ivy leader Cornell fought Duke down to the wire on national television before falling in a close battle at legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. Other Ivies have impressed, too. Yale lost by only 11 to Stanford; Brown beat the Big Ten’s Northwestern; eternal cellar-dweller Dartmouth nearly knocked off the Big East’s Rutgers.

For the Ivy League, Amaker’s arrival brought publicity to a basketball conference that is often ignored by the mainstream media. In a sport in which every team is perennially measured by its ability to reach the promise land that is March Madness, the Ivy League has, in every year of its existence, been only a one-bid league.

The universities that make up the Ancient Eight will always be known more for their excellence in the classroom than on the court. Yet at the same time, many coaches recognize the enormous recruiting tool they have at their dispense — an Ivy League diploma is worth a lot when the basketball dream inevitably ends.

Amaker knows how much weight the Harvard name carries.

“A Harvard education is seen to be one of the most sought-after opportunities in the world,” he said. “Having said that, we think we will be able to recruit quality student-athletes.”

It’s not all talk, either. The coach has already landed a few highly touted recruits, attracting some talented student-athletes away from powerhouse basketball programs like Marquette and Virginia Tech. Amaker knows about the Ivy League’s restrictions and admissions standards, but he has an optimistic outlook for someone trying to attract the best talent to a school famous mainly for its academics.

“We believe that our academic standards and reputation will be one of the main reasons why we’ll be able to raise the level of our basketball program in a national sense,” Amaker said. “We see it very much as a positive, not a restriction.”

Amaker’s recruiting success could not come at a better time for Harvard, as traditional Ivy powerhouses Penn and Princeton are in the midst of rebuilding periods. Only 10 times in the past 50 years have teams other than the Quakers or Tigers won the conference. Orleans believes this increased competition, however brief it may be, is beneficial for the league because it fosters more excitement and opportunity.

Around the league, respect for Amaker is high. Starting Yale center Matt Kyle recognizes Amaker’s commitment to empowering his teams.

“He plays the best team,” Kyle said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or a freshman — he is going to play whoever gives him the best effort.”

Bringing in talented recruits and attracting media attention is one thing, but transforming the Ivy League into a mid-major league may be asking a lot of Amaker. Some in the media have speculated that Amaker may be using the Harvard job to get his coaching career back on track before jetting off for another shot at a high-profile job — an accusation he has denied.

For his part, Yale Athletic Director Thomas Beckett didn’t seem surprised that Amaker had chosen to come to Harvard.

“The Ivy League provides coaches with many unique experiences,” he said.

Orleans echoed Beckett’s statement.

“When fans come out, it tells coaches that it’s worth staying here,” he explained. “Also, there are a lot of great kids who are successful off the court, too, kids to be proud of. It’s hard sometimes, but we need to make sure we show [these coaches] that we’re supportive of basketball.”

Several Ivy League coaches have gone on to jobs at higher levels of college basketball, including Penn’s Fran Dunphy and Princeton’s John Thompson III. Dunphy stayed at Penn for 17 years, winning 10 Ivy League titles, before leaving in 2006 for Temple. Thompson only stayed four years, but he accumulated three titles before moving on to Georgetown.

Given that Amaker is still working with Sullivan’s players this season, the effects of his recruiting efforts won’t be realized for a few years. Once Amaker’s recruits arrive in Cambridge, Harvard — still wallowing at 6-12 this season, with an 0-11 road record — will have a more viable shot at an Ivy crown.

Beyond that? Amaker seems to be staying grounded in reality. When asked what he would say to his old coach, — affectionately known as “Coach K” — if Harvard played his alma mater Duke and pulled off a shocking upset, Amaker responded, “If that happens, I think I’ll have to say, ‘Thanks for letting us win.’ ”

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