In a hallway outside the Harvard locker room, Tommy Amaker tells stories about his time at Duke. He talks about the relationship between Duke and North Carolina, the respect, the rivalry. It sticks with him after all these years. It always will.
Amaker was a huge part of Duke’s ascendance under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the point guard who made it all work, who helped Krzyzewski to his first Final Four in 1986. Now, he single-handedly has managed Harvard’s ascendance from Ivy League also-ran to national relevance.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams, on Dean Smith’s staff at UNC, didn’t recruit Amaker. The Tar Heels had Kenny Smith lined up. But he loved Amaker as a player and sees so much of him in the way Harvard plays now.
“And I’m not saying he was limited because he was not, but there were certain things – he was not going to try to drive down the lane and jump over and dunk on somebody,” Williams said. “He’d make the smarter play. And I think when I’ve watched Harvard, I’ve watched two of their games since Sunday, I see the same kind of things in his team. They don’t try to do things they can’t do.”
The Crimson will face North Carolina on Thursday to open the NCAA tournament, Harvard’s fourth straight appearance under Amaker, whose experience as a Duke assistant and as a head coach at Seton Hall (successful) and Michigan (less successful) put him in position to mount a basketball coup against Penn and Princeton, for decades the dominant teams in the Ancient Eight.
In 1963-2007, those two schools won or shared the championship in all but two seasons. Starting in 2008, Cornell won three in a row. Harvard has won five straight since, sharing the title with Princeton in 2011.
So now there’s Harvard and everyone else – and “everyone else” is a heck of a lot better than it was when Penn and Princeton ran the league, surrounded by some of the weakest programs on the East Coast. Harvard and Cornell have won more NCAA tournament games during the past five years (four) than Penn and Princeton won in 1985-2007 (three).
“It was certainly thought of as a two-horse race with Penn and Princeton,” Amaker said Wednesday. “I think now you’re obviously seeing Ivy basketball taking a step forward with everyone.”
That’s almost entirely due to the way the bar was raised by Harvard’s emergence: from one of the league’s weakest teams, playing in front of friends and family in a glorified high-school gym across the Charles River from campus, to a perennial NCAA participant that has begun landing top-100 recruits, not to mention crowds and plans for a new arena.
Harvard’s willingness to support Amaker both financially and in the admissions process, commitments previously lacking, played a role. But there’s also no questioning the force of Amaker’s personality alone, after he arrived at Harvard with a vision of what basketball could be at an academic school, forged in large part by a similar experience at Duke.
“He’s one main reason why I decided to come to Harvard,” forward Steve Moundou-Missi said. “His vision and his plan were something that really touched me and sunk in with me.”
Amaker also has benefited from changes to Ivy financial-aid programs that have allowed him to recruit on a more even playing field. As Ivy endowments have increased, schools have been able to offer increasingly large financial-aid packages that essentially have turned a non-scholarship league into a league with unlimited scholarships.
Whereas before, the best Ivy-qualified basketball players who could afford to play in the league typically would choose Penn and Princeton for their pedigrees, now eligible players of all incomes are choosing Harvard for its academic reputation and Amaker’s coaching reputation.
When former Boston College coach Steve Donahue was introduced as Penn’s coach Tuesday at the Palestra in Philadelphia, he noted just how different things are from when he became Cornell’s coach in 2000.
“Every single program made huge investments not just financially but in other aspects to make sure basketball is a priority,” Donahue told reporters. “It has a lot to do with the change in financial aid at all these institutions.”
Donahue was the first coach to break through against Penn and Princeton, winning three titles and going to the Sweet 16 in 2010 with Cornell, the best Ivy tournament performance since Penn went to the Final Four in 1979. Amaker picked up where Donahue left off, recruiting at an elite level the Ivy League had rarely seen before. The bar has never been this high.
North Carolina should be wary; the Crimson took down third-seeded New Mexico in 2013 and fifth-seeded Cincinnati last year.
“We feel like we’re definitely the big dog on campus,” Crimson forward Jonah Travis said. “We’re at the top of the mountain, as we have been for a couple years, and it’s something we don’t take lightly and something we’ve worked really hard for.”
Just as it’s a very different basketball team from when Amaker arrived, it’s a very different campus from when he arrived. The two are inextricably linked. As Harvard President Drew Faust has said, the crowds at basketball games are “among the most diverse on campus.”
“He’s not only changed Ivy League basketball, I think he’s changed Harvard as far as how they look at their enrollment and who’s coming in,” Krzyzewski said. “You talk about someone who’s had a profound influence on society.
“What he’s doing there has a big influence on society, because the kids that have now been able to come in, not just in his program, the minorities, imagine what they’re going to become as Harvard graduates. And Tommy has always understood that better than anyone. He’s one of the really special guys.”
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