Crimson tied

Amaker prepared to bring out the best in Harvard

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Staff / November 9, 2007

He thought he might be home at each coaching stop. Tommy Amaker has this knack of immersing himself in his surroundings and convincing himself and those around him it is exactly where he belongs.

He believes his newest home, Harvard, is an ideal fit. When the ball rolls out to begin the 2007-08 season, he'll set out on his latest journey to prove it.

"There aren't too many things that have never been done on this campus," Amaker said. "The accomplishments are so lengthy at this institution. This is a chance of a lifetime to be the first coach to help bring an Ivy League championship here."

In 1997, when the former Duke star became the youngest coach in the Big East at Seton Hall at age 31, Amaker embraced the job with gratitude - and grand dreams. He led the Pirates to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and followed up by securing the top-rated recruiting class in the nation. One year later, when he finally succumbed to repeated overtures from Michigan, he left New Jersey stung by accusations he had betrayed the program he had built, and the recruits he had left behind.

The experience wounded him. He became more guarded, more wary. He threw himself into the culture at Michigan, determined to learn everything he could about this new address. His wife, Stephanie Pinker-Amaker, landed the position of associate dean of students. The campus became the center of their world. Tommy Amaker gladly hunkered in for the long haul.

"Tommy knows how to do the things to make him happy," said Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Amaker's former coach and longtime mentor. "I admire that. How many of us are able to do the same?"

Amaker loved the Ann Arbor campus, thrived on the great Michigan tradition, fed off the energy and the loyalty that encompassed the campus. Yet he was there less than a year when the penalties from a booster scandal during the previous regime were handed down. The sanctions included a one-year postseason ban, reduced scholarships, and recruiting limitations.

It was a major blow to the program, particularly in recruiting. Michigan was dirty, and Amaker couldn't make it clean soon enough.

"We lost scholarships, and they were taking banners down," Amaker said. "We had issues hovering over us. We had a stigma."

He won only 11 games in his first season there, but turned that into 17 wins the next year, and led Michigan to 23 wins and the NIT championship the season after that. He posted 20-plus wins in his final two seasons in Ann Arbor, but his career record in the Big Ten was 43-53, and the NCAA Tournament eluded him, and that wasn't enough for a school that wanted - expected - success.

Last March on St. Patrick's Day, Amaker was told by athletic director Bill Martin he was fired.

Amaker asked for more time. He had landed two recruits he believed would have an impact in 2007-08. One, Manny Harris, will play for Michigan this season. The other, Alex Legion, withdrew his commitment and will play for Kentucky.

Unmoved, Martin told him his time was up. Amaker shook his hand and said, "I understand. I disagree, but I understand."

Days later, the athletic director would tell reporters that letting Amaker go was one of the most difficult things he had ever done.

Krzyzewski, who was fond of saying Amaker was like his son, fretted his protégé would jump at the first coaching opportunity.

"I wanted Duke to hire him in our athletic department," Krzyzewski said. "Tommy is a winner. He's very, very smart. I was concerned about him jumping at just anything to stay in coaching."

He couldn't be without basketball - Coach K was certain of that. Amaker was the first point guard he recruited at Duke, a four-year starter who was a defensive menace, a quiet leader, a perfectionist who demanded the same from his teammates.

"He did everything the way I wished it would be done," Krzyzewski said.

Educational appeal

Bernie Bickerstaff can relate. He was the Seattle coach when Amaker was an NBA rookie trying to make the roster. Amaker was respectful, diligent, prepared. But there were more talented players in front of him, so Nate McMillan and Sam Vincent made the team, and Amaker didn't.

Bickerstaff has cut hundreds of kids in his nearly 30-year NBA career, but, he explained, "The Tommy Amakers stay with you. He was a guy I was pulling for. But when it came down to it, all I could do was to look him in the eye and tell him the deal.

"Tommy handled it with professionalism. He always seemed to have things in perspective. He struck me as a person who could surmount any amount of adversity."

Within a week of Amaker's dismissal from Michigan, the phone began ringing. He had options inside and outside of basketball. One day, Harvard athletic director Robert Scalise was on the other line. Would Tommy Amaker consider interviewing for the Harvard job?

Harvard. Amaker let the idea breathe. The Ivy League was appealing to him. He was drawn to Harvard's tradition of excellence, to the New England area, to the opportunity to flourish in such a strong academic environment. His mother, Alda, a public school teacher for 37 years in Fairfax, Va., had required her son to know more than who led the nation in steals. Tommy Amaker craved the whole collegiate experience, not just the wins and losses of the athletic department.

How many other schools included pictures of alumni John Quincy Adams, Yo-Yo Ma, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and W.E.B. Du Bois in their basketball press guides?

The downsides were apparent. There would be no scholarships, stricter admission policies, limited facilities, and a significant cut in pay. Although the institution of Harvard was certainly impressive, the underwhelming legacy of the basketball program was another story.

The men's team had never won an Ivy League championship, had never been to the NCAA Tournament. The last time the Crimson came close was 10 years ago, when they tied for second in the league behind the unique talents of Kyle Snowden. In 2006-07, the team slumped to a 12-16 record, the fifth straight year under .500.

Amaker noted the program's futility, and then he got to thinking. What if he were the one who finally turned it around? What if he immersed himself in this Ivy League culture and discovered a way to make it work in Cambridge?

"I just felt in my heart this can be a special place," said Amaker.

He talked it over with Krzyzewski, who was initially skeptical. He warned his former player about making a knee-jerk reaction. Don't view the Michigan experience as a failure, he pleaded. There are hundreds of coaches fired during their careers, and some went on to be some of the finest teachers in the game, he stressed. Even Bob Knight had to move on in the end.

"We talked about it a long time," Krzyzewski said. "Basically, Tommy really enjoys being part of something. He told me, 'The level of basketball really doesn't matter to me.' I reminded him he would be doing a lot of the work by himself. He wouldn't have the staff, the budget, the facilities, or the support he's had in other places.

"I painted a pretty tough picture for him. But he understood all that. He told me, 'Coach, it feels good there.'

"I could see him spending the rest of his life at Harvard."

Planning for future

A new era for Crimson basketball begins tonight at Stanford. Traditionally, the Ivy League has been dominated by Princeton and Penn, but there has never been a better time to make a run at one of the country's oldest leagues. A few key recruits could put Harvard back in the hunt.

According to Recruiting News, Amaker is off to a rousing start. The publication listed its top Ivy League recruits for next season, and Harvard snagged three of the top five, including Frank Ben-Eze, a 6-foot-1-inch center out of Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va. According to, Ben-Eze chose Harvard over Marquette and Virginia Tech.

Amaker also received commitments from forward Max Kenyi out of famed Gonzaga High School and Andrew Van Nest, a big man out of Northfield Mount Hermon.

Yet the most intriguing prospect could well be 6-11 transfer Cem Dinc, a member of the German Youth National Team who played last season at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa (while maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade-point average). Dem is on campus, but has yet to practice because of a recent illness. He was hotly pursued by a number of Ivy League schools and could be a major force up front.

Amaker concedes it will take some time to put his imprint on the program. He rejects the notion he is using Harvard as a steppingstone back to the big time.

"I just want to believe in where I am," he said. "I value the chance to represent Harvard. Any time I've ever taken a job, I've asked myself the question, 'Can I be here forever?' I don't have a crystal ball. I can't predict what will happen. But if it works out I'm here the next 15 or 16 years, that would be an incredible moment for us. And if I'm here that long, that probably means we won a little bit."

Scalise said he and Amaker talked about what kind of commitment Harvard was seeking.

"I told him we were looking for someone who would be a good fit for us, and that was a long-term fit," Scalise said. "He understood that. That and his stature in the basketball world made him very attractive to us."

Amaker is aware he was hired in the wake of criticism that Harvard's athletic staff was not diverse.

"I don't feel I came here as just an African-American candidate," he said. "I came as a candidate who wants to make a difference and be a future leader on this campus."

Scalise said the excitement level over Amaker's first season continues to build, particularly with returning players eager to make their mark.

"We may not be a big-time basketball school, but we're a big-time school," Scalise said. "We like to do a lot of things well. That resonated with Tommy. He told me, 'I'm a coach, but I consider myself an educator, too. I want to help these young men with this phase in their lives.' When he said that, I said, 'Whoa, this is our kind of guy.' "

Harvard is convinced it has found its coach.

Tommy Amaker believes he finally may have found his home.

Inside the numbers: Guard Drew Housman has to harness his dual personality: He led the Crimson in assists and turnovers. Starting forward Pat Magnarelli played in only nine games last season because of a back injury. Guard Andrew Pusar shot 57 percent from the floor.

Five key games: Nov. 24 at Providence, Dec. 1 Michigan, Feb. 15 Cornell, Feb. 23 Penn, March 8 Yale

Jackie MacMullan can be reached at

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