When Tommy Amaker walked into John Paul Jones Arena prior to Sunday’s game with then-No. 6 Virginia, he knew he was back in the ACC.
A raucous sellout crowd of 14,593 awaited the Harvard men’s basketball coach, possibly the largest crowd his Crimson will see all season.
The reason for the big turnout was twofold. First, the basketball renaissance the No. 5 Cavaliers have enjoyed under sixth-year coach Tony Bennett, underscored by last season’s ACC championship, has made basketball big-time again in Charlottesville. And second, Harvard is taken seriously these days.
Unfortunately for Amaker, Harvard got the full attention of the Cavaliers, who applied a 76-27 beatdown that set all kinds of defensive records in the process.
The Crimson (7-2) managed one first-half field goal, went nearly 20 minutes before making another, and shot only 16 percent for the game against the nation’s top-ranked defensive team.
It was a difficult afternoon for Amaker, who had never lost to the Cavaliers in nine meetings during his playing days at Duke and was 7-0 at Harvard against ACC competition.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that games like that happen,” Amaker said.
But quickly shifting gears, he said privately that he likes how the program has progressed in his eight years in Cambridge, Mass., along the Charles River.
Harvard has given him a great institutional base and personal support, he said.
“It is an amazing brand,” Amaker said. “We’ve tried to take a great school and build a program around a great situation.”
The list of accomplishments in his tenure at Harvard would point to his success:
-- A 146-73 record and the five highest single-season win totals.
-- The first four Ivy League championships (2011-14) in school history.
-- Three NCAA tournament appearances, the first since 1946.
-- Two NCAA tournament victories, over No. 3 seed New Mexico in 2013 and No. 5 Cincinnati in 2014.
-- Five straight 20-win seasons, including a school-record 27-5 mark in 2013-14.
-- The first appearance in a major national poll in school history.
-- Thirteen victories against teams from power conferences, including the undefeated record before Sunday against the ACC (6-0 vs. Boston College, 1-0 vs. Florida State).
A long road
So clearly, Amaker has produced more than just fostering Lin-sanity in the NBA in the form of his former point guard, Jeremy Lin.
Harvard has announced plans to build a replacement for 2,195-seat Lavietes Pavilion, which opened in 1926 and is the second-oldest college basketball arena still in use in the nation.
It hasn’t happened overnight for Amaker, 49. The former Duke point guard and assistant coach has been a head coach for 18 years, compiling a 322-212 record.
He left Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke staff in 1997 and became the youngest head coach in Big East history at age 31, spending four years at Seton Hall. The Pirates reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2000 and earned three bids to the National Invitation Tournament. Amaker also landed the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the nation for the 2000-01 season, including the high school player of the year in Eddie Griffin.
Amaker left for one of the numerous job openings he had been linked with and took on the unenviable task of restoring the tarnished program at Michigan, in the wake of the Fab Five scandals.
Amaker won the NIT in 2004 with Michigan and compiled a 109-83 record (43-53 Big Ten), despite spending the first two seasons on probation. Unfortunately for Amaker, Michigan never made it to the NCAA tournament during his tenure, and that became the rallying cry for his dismissal in 2007.
A month later, Michigan’s loss was Harvard’s gain, when Crimson athletics director Bob Scalise hired Amaker – at the Harvard players’ urging. And in the eighth game of the 2007-08 season, Amaker gained a measure of revenge when his new team defeated Michigan 62-51.
Since then, he has never looked back. He has made Harvard formidable in recruiting, to the point that he ran afoul of the NCAA and after a two-year investigation earned a slap on the wrist in the form of restrictions on recruiting.
Amaker has four commitments for another solid class this season, including two players from Southern California. According to national recruiting lists, his targets in the Class of 2016include two players from North Carolina, former Raleigh Word of God combo guard Quentin Jackson Jr. and shooting guard Zach Cottrell of Hayesville High.
Jackson now is playing at Carlisle School in Martinsville, Va. He is the son of former Word of God coach Quentin Jackson Sr., who played point guard for Jim Valvano at N.C. State (1985-88).
All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon of Virginia was a recruiting target of Amaker’s, and Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett mentioned Brogdon’s grandparents openly lobbied for him to attend Harvard.
“I was very aware of that,” Amaker said with a wry smile. “I wish he would have listened to his grandparents.”
Happy to stay
This season’s Harvard team is favored to repeat as Ivy League champion largely because of a talented backcourt.
Wesley Saunders, a 6-foot-5 senior swingman from Los Angeles, was the Ivy League Player of the Year last season. Junior point guard Siyani Chambers was the conference’s rookie of the year two years ago and became the first player to make the All-Ivy League first team as a freshman.
Although Amaker’s name continues to be mentioned whenever high-profile jobs come open, he doesn’t sound like somebody viewing his current situation as a stepping stone.
“Things have come up in the last five or six years, but we’re happy here,” Amaker said of himself and his wife Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, who is a clinical psychologist.
“It’s a great university, a great environment. If they’re gracious enough to have me forever, I’d be happy here.”
However, many college basketball observers believe that situation would change when Krzyzewski retires at Duke, which could be five years down the road by Krzyzewski’s own estimation.
Amaker acknowledged the talk and admitted he would have to listen to Duke’s pitch.
“Everyone listens, but we’re happy,” he repeated. “You don’t go to a place if you don’t feel like you can be there forever.”
Amaker is one of seven former Krzyzewski players or assistants who are college or NBA head coaches. The others are Mike Brey (Notre Dame), Johnny Dawkins (Stanford), Chris Collins (Northwestern), Bobby Hurley (Buffalo), Steve Wojciechowski (Marquette) and Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz). They, along with current Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, who was a head coach at Virgina Commonwealth and Oklahoma, are the obvious “Duke family” candidates to succeed Krzyzewski.
Whether Amaker would leave Harvard isn’t certain, but two incidents will follow him if he does.
The first was the NCAA probation in 2010 stemming from a recruiting violation by an assistant coach. Former Duke player Kenny Blakeney participated in a pick-up game with two players being recruited by Harvard and later would be hired as an assistant coach by Amaker. The Ivy League cleared Harvard in an investigation, but the NCAA reopened the probe, which lasted two years.
It ended with the school admitting to the secondary, unintentional, violation and agreeing to recruiting restrictions for the following season. Blakeney left Amaker’s staff in 2011 to go into private business.
The second incident was a campus-wide academic scandal that involved more than 100 students, including four basketball players, during the 2011-12 academic year. Amaker’s co-captains, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, withdrew from school to preserve their final year of eligibility and then returned the following year to lead the Crimson to its fourth straight Ivy championship.
Although the incident was characterized as an academic issue, and not an athletic one, it dredged up talk in the media about the NCAA probation. Voices inside and outside the university also repeated the claim that Harvard had lowered its admission standards to compete in basketball. The school had the second-worst all-time winning percentage among Ivy League schools, exceeded only by Brown, before Amaker took over. Even some competitors – notably Yale coach James Jones and Northeastern AD Peter Roby, a former Harvard coach – voiced their criticism.
Amaker admitted the situations were difficult to deal with, but he has learned from them.
“There’s no walk of life that guarantees a convenient path,” he said. “I’m more interested in looking at it as a wonderful opportunity for growth.”
Much like Sunday’s debacle at Virginia, Amaker will look to the future and exhort his team to regroup, recover and refocus.