Tommy Amaker, Harvard and the Conundrum of 21st Century NCAA Hoops

A basketball team with an 8-22 overall record that went 3-11 in conference play should raise few eyebrows. But when the name Tommy Amaker is attached to that record, brows furrow. At a distance the wrinkles can be seen on the foreheads of coaches and athletic directors across the Ivy League’s men’s basketball programs.

Amaker replaced Frank Sullivan, whose contract with Harvard was not renewed after the Crimson went 12-16 overall and 5-9 in the Ivy League last season and 178-245 over 16 years. Harvard hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1946.

Amaker’s first head coaching stint came at Seton Hall. There for four seasons, he led the Pirates to a 68-55 record, a trip to the round of 16 in the 2000 NCAA Tournament and three NIT appearances. Michigan took one look at Amaker’s record and reeled him in to take over the reins of their blighted program.

Though he met the administration’s mandate of restoring integrity to the basketball program, Amaker’s luck never broke. It was as if, when Michigan washed the accomplishments of the Fab Five from its memory, the ghosts of Chris Webber’s past loosed themselves on the program – and on Amaker.

In retrospect, Ann Arbor was too much program for Tommy Amaker. He walked into a situation that required a seasoned head coach with vast prior experience; a coach skilled at university and athletic department detante; a coach who is diplomat enough to make disparate personalities feel comfortable in his, and each other’s presence.

Amaker also arose from “Coach K-ville.” Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s program is one of the most straight-forward and smoothly-run Division I basketball factories in the nation. With Durham as a training ground, Amaker came to Michigan feeling his Blue Blood, Blue Devils sensibilities would transpose themselves onto the proud Michigan basketball program and soon enough his players would be pounding the floor and the U of M students would be waiting in tents to get the best seats for the next night’s game; to receive a “Coach A” pizza to make their wintry overnight stay outside Crisler Arena a little more palatable.

But it was not to be.

Harvard represented an opportunity for Amaker to demonstrate his abilities in a low-key situation and reaffirm the methods of being a both human and a basketball coach learned from Krzyzewski. When he was formally announced as the new Crimson head coach, Amaker joked easily about failing at Michigan, but boldly announced that he would make Harvard a an Ivy League – and national – power. Tommy Amaker told the Harvard faithful he came to win.

At the time of the hiring, Crimson athletic director Bob Scalise concurred with Amaker’s want to win:

“His experience as a player and assistant at Duke, where athletic and academic success is paramount, makes him a terrific fit,” Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise said in a statement. “We’re looking forward to the support of the Harvard community as we pursue our first Ivy League championship in men’s basketball.”

Yet after an 8-22, 3-11 season, Tommy Amaker is in roiling waters.

Somehow, despite the fact that Harvard University’s enrollment standards are among the toughest in the nation and despite the fact that Harvard does not offer traditional athletic scholarships, Amaker has prohibitively landed one of the top 25 high school basketball recruiting classes in America. And his peers in the Ivy League are none too happy about the situation.

Fellow coaches and perhaps university insiders are whispering that Harvard has lowered its academic standards to allow these players to be enrolled at the college on the banks of the Cambridge River. These same people are whispering that Amaker has broken or at least circumvented NCAA rules to recruit some of these players. Even a recruit’s father – a player not attending Harvard – is telling a story of a chance meeting that, according to the father, was not chance at all.

Harvard, like all Ivy schools, uses a complicated formula to judge the worthiness of prospective student athletes. A player in Amaker’s basketball program must meet a certain minimum score on the “Academic Index,” a measuring tool that combines standardized test scores (SAT scores), class size, exact class rank, and grade-point average (GPA) in a formula.

For example, a student with a1400 out of 1600 on the SAT exam, top three SAT scores of 600, 700, and 750, a graduating class size of 150, a top 10% class rank, and a 4.00-4.09 GPA would register a 203 score on the Academic Index (the minimum score allowed for Ivy League athletes is 171).

Frank Sullivan, the basketball team’s coach previous to Amaker, adhered to a higher standard than the Ivy League minimum. According to former assistant coaches, Bill Holden and Lamar Reddicks, Sullivan’s standard was a score of 206, which was the highest in the league. The two also indicated that Scalise mandated a score of 202 for its players. However, according to this information Harvard can lower its institutional requirements and remain the Ivy school with the most stringent academic requirements for its basketball players.

The bottom line is that Scalise is by no means bending the rules of academic standards in violation of a rule. Additionally, he feels that the information provided by Holden and Reddicks are the complaints of two assistant coaches who hoped to be rehired by Amaker, but were not rehired.

Requirements aside, Amaker still faces charges that he acted unethically or broke an NCAA rule to recruit highly-touted forward, 6?7? Keith Wright. Wright was pursued by Illinois, Davidson, and other Ivy League schools, but chose Amaker and Harvard (the other prize recruits who have not yet received letters of acceptance from Harvard are: 6?10? center Frank Ben-Eze from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va. and Max Kenyi, a 6-3 shooting guard from Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.).

In reaction to the successful recruitment of Wright and other potential Amaker players, Yale coach James Jones said of Amaker’s recruits:

“It’s eye-opening because there seems to have been a drastic shift in restrictions and regulations with the Harvard admissions office,” he said.

“We don’t know how all this is going to come out, but we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in.”

Is Jones suggesting that Harvard’s standards are no lower than those of other Ivy schools, or is this more sour grapes? Jones apparently did not elaborate. But Scalise feels there is some jealousy involved:

“Sounds like there’s a lot of jealousy and also sounds like people are trying to protect the status quo for their programs,” Scalise said.

Jealousies aside, it might take an NCAA investigation to disentangle Amaker’s dealings with Wright and Kenyi. Kenny Blakeney, a former Duke player who resides in D.C., played in pickup games with both Wright and Kenyi. The problem with this interaction is that Blakeney, sometime after the pickup games, became a lead assistant coach at Harvard. It is allegedly a frequent unehtical practice for coaches to use ‘assistants-to-be’ to make contact with players before being hired. And the NCAA has a rule about this “activity.”According to NCAA spokesman, Erik Christianson, the organization’s rules state:

“Should a coach recruit on behalf of a school but not be employed there, he or she is then considered a booster and that recruiting activity is not allowed.”

The rule is nebulous and is much of a trap to coaches and schools as is the practice. It is a, ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ rule from which no good can come. The NCAA should not be able to enforce such a policy without proof of wrong-doing. The NCAA also should mandate that all coaches have complete staffs before the “no contact” period.

Neither distinction exists, which means college athletics’ governing body can mete out this punishment subjectively; it can be ignored or pursued and enforced depending on the feeling of an investigator on a particular day – for the school, the coach, or even the conference.

Blakeney’s interaction with the players seems innocent enough. Wright insists that Blakeney was in Norfolk with a summer league team. He says the purpose of his visits to Gonzaga High School was to visit basketball coach and 20-year friend, Steve Turner and to stay in shape by playing hoops.

The reaction in college basketball circles to these incidents involving Blakeney, though, is negative:

The practice of recruiting in person before being officially hired is becoming more prevalent among the more high-profile basketball programs. “Assuming the coach knows exactly what he’s doing, it’s unethical,” said Jim Haney, the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Blakeney denied he was recruiting Kenyi and Wright then. “I was unemployed,” he said, repeating: “I was unemployed. I don’t know if it’s a gray area or anything like that. I hadn’t signed a contract. I didn’t have any type of agreement with anybody. How could I recruit them to Harvard if I’m not employed?”

Craig Robinson, the coach at Brown, said “wow” when told of Blakeney’s pickup games with high school athletes.

He laughed before saying, “I would say that would give them an advantage.”

And yet, if Robinson knew the spheres of basketball influence in the Middle Atlantic area which extends from Baltimore to the Lower Chesapeake region of Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia, Blakeney’s traveling the about 190 miles from D.C. to Norfolk to check in on one of his summer league teams and get some games in while he’s there makes perfect sense. Visiting friends who are coaches and were collegiate players and playing pick-up games with them and a variety of competition from local high school to local college players is the norm, not the exception.

No one knows, though, how the NCAA will perceive the events.

In another incident, Amaker ran into Les Rosen, the father of 6?1? point guard Zac Rosen, another Harvard recruit, at a grocery store in Trenton, New Jersey during the Eastern Invitational tournament. Amaker talked with the elder Rosen, and, according to Rosen, urged him to send his son to Harvard. This occurred at a time when coaches could only watch recruits and were not allowed to speak with recruits or their parents (or guardians) unless they met accidentally:

Les Rosen remembered Amaker saying, “We really have to get Zack up to Harvard.”

Les Rosen said he thought to himself: Who goes to ShopRite in the middle of a basketball tournament?

“It was suspicious,” he said, “but as much as it seemed obvious, he wouldn’t be found guilty in court.”

Harvard looked into the Rosen situation and determined that no violations occurred.

Unless Rosen had prior shady dealings with coaches or disliked Amaker for some reason, his statement is out of character for a parent at a high school invitational tournament. Many coaches attending these tournaments stay in suites in hotels complete with refrigerators and microwaves, or even stoves. Daily trips to grocery stores can be rituals for some of the coaches, who later gather for sandwiches and soft drinks (or yes, beers) to kibbutz and talk basketball, and basketball players.

Yet if the NCAA determines that the Blakeney situation warrants an in-depth investigation, this incident might become an issue pointing to a pattern of illegal behavior for Amaker and Harvard.

Amaker’s insertion into Ivy League basketball has fundamentally altered the way the game is played off the court. For three decades now the Ivies were universities where relatively unknown coaches came to earn their stripes and move on, where coaches who were once well-known come to sate their continuing desire to coach without the pressures of big-time college basketball. The best players in the league generally dropped into the laps of certain programs while the other schools were left to play the hands they were dealt.

Now, though, when it is possible for programs like that of “commuter colleges” like George Mason University to make a run to the final Four, Ivy League athletic departments see the chance to enhance their standing around the country by fielding competitive athletic teams. A deep run in the NCCA Men’s Basketball Tournament by an Ivy League school would result in more academic recruits and more high-visibility athletic recruits.

Amaker’s presence and his and his athletic director’s assertion that Harvard Basketball is taking a new direction – an investment in winning – makes for more pressure for all the other Ivy League coaches. It is a proclamation that the Ivies are joining the big-time.

And this forces the coaches from the Ivies to join the NCAA basketball universe of the 21st century. They must actively recruit players from regions around the country that are, perhaps, outside of their comfort zones. They must ask for more money from the university and from boosters to conduct their business. This means glad-handing, doing rounds of speaking engagements, and even attending corporate and political mixers, which is the rarified air inhabited by well-heeled Ivy League boosters.

Ivy League basketball is changing and it is dragging along its athletic programs and its basketball coaches kicking and screaming. When the coaches look around for someone or something to blame, they see Tommy Amaker.

And when they see Tommy Amaker, they see crimson ———– and Crimson.

And for all their feigned innocence, their steadfastness in maintaining the Ivy status quo, when it comes to Amaker, these coaches have moved much like their big-time brethren to whom they claim no relation. They have quietly banded together and whispered just loudly enough, insinuated just enough to ensure that Amaker and Harvard have the NCAA’s attention.

Now it is up to an organization known for willingly engaging in grandstanding and bluster to either puff out its chest and show the Ohio States, Oklahomas and the North Carolinas that they are indiscriminate in their want for fairness in amateur athletics by attacking Harvard and seeking to punish the bastion of the Ivies to the fullest extent of their law with a zeal usually reserved for an SEC football program.

Or the NCAA can recognize what it has wrought by limiting scholarships on major sport athletic teams and therefore making more quality players available to smaller colleges and universities. The NCAA can recognize that just a decade ago the wants of Tommy Amaker and Bob Scalise and Harvard were impossible. The NCAA can recognize this is the monster they asked for; they sought to create and pull back and view the happenings at Harvard in their proper context.

Note to Tommy Amaker and Bob Scalise: Move more quietly. And Beware the NCAA.

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