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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Harvard's New Basketball Coach

Harvard just hired Tommy Amaker, former Duke point guard and formerly the head coach of Seton Hall and Michigan (which recently fired him after six undistinguished seasons in the Big Ten) as its head men's basketball coach.

How will Amaker fare at Harvard? It's hard to say.

On the one hand, he's a disciple of Coach K, having played for him and coached for him. On the other hand, Coach K's progeny, except for Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, haven't fared all that well as head coaches (examples: Amaker, Quin Snyder (formerly at Missouri) and David Henderson (once at Delaware).

On the one hand, he's not in the Big Ten anymore, where recruiting is intense and if you fail to land the right player you're talking NIT as your best shot for post-season play. On the other hand, the talent disparity - from top to bottom in the Ivies -- shouldn't be and usually isn't as great.

On the one hand, recruiting shouldn't be as crazy at Harvard as it was at Michigan (read: the ethics in the Ivies presumably are better than in big-time hoops). On the other hand, you're recruiting from a much narrower pool of players in the Ivies, and you really have to worry about grades and scores to a degree that no other conference does (close second: the Patriot League).

On the one hand, you'll get to coach smart players who presumably will listen to you (and not an AAU coach, a future agent or older sibling). On the other than, you'll get to coach players who won't be able to execute at the talent level you're accustomed to coaching; they might listen, but that doesn't mean that they can do what you want them to.

On the one hand, at Michigan you had players who took the game very seriously because they were Top 200 players in high school. On the other hand, at Harvard you'll coach players to whom the game probably won't mean as much, because you don't go to Harvard with the NBA as your main goal. That relative lack of intensity might bother you from time to time.

My bottom line is that I don't think Amaker was the best recruiter out there, and that made it difficult to win at both Seton Hall and Michigan. Assuming that he's an okay recruiter in the Ivies and that the Ivies are somewhat like NASCAR autos (i.e., one car isn't that much better than another and the talent levels aren't all that far apart), we'll get to see what type of coach he is. Assuming that he'll get Harvard to make hoops more of a priority (after all, it's somewhat of a hockey school) at the admissions office, Tommy Amaker might be able to make a big difference at Harvard.

But it is a big acclimation for him and a huge step down from Seton Hall and Michigan, basketball-wise. Recruiting is a pain (you have to fan out nationally to find the 3-5 kids who can help your program every year). The gyms are small, they're usually half-empty, and most folks at your school won't care about the hoops program. Put differently, just because Tommy Amaker has "big-time" written all over him doesn't mean he'll vault Harvard over Penn in the Ivies anytime soon.

Still, he's an intriguing hire and will bring more attention to the Ivies.

He should remember one last detail: the last coach who achieved at a national level and came to the Ivies had an unhappy ending. After 3 relatively unsuccessful years at Princeton after transforming Air Force, Joe Scott returned to Colorado to head up the University of Denver's program. Someone forgot to tell the other Ivy coaches that they were supposed to lose to a runner up for national Coach of the Year.


Blogger Steve said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Steve Bzomowski said...

Add Bob Bender's up-and-down and sub-.500 reign at U. of Washington and Chuck Swenson's short ride at William & Mary to the list of Coach K guys who, for whatever reasons, haven't fared so well on their own.

Harvard must be serious about Amaker because the reported package is $225K/yr, which, I'm guessing, has to be tops in the Ivies (a serious cut from his $700K at Michigan). When Frank Sullivan began his tenure at Harvard, he was the lowest paid in the league.

I believe Amaker will be able to recruit at Harvard. The pool of prospective athletes is not as small as one might think. If you took all the best players in the country who had Harvard grades and put them all on one team, that would be one really good team. The question always is: do I want to play basketball at Harvard, with that lousy tradition, that small gym, perhaps cutting my chances, if I still harbor those dreams, of making it big-time? Amaker at Harvard versus the rest of the league and the other academic schools (Stanford, Vandy, Northwestern, all of whom he will need to occasionally out-recruit if he wants to win) is much more of a draw than Amaker at Michigan versus his Big Ten and national recruiting competition. Pete Roby recruited the best talent in the Ivy league at Harvard in the late 80s but, because of injuries and, perhaps, youthful exhuberance and some inexperience at managing players, came up short when it mattered. If Amaker can recruit like Roby, his coaching experience should get him and The Crimson close to the top.

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I do not know the name of the current coach, but he is doing some amazing things with the team, since my brother get in to Harvard I have been following the team.

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