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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Is Harvard Cheating in Men's Basketball Recruiting?

The New York Times today, in an article that appears on the front page of its sports section, calls into question Harvard's overall approach to its men's basketball program. Read the whole thing here and draw your own conclusions.

Pete Thamel's article calls into question the following:

1) Is Harvard lowering its standards in trying to admit higher-caliber basketball players than it has in the past? (Yale head coach James Jones, for one, thinks so, as do former Harvard assistants Bill Holden and Lamar Reddicks).

2) Did both Amaker and current assistant Kenny Blakeney commit recruiting violations? (The Times thinks so, and Brown head coach Craig Robinson suggests as much, as does the executive director of the National Association of Basketball coaches, Jim Haney).

The Harvard A.D., Bob Scalise, comes off poorly in the article, as he basically throws Holden, Reddicks and even former head coach Frank Sullivan, a good man and good coach, under the bus in his praise of the current coaching group. So remember this, Coach Amaker, that if you fail in your new endeavors, the charms of A.D. Scalise could be launched in your direction, too.

The article, overall, reports a paradigm shift in Cambridge, which will cause some ugliness that will reverberate through the Ivies. Recruiting guru Dave Telep is cited as saying that Harvard's current recruiting class might be the best in Ivy history. Which means that either the other Ivies are envious or that the other Ivies are ticked because Harvard is breaking rules. Or, it's somewhere in between, that Harvard is stretching certain rules. Without follow-up articles on the point or an NCAA investigation into some of the alleged activity, it's hard to tell totally at this point. That said, the activities of current Harvard assistant Kenny Blakeney (before he was hired at Harvard) seem dubious at best.

So what's Harvard doing? Is the Harvard administration injecting the recruiting equivalent of banned substances into the process? The recruiting methods seem questionable and might warrant investigation (it would be hard for the NCAA to avoid this article, even if it's Harvard), but Harvard probably can do with it wants so that its overall team satisfies the Ivies' labyrinthine recruiting index.

(Remember this, that if the Crimson are found guilty of recruiting violations, it will be interesting to see what the sanctions are. The Ivies' don't give athletic scholarships, so the NCAA can't take away scholarships. They can take away the ability to play in the post-season, and the guess here is that if the Amaker administration is found guilty, Amaker et al. might be asked to make a quick exit out of Cambridge).

As to the index, is Harvard recruiting inadmissible candidates, or is it simply lowering its standards for men's hoops -- so that it still falls within an acceptable range on the Ivies' index but compete better? And, if so, is that so horrible? (It certainly would be for the coaches who were fired last year, who were up against tough odds to recruit a team that could fight for a championship).

Of course, even if Amaker can get all of these kids (and the Times suggests that his top recruit, a center who appears in the ESPN's Top 150 HS recruits, has not achieved the minimum number in the index that would allow him admission to any Ivy), can he coach them to a title?

Remember a few things. Only one of Coach Mike Krzyzewki's disciples -- Mike Brey (now at Notre Dame) -- has been a successful head coach. Others -- Quin Snyder (disgraced at Missouri), David Henderson (fired at Delaware) and Amaker -- have not succeeded. Amaker was so-so at Seton Hall before failing at Michigan despite being a decent recruiter. So, it remains to be seen whether Amaker and his assistants can coach well enough to challenge for the Ivy title. Then again, if the talent he brings in is so transcendant, he might not have to be that good of a coach at all.

Just a good recruiter probably would suffice. Given what the Times reports, that's a potentially scary proposition.

But remember this: the road to future Ivy titles still goes through Ithaca, Philadelphia and, yes, even central New Jersey, despite Princeton's down period. Steve Donahue is cooking with gas at Cornell, and Glen Miller is re-loading the talent in Philadelphia. Sydney Johnson at Princeton will need a few years to rebuild, but the Tigers' storied program will rebound (it has before).

And now, given this article, every other coach in the Ivies has a new bogeyman -- Tommy Amaker, he of the impeccable resume, now of Harvard, who now has a firestorm to deal with.

Because the Times has just turned the basketball players he brings into Cambridge into the Ivy athletic world's version of Hessians, whether they deserve the label or not.

Stay tuned, as this story has many more chapters to be written.


Blogger Escort81 said...

The strength of the incoming recruiting class at Harvard -- assuming the "likely to be admitted" letters equate to actual admissions in April -- is a bit suspicious, based on the schools the student-athletes are currently attending, and the observation quoted in the Times piece that it may be the strongest class in the history of Ivy League basketball.

Now, the NYT has, er, been known to make mistakes, both wrongfully indicting and giving a pass. I am content to let this play out and see if the kids matriculate; I hope both for their sakes and for the sake of the League, that they are capable of doing the academic work in Cambridge and will end up graduating in four years (or so). If so, it sounds like the Crimson will beat up the Big Red next season and go to the NCAAs.

The real question is, why did Harvard get a bug up its rear all of a sudden about the basketball program? Their facilities are marginally nicer (or used to be in the 1990s) than a big suburban high school gym. Aren't they content with dominance in heavyweight crew?

Perhaps at the end of the day, Harvard just took a page out of Penn's old recruiting playbook, but then again, Penn has always been statistically the easiest Ivy to get into (full disclosure: my grandfather was class of 1909, but my father had the good judgment to attend another Ivy, located in central NJ; my aunt, my cousin and my sister all have degrees from Penn). Stretching a listed athlete candidate is one thing when admit rates are 1 in 5 (as it was when SportsProf, TigerHawk and I applied a generation ago) or 1 in 3 if you were a "backyard" applicant at Penn in that same era. However, rates are 1 in 10 or 11 now, so for every slot that goes to a significantly academically under qualified candidate, there is another very well qualified candidate on the razor's edge that does not get in. Student-athletes really have to be able to do the work, otherwise it benefits no one except the coach.

Cross posted at TigerHawk.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

I thought the NY times article was funny. Harvard hires a big time coach with a big time background and is surprised that corners are cut. After NCAA violations become clear the AD has a teaching moment with the coach. You can't make this stuff up. If the statements reported are true, Harvard has no real choice but to fire Amaker.
FYI for Harvard to challenge Cornell after they get by Penn and Princeton they also have to get by Brown which swept Harvard, Penn and Princeton this year.
Amaker is not going to be around to see it happen.

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ironic question is how does anyone know these kids grades and scores? They can only be released by permission of the families and their respective high schools. So while other coaches may claim that these kids are not qualified, is it more a reason that Harvard was just able to get kids that other schools could not get to?
Is it odd or suspicious that a black student-athlete would WANT to go to Harvard over Georgetown or Villanova?
This is not like Harvard admitting students that will never graduate or who can't read. It's not like they are taking in "thugs" who have rap sheets as long as Santa's naughty or nice list. These are kids who have gone to solid academic high schools, Gonzaga being a great all-boys school even, and questioning the motives of students wanting a Harvard education.
Maybe stop and consider that maybe some kids actually listened when people told them their odds of making the NBA versus a great future with a Harvard diploma.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact of the matter is that for a "regular" kid to get into a school like Harvard, he or she has to be a spectacular student. For an athlete to gain admission, he or she only has to be a good one. Admissions decisions are made by the institution and if the school wants you to field a decent team, then it will accept you. I know a basketball player at one of these high end schools and he had decent grades. Something interesting to note is that a lot of his high marks came from preferential treatment from high school teachers and administrators (allowing him to miss exams and not turn in papers because of his busy schedule, scratching unexcused absences from his record so that he could stay enrolled) and because he was a standout athlete in high school.

The system at high schools and at higher education institutions is preferential to athletes. Period.

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