John Harvard's Journal
Rebound & Transition
Coach Tommy Amaker is the new ruler of roundball.
Harvard has never won an Ivy League basketball championship. Changing that legacy, which dates from 1955 (the first year of play in the league), ranks high among the priorities of Tommy Amaker, the Crimson’s new head coach of men’s basketball, who met local media, fellow coaches, and supporters at a press conference, complete with brunch, in mid April. “I’m excited about coaching in the Ivy League,” said Amaker. “Perhaps we’ll have a chance to make history.” Addressing those of his Harvard athletes who were present, he added, “You already are winners. If you are at Harvard, you’re a winner. And if you can attack those rebounds like you attacked that orange juice, we’ll be fine.”
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Nichols Family director of athletics Robert Scalise introduced Amaker, noting his success as a player and assistant coach at Duke, and in head coaching jobs at Seton Hall and Michigan. As a coach, Amaker was part of two Duke NCAA championship teams (1991 and 1992), made six Final Four appearances, and reached postseason play 22 times. “Tommy joins us with experience and a pedigree that are second to none in college basketball,” Scalise said. When Amaker rose, he thanked his new boss “for your math there with all the postseasons,” and then added, “You omitted the fact that I’ve been fired”—to explosive laughter.
The University of Michigan did release Amaker—after six seasons (2001-07) in which the Wolverines compiled a creditable 109-83 record, but failed to make the NCAA tournament. Some Michiganders reportedly considered Amaker to be too principled for big-time college hoops. “If that’s the speculation,” he told the New York Times, “I’ll take it every day of the week and twice on Sunday.” He added that he never felt any pressure there to alter his convictions.
Amaker succeeds Frank Sullivan, who compiled a 178-245 record over 16 seasons. A widely respected figure, Sullivan nonetheless was fired this spring; Scalise was concerned that Harvard had begun to finish behind not only Penn and Princeton (Ivy powers who have won or shared the league title every year since 1988), but also less-prepossessing rivals. Sullivan’s most recent squad, for example, went 12-16 and 5-9 in the Ivies, finishing sixth in the league.
The new coach also adds a note of racial diversity to the staff. In March, the Boston Globe reported that none of Harvard’s 32 head coaches (in 41 intercollegiate sports) was African American—nor were Scalise and his 13 senior administrators. (Harvard’s last black head coach was Peter Roby, who headed the men’s basketball program from 1985 until 1991. Another African American, Tom “Satch” Sanders, coached the Crimson from 1973 to 1977.) “To think that Harvard would not have a single African-American head coach, male or female, in 2007 is breathtaking,” Climenko professor of law Charles J. Ogletree Jr. told the Globe.
Since 2001, Scalise has hired new head coaches for men’s ice hockey and volleyball, women’s lacrosse, skiing, and water polo, and men’s and women’s golf and track and field and cross-country. All are white. In April, at a gathering organized by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, he explained that in “white middle-class suburban” sports like skiing, field hockey, and women’s lacrosse, good minority candidates tend to be scarce, and said that greater diversity among athletes would eventuate in more diversity among coaches. “We contact the Black Coaches Association on every search we do,” he said.
Amaker started at point guard for four years at Duke, playing against stars like Michael Jordan and graduating with a degree in economics in 1987. He captained the Blue Devils as a senior, when he was named an all-American and National Defensive Player of the Year. The Seattle Supersonics chose him in the 1987 NBA draft, but he went into coaching, including nine years at Duke under the cele-brated Mike Krzyzewski, “Coach K,” who enthusiastically endorsed the new appointment. “What an amazing selection,” Krzyzewski said. “Tommy will be fantastic for Harvard and Harvard will be fantastic for Tommy. I am just ecstatic about the potential of that marriage.”