The first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, as it seems to every year, bring some surprises which put an exclamation on the seasons of certain teams and coaches, especially when that season ends with a loss in the first round. This year just has the feel of a year where the tournament could see all manner of upsets and bracket busting. Arguably, the best underdog story line that is being written as of the time this article is the Harvard Crimson moving on to the second round of the NCAA tournament to face prohibitive favorite, and chic championship pick, Michigan State.
This is the second consecutive year that Harvard has won its first round NCAA tourney game and also its second tournament victory in its entire basketball playing history. Head coach Tommy Amaker has taken the Crimson to heights never before seen in Cambridge. Now, it seems like every year we see a mid-major making some noise in the tournament by winning its first game and becoming media darlings for 48 hours or so before the inevitable elimination by one of the big boys. Certainly, in recent years mid-majors such as George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth, and Butler have done much more than that going all the way to the Final Four in a couple of instances. But there is something special about a non-athletic scholarship Ivy League program reaching these heights. And there is no way that one can separate the Crimson’s success on the court from its head coach.
Amaker’s coaching career has an interesting arc. A player at Duke and protégé of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, Amaker’s first coaching gig was in the Big East with Seton Hall. He led the Pirates to just one NCAA tournament appearance (reaching the Sweet 16) in four seasons before heading to Michigan and the Big Ten, where his disappointing tenure brought no NCAA tournament appearances and an overall sub .500 record in Big Ten play over the entirety of his six seasons in Ann Arbor.
Needless to say, his hiring in 2007 as Harvard’s coach could easily have been interpreted as a huge step down for coach who had lost a lot of his luster. To the contrary, Amaker’s tenure at Harvard has been unprecedented and, in many ways, amazing. Perhaps a harbinger of what was to come was Amaker leading his Harvard team past his former Michigan team in his initial season. Under Amaker, the Crimson have made their only three NCAA tourney appearances in history and notched their only two wins in the tournament, as noted above, but have also notched all their all time wins against ranked teams, including a top 10 team, which they accomplished last year with their victory over New Mexico in the first round. Harvard also racked up five consecutive wins against crosstown and ACC rival Boston College and maybe the best thing that can be said about Thursday’s upset over Cincinnati is the number of people in the national media who are saying, correctly, that the Crimson beating the Bearcats really wasn’t that much of an upset.
It may be counterintuitive that a coach who could not win consistently at two major programs located in the middle of prime basketball recruiting hotbeds with traditions of success could then go to an academically elite school with no tradition to speak of and no athletic scholarships, yet be more successful than he was at either of the two previous spots. However, we tend to look at coaches in a vacuum in a way we do not with players. We expect players to improve and mature with their skills, so why not coaches? There is no doubt that Tommy Amaker is a much better coach today at Harvard than he was at any point when he was at Michigan or Seton Hall. It bears remembering that when he was hired at Seton Hall, he was barely over 30 and the youngest coach ever in the history of the rugged Big East. Many of Amakers critics alleged, much like his fellow Duke alums that got plush coaching jobs at young ages such as Quin Snyder, during his time at both Seton Hall and Michigan that it wasn’t so much about the mediocre job Amaker was doing as it was the fact that he should never have gotten jobs of that stature in the first place, and wouldn’t have if he had not been a former Duke Blue Devil under Coach K. The view from here is that some of that criticism was justified, but not all of it.
The fact of the matter is that a coach doesn’t win consistently against the big boys at an Ivy League school unless he brings serious coping chops to the floor. Pete Carril showed us this for so many years at Princeton, yet Amaker’s success so far Harvard could fairly be argued to be equivalent, if not surpassing, anything that Princeton did in its heyday in the late 80s and 90s. Certainly, the University of Pennsylvania going to the Final Four in 1979 remains the gold standard of Ivy League basketball in the modern era, but any serious fan has to acknowledge what Amaker has done since he’s been in Cambridge. Harvard’s next game against Michigan State will be the epitome of playing with house money. The Crimson have everything to gain, nothing to lose, because no one in this world expects them to be able to beat Tom Izzo’s Spartans. Make no mistake, however, this the time of year when fans come out of the woodwork to root for David when he takes the court against Goliath. More than a few will be pulling for the Crimson and they should know that the man on the sidelines for Harvard right now is well on his way to becoming not only the best coach Harvard has ever seen, but potentially the best in the history of the Ivy League.
Of course, that is assuming that Amaker will continue his great work and that he will stay at Harvard for years to come. Should he take Harvard any further this year, not to mention consistently return the Crimson to the tournament and get them out of the first round, there will be other big time programs coming to call on him despite his failures at two premier institutions in the past. This would be a heartwarming occurrence if it happens, as it would show definitively that there is always a second- or in Amaker’s case third-chance and, if you’re good at what you do, it will eventually show.
Who knows, maybe a premier institution that might be interested in Tommy Amaker in the future currently has a great coach of its own and is located in Durham, North Carolina. Now, that may seem far fetched to you, but just think how such an assertion might’ve sounded a mere four seasons ago. The way Tommy Amaker is coaching, that potential marriage of alum to head coaching position might be the most desired course of action by Blue Devil Nation whenever Coach K chooses to call it a day.
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