“As long as I coach my last game about 20 years from now,” he said with a laugh earlier this week. “I always think about that line when I hear people say I came to Harvard to revive my career. When I took the job I wasn’t thinking about reviving my career. I took it, to be honest, because it was Harvard.”
Being Harvard in college basketball for most of the last 100 years has been roughly the equivalent of being Duke in college football for most of the last 50 years. The reason good coaches, including Amaker’s predecessor Frank Sullivan (who recruited Jeremy Lin), ultimately failed was because Harvard refused to make any academic concessions for basketball the way it has in the past for football and hockey.
Now, almost five years after taking the seemingly kiss-of-death job, Amaker is a hot coach again at the age of 46. His Crimson are 26-4 after Saturday night’s 67-63 win at Cornell, which clinched at least a share of the league title. Included in that résuméare wins over Florida State (now ranked 22nd nationally), Boston College (for a fourth straight season) and Central Florida — the day after the Knights beat Connecticut. Not to mention being 12-2 in an Ivy League that may be the deepest it has ever been.
In 2007, Amaker had just finished six years at Michigan with a record of 108-84 and had been fired for failing to make the NCAA tournament — even though he finished tied for third in the Big Ten in his second season and won the National Invitation Tournament in his third. The fact that he had taken over after the Fab Five scandal broke open and had restored dignity to the program didn’t save his job.
“It was tough to go through, disappointing,” he said. “But I’m a big boy and I know how it works. No matter what else you might do getting to the [NCAA] tournament is the way most of us are judged.”
Amaker could easily have gotten a job as a No. 1 assistant at a big-time program and waited until another job opened. One phone call from Mike Krzyzewski, his college coach at Duke, would have done that for him. But he decided instead to pursue the job at a school that had played in one NCAA tournament — in 1946 — and was the only school to have not won an Ivy League title in men’s basketball since the league’s formation in 1954.
Amaker was finally given a level playing field when recruiting against the other Ivy League schools and he has made the most of it. In his third season, Harvard went 21-8 and reached postseason play — albeit the sub-NIT CollegeInsider.com tournament — for the first time since 1946. Last season, the Crimson finished 23-7 and earned a trip to a legitimate postseason tournament, the NIT.
Harvard ended up in the NIT after losing a playoff game to Princeton, 63-62, on a buzzer-beating shot by the Tigers’ Douglas Davis. Because the Ivy League doesn’t have a postseason tournament, the two schools played for the title after both finished 12-2 in conference play. Harvard got into the playoff by beating Princeton during the last weekend of the regular season.