“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.
“I can honestly say those two Princeton games gave me a high and a low like I had never felt in my life as a player or as a coach,” Amaker said. “When we beat Princeton and tied for the championship it was the first time that had ever happened at Harvard. A lot of extraordinary people have done a lot of extraordinary things at Harvard but not that many get to do something for the very first time — maybe because the school’s so old.
“I told our guys how great they should feel about accomplishing that. Then we came so close in the playoff game to getting to the NCAAs — so close. The kid [Davis] just made a great shot to win a great game. I told the guys I honestly felt more let down that night than” after Duke lost in the 1986 national championship game.
Amaker has been a part of rebuilding through most of his life. As a point guard at W.T. Woodson High in Fairfax he dreamed of following in John Lucas’s footsteps at Maryland. But Krzyzewski convinced him he would “make him a star” at Duke.
After Amaker had made the clinching free throws in his first game as a freshman in 1983, Krzyzewski walked past Amaker as he stood surrounded by reporters in the locker room and whispered, “I told you.”
Amaker ended up starting every game of his four-year career and was the national defensive player of the year in 1987. His size, 6 feet and 150 pounds soaking wet, probably kept him from playing in the NBA, so he turned to coaching, working for Krzyzewski for 10 seasons before spending four years as the head coach at Seton Hall and the six years at Michigan.
It was a logical coaching path for someone who had been a star in a big-time program. After Michigan, though, Amaker wasn’t certain what he wanted. His wife, Stephanie, is a clinical psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. He could have gone back and finished the MBA he had started 20 years earlier. Instead, he landed at Harvard.
“You never say never as a coach,” he said on the subject of his future. “Because if you say that then you can end up looking foolish. But I love it here. My wife loves it here. I feel like we’ve brought Harvard together with our success in a way it hasn’t been brought together in a long time. You would think a place like this wouldn’t need that but when I look at our gym packed to the rafters now, I think maybe we did need it.”
Amaker loves his life right now and believes, regardless of where or when this season ends, that the Crimson can continue to improve. “I think it’s impossible not to notice when Harvard is playing good basketball,” he said. “I think if we can show people this is a great place to play basketball and it’s Harvard — wow. That could be really cool.”
It has already been cool. With luck, it will be even cooler for many years to come.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/
feinstein. For more, visit his blog at feinsteinonthebrink.com.