SPOKANE – Tommy Amaker gently corrects a question about the sales job it takes to lure a blue-chip basketball prospect to Harvard, about as far removed from a hoops factory as one can ever find.
At least, that’s the way it used to be, before Amaker cracked every egghead stereotype and built a basketball program at Harvard that its astrophysicists and biomolecular engineers could be proud of.
He doesn’t “sell” Harvard, Amaker says evenly. “We like to ‘present’ Harvard.’’
On Thursday, in the NCAA regional at the Spokane Arena, Amaker will present a 12th-seeded Crimson ballclub that has, quite improbably, put itself on the basketball map.
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In fact, they’ve forged a new world order, in which an Ivy League blue blood can overcome all the built-in obstacles — no scholarships, no conference tournament, stringent entrance requirements, to name a few — and become an increasingly prominent national team.
The cognoscenti, including President Obama, are picking the 26-4 Crimson to defeat fifth-seeded Cincinnati on Thursday. As an alum, Obama could be accused of favoritism, but Harvard’s stunning upset of New Mexico in last year’s tournament — a rare takedown of a three seed by a 14 — shows that it’s not just idle fancy.
Who would have ever imagined a Harvard player sitting on a podium, as leading scorer Wesley Saunders did Wednesday, and talking about how the team has “a target on its back” and “Everybody’s giving us their best shot because of what we were able to do in the tournament.”
Harvard used to be an Ivy walkover, the basketball equivalent of an Easy A (which, of course, is a foreign academic concept among the Ancient Eight, as the conference likes to call itself).
When Amaker arrived in Cambridge, Mass., in April 2007, less than a month after being fired by Michigan, he inherited a program that had 15 losing conference seasons in 16 years under his predecessor, Frank Sullivan; that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1946; that had never won a tourney game; and hadn’t won an Ivy basketball title in its current configuration.
What Amaker had was this crazy idea that he could use the Harvard “brand” as a selling point — er, a presentation point — to lure hoops prospects, rather than scare them away. He likened the basketball program to an undervalued stock, and somehow convinced players it was on the upswing.
“We had a vision for what we thought was possible,’’ he said.
Amaker also had two huge breaks. One was a recent change in the financial aid program at Harvard allowing qualified students from families with incomes of $60,000 or less to attend without payment, and requiring those earning up to $180,000 to contribute no more than 10 percent of their income. For a school costing $60,000 annually to attend, that was critical in attracting inner-city kids, amounting to a de facto scholarship.
The second break came in the form of a player that Sullivan left behind — a sophomore point guard named Jeremy Lin, whose subsequent success allowed Amaker to give skeptical athletes tangible proof that an NBA future was possible out of Harvard.
“The program was starting to rise, and that was one of the main points that coach was making when he was recruiting me, just his vision of where Harvard basketball could go,’’ said Laurent Rivard, a senior guard from Northfield Mount Hermond prep school in Massachusetts. “It’s been a great ride.”
With a few dips along the way. Harvard went 8-22 in Amaker’s first year, going winless on the road, with a 55-point loss at Stanford. But after luring the first top-25-ranked recruiting class in Ivy League history, the trajectory started moving upward: 14-14 in 2008-09, 21-7 in ’09-10, 23-7 and the Ivy co-championship in ’10-11, and then the first of three straight outright titles (and NCAA berths), going 26-5, 20-10 and 26-4 in the last three seasons.
“We really believe in the potential and the possibilities, and we’ve seen it happen,’’ Amaker said. “We’ve seen greatness happen. Not that we’re great, but we certainly like the path we’re on right now … to energize our school and become relevant.”
Relevancy comes with a price, however. For one thing, Amaker has become one of the hottest coaching commodities in the business, and rumors are cropping up with increasing frequency.
Last year, Miami unsuccessfully pursued him, and on Wednesday he fended off inquiries about Boston College’s apparent strong interest in having Amaker replace just-fired Steve Donahue. Many believe Amaker will eventually wind up replacing his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, at Duke. Amaker continues to profess total happiness at Harvard, where his wife is on the faculty of the medical school.
Amaker has also faced accusations, adamantly denied, that the school has lowered its stringent academic standards in pursuit of basketball success.
An article in The New York Times in 2008 revealed recruiting improprieties by a future assistant coach, not yet hired, resulting in a citation by the Ivy League for an “unintentional secondary violation.” There was also a campus cheating scandal last year that involved more than 100 students, including two from the basketball team, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey. They sat out last season but have returned to prominent roles this year.
Amaker staunchly defends his program and wonders why Princeton and Penn, which dominated Ivy League basketball for years, didn’t face such scrutiny. In his mind, Harvard’s success is merely a manifestation of the mindset expressed in Harvard’s admissions video: “Anything can happen.”
That’s how he presents Harvard to potential players — a place to blend academic and athletic success. It’s a notion that resonates more with each passing season.
“We have all been a part of things in the past, at least I have, where I look back and wish I had been able to see something before everyone else saw it, or before it actually happened,’’ Amaker said. “It was right there in front of me.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry