Building a Basketball Juggernaut in the Ivy League
On a warm Monday afternoon, Tommy Amaker settles onto a comfortable couch in the plush lounge area of Ray Lavietes Pavilion. Just a few feet below, a few of his players mingle with reporters and do interviews with local television stations. Amaker himself is about to head down to the court, where he will draw a crowd of reporters, nearly all of them asking where his team is headed and how many more games it might be able to win.
Amaker has never loved media engagements. When he was the coach at the University of Michigan, the local newspaper ran a story labeling him as media-shy, even evasive. But today, Amaker is energetic. He's excited. He wants to speak about his team, his school, and about how everything fits together.
As the interview starts to wind down, Associate Athletic Director in charge of of communications Timothy J. Williamson, sitting near Amaker with his eye on the clock, raises his finger. Five minutes left. Time for one more question.
But Amaker is enjoying himself. A jaunty smile crosses his lips as he wags his hand.
“That's okay, I've got time,” Amaker tells Williamson.
Amaker has good reason to be buoyant. Unlike every other men's basketball program in the Ivy League, his team is headed to the brightest pasture in college basketball, the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, for the third year in a row. For Amaker's group, success has been consistent and has become expected; nobody on campus appears too surprised that the team is headed back to college basketball's most celebrated event.
Times have changed. When Amaker arrived in Cambridge in 2007, less than a month after being fired as Michigan's head coach, Harvard had never won a conference championship and had not even contended for the title in years. The nation's top high school players consistently went unpursued by Harvard. Those who were recruited were driven away by an empty gym, a weak conference, and a university with other priorities.
Amaker's predecessors dealt with a number of impediments to recruiting that did not fade with the new coach's arrival. On the contrary, the Ivy League's strict admissions standards for athletes remained, and the conference's lack of prestige—the league has never sent more than a single, automatically-qualified team to the NCAA tournament—remained a reality.
The first step was recruiting. To create a league power, Amaker had to navigate league rules to pry kids from the major programs who could offer them scholarships and automatic admissions. This process began in living rooms rather than locker rooms, with pitches to top high school players who could help redefine what it meant to be a Harvard basketball player. In order to create “a program worthy of the Harvard brand,” Amaker has maneuvered the complicated Ivy League system with creative tactics, some of which have incited criticisms.
Long before Harvard's recruiters have the chance to deliver their final sell to a prospective recruit—a pitch that often includes a line about Harvard being a “40-year decision rather than a four-year decision”—they must first, sometimes even before watching a game in person, familiarize themselves with the prospective athlete's academic performance.
“[Asking about grades] is the first question,” says Kenny Blakeney, who served as an assistant coach at Harvard from 2007-2011 and was one of the program's lead recruiters. “If [a player] can't get admitted to the school, we are wasting our time.”
Ivy League coaches are more than curious about how potential recruits are doing in the classroom because they have to be. By conference rules, every student and potential recruit is evaluated on the 240-point Academic Index, a metric composed of two categories—standardized test scores and GPA. The index operates on a sliding scale, meaning there are multiple numerical ways to achieve the minimum index, 176, required for Ivy League admission.
While the index of every applicant and admitted student is calculated, the tool was created to regulate athletic recruiting. At every Ivy League school, the average Academic Index of every student who receives athletic support in the admissions process must be no more than one standard deviation below the index of the previous four freshman classes. Students who walk-on to teams or are not given athletic support during the admissions process do not count for the athletic department index that the league monitors.
At Harvard, the student body index generally hovers around 220, according to a member of the athletic department with direct knowledge of the college admissions process who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because officials are not authorized to discuss admissions. Various estimates have equated an SAT of around 2200 and a GPA at or near 4.0 with 220 on the index. The Ivy League has repeatedly denied requests that it release the official calculations, citing concerns that doing so might mislead applicants about their admissibility.
League rules state that Harvard's athletic department must post an average no lower than one standard deviation below 220. According to a 2008 report in the New York Times, Amaker's predecessor, Frank Sullivan, had to post a team index of 202, though Sullivan's assistants told the Times they posted a figure of 206 in their final season.
Under Amaker, the team is allowed to operate in the 200-210 average index range, according to the athletic department source. This means that the team can comfortably recruit players with indexes well below 200, especially if it targets other players with high indexes.
But the Academic Index puts Ivy League schools at a clear disadvantage when it comes to recruiting. Speaking with the New York Times in 2011, Brown Athletic Director Michael Goldberger estimated that “the average kid going to college in this country would have an [index] of about 150.”
The index also places schools within the Ivy League on different tiers because of its reliance on the student body's index as a starting benchmark. While all Ivy League schools boast impressive academic profiles, the students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have the highest indices, according to the athletic department source. This means that these three athletic departments must have a higher department-wide index than their competitors.
But across the Ivy League, academic standards have risen steadily in recent years as applications have skyrocketed. To remain in compliance with conference academic regulations, athletic departments have raised their standards accordingly.
Because of the index, assembling a recruiting class requires input not only from individual coaches but also from the entire athletic department. Each recruiting cycle begins with the athletic department assigning a target Academic Index to each team, and throughout the year coaches and their superiors within the department are in constant communication about the academic status of their recruits. As this process unfolds, the departments occasionally shift index priorities, giving some teams more room to target lower-rated recruits, while asking others to deliver higher academic profiles, according to the athletic department source.
Even when Harvard basketball identifies strong recruits that will fit its target index benchmarks, it is still at a recruiting disadvantage. Because the Ivy League cannot offer athletic scholarships, Harvard can be boxed out of the recruitment of top players, many of whom sign early in their junior years with non-Ivy programs where they do not have to pay tuition and at times may not need to complete a full application.
Aid at Harvard, though generous, is need-based, putting some players in difficult financial positions. For current UCLA freshman Noah Allen, who committed to Harvard in 2013 before he received his tuition estimate, this proved an insurmountable hurdle.
“My family can't afford 60 grand a year, and that's what the financial aid people told us it would cost,” Allen told The Crimson last October. “It broke my heart. I really wanted to go to Harvard, but the numbers didn't add up.”
And unlike their competitors outside of the Ivy League, Harvard's coaches cannot ever guarantee recruits a spot. Even for athletes who 'commit' to Harvard, nothing is set in stone until the applicant, and his or her full application, is scrutinized by the full 40-member admissions committee. Recruited athletes who pass this review are usually sent a 'likely letter,' saying that the applicant is extremely likely to be admitted. But even those who earn likely letters do not receive them until, at the earliest, October 1 of their senior year, months after other athletes have lo cked up spots at non-Ivy league schools.
But before likely letters are sent, and even before the admissions committee begins to consider a class of potential athletes, Harvard basketball's lead recruiters must constantly balance academic pr iorities with athletic necessities as they attempt to build the most talented team compliance standards will allow.
“It's like a giant puzzle, and you have to fit certain pieces of the puzzle in certain places,” Blakeney says.
He concedes that because of the index requirements, Ivy League teams have to be creative when targeting their recruits. This might, he says, include giving extra consideration to players whose ex ceptionally strong academic backgrounds would improve the team's academic profile.
Such players—often referred to as 'academic boosters' because their high indices help teams remain in compliance—occupy an ethically gray but well traveled area of Ivy League competition.
“I think all Ivy League teams do that,” Blakeney says. “It's just very natural.”
However, Blakeney adds that he never targeted recruits that he did not think would be successful at Harvard, both in the classroom and on the basketball team.
“You're not targeting a kid that's at 171 [the former Ivy League minimum standard] and then looking at [a player] with a 212,” Blakeney says. “You're targeting kids that are going to have the best chance to be successful, academically, athletically, and socially.... You're not targeting a number.”
Moreover, while coaches around the Ivy League agree that the index fundamentally changes the recruiting game, they say that, although a high index can be an asset, they do not bring in players solely for their scores.
“None of us are bringing in kids who have high [indices] but who aren't good basketball players or won't be good practice players,” says one Ivy League basketball coach who was granted anonymity by The Crimson due to the sensitivity of recruiting discussions. “But you can't recruit 15 kids on your team to come in and start, so you use those high [Academic Index] guys for important roles, but no t necessarily playing time.”
“[Amaker] wanted us to go out and identify the best possible students out there who could play basketball at the highest level”
Given the clear obstacles involved with Ivy League recruiting, Harvard's selection of Amaker—a coach with a strong track record both as a player and as a recruiter—gave needed credibility to the fledgling program. From his days as an assistant coach at Duke, where he had also starred as a point guard, Amaker had experience pitching both athletic excellence and the value of a respected education. At Seton Hall, after leaving Duke, Amaker proved that he could turn a program around quickly by bringing the school, a perennial basement dweller in the Big East, that nation's top recruiting class in 1999 and a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2000.
But when Amaker arrived in 2007, Harvard's program bore little resemblance to those at Michigan or Seton Hall, two schools which have traditionally put significant institutional support behind their basketball teams. From the start, the new coach had to change the culture of the program.
“I thought developing a mindset, an identity [was critical]. We talked a lot about that internally,” Amaker says. “And then...the recruiting cycles become very important, and that first one for us was always critical.”
As often happens in basketball, it all started with the point guard. In 2007, Amaker inherited a floor general, Jeremy Lin '10, who had played sparingly as a freshman. But during his three years under Amaker, Lin blossomed into one of the top players in the Ivy League. As a senior, Lin scored 30 points in a nationally televised Harvard loss against the University of Connecticut, and that ye ar was named first-team All-Ivy for the second consecutive season.
As Lin developed on the court, Amaker and his staff hit the road with earnest, looking for the next crop of players who could emerge as the next faces of Harvard basketball.
“[Amaker] wanted us to go out and identify the best possible students out there who could play basketball at the highest level,” remembers Will Wade, a former Amaker assistant and lead recruiter. “He was always pushing us to find even better—identify more kids.”
In an effort to raise the cache of Harvard's program in the recruiting game, Amaker and Wade targeted high-profile recruits—even those they had little chance of landing—and tried to get them to li st Harvard as a finalist in their recruitment, a largely ceremonial but nonetheless public statement of interest observed intently by recruiting analysts and young players.
Brandon Knight, a top recruit who eventually played at Kentucky for a season before jumping to the NBA, was among those who complied, raising the national profile of the Harvard program.
Yet from the start, the wide net that Amaker and his staff cast yielded real results, not just ceremonial victories. Four members of Amaker's six-man 2008 recruiting class ranked 70 or better on ESPN's 100-point recruiting scale. Two years later, all five players rated 83 or better.
With Lin's eligibility running out, Wade and Amaker found their new point guard in 6'3” Oliver McNally '12. McNally, who had played against Lin while competing on the Amateur Athletic Union ci rcuit, had the academic profile to be admitted and the talent to be a game-changer. A junior when Wade and Amaker found him, McNally received offers from 20 schools, Princeton among them.
“They took the challenge on,” says Jonas Honick '77, McNally's coach at Brandon High School in California. “Will Wade was on the phone every day.”
If Amaker wanted a point guard to be the face of a winning program, there were few better candidates than McNally, who had gone 129-12 in four years at Branson High. He responded to a loss in the state championship game his freshman year by winning the next three. Wade and Amaker sold McNally on the chance to build a program. McNally would be part of the school's 371st graduating class, but would have the chance to do something none of its students had done before: win an Ivy League championship. McNally visited campus and bought in.
“Oliver's biggest concern was, were we going to win?” Amaker remembers. “He wanted me to articulate a vision for [winning], and we talked about the vision that we had coming here and how important it would be to have a few kids that understood that right away and wouldn't be afraid of wanting to challenge at making history.”
McNally was the first domino to fall. The rest soon followed.
“[McNally] did a great job recruiting and communicating the message,” Wade says. “[Once] we had that first one in the bag, we got some other guys.”
Keith Wright '12, a future first-team All-Ivy forward, signed soon after McNally as part of a seven-man recruiting class, admitting later McNally's signing influenced his decision. A year later, Amaker signed Brandyn T. Curry '13-'14 and Kyle D. Casey '13-'14. The four—Curry, Casey, Wright, and McNally—were the pillars of Harvard's first-ever Ivy championship team in 2011. The next year, th ey led Harvard to its first NCAA tournament team in more than 50 years.
Si nce McNally's recruitment, Harvard's success—both on the recruiting trail and on the court—has made the pitch more and more convincing.
“It's like any program or institution that has success,” says Blakeney. “You can use that success and parlay it into more success if you're strategic and you're organized and you're efficient.”
And though Blakeney, Wade, and storied recruiter Yanni Hufnagel have left Cambridge, Amaker has remained, and the success has continued. In March of 2012, while Hufnagel was still the team's lead recruiter, the Crimson landed Zena K. Edosomwan '17, a vaunted power forward from California's Harvard-Westlake School. Edosomwan was the first Scouts Inc. top-100 player to choose Harvard in the program's history; the service ranked him number 73 in his high school class.
“I had several players who were national recruits and [Zena] was the first one [where] this kid was actually seriously putting Harvard in a group of five with the likes of Texas and UCLA,” Greg Hi lliard, Edosomwan's high school coach, says.
Edosomwan relished the opportunity to make a statement.
"Four years from now, when no one cares who Zena Edosomwan is, I know a lot of opportunities will be there for me to be successful on and off the court,” Edosomwan told Sports Illustrated when he committed to Harvard, echoing Amaker's “forty-year decision” pitch. “If I become successful, people will remember that I took that chance, that I had a higher purpose than basketball. Maybe I'll be a trendsetter."
But Amaker's unprecedented recruiting success has not come without bumps in the road. Edosomwan's recruitment attracted particular scrutiny, partly because the star forward spent a year at Northfield Mt. Hermon, the Massachusetts prep school known as a feeder for Ivy League teams, to become academically eligible.
But in the Ivy League, Edosomwan's route through prep school is not uncommon. NMH has 11 alumni currently playing the league, and the conference is peppered with students who are the products of other prep schools. In addition to Edosomwan, Laurent Rivard '14, Matt Brown '13-'14, and Evan R. Cummins '16 all played multiple seasons at NMH.
“It's something that we all do,” says Yale head coach James Jones, who adds that prep schools give players stronger footing both athletically and academically before they head to the Ivy League. “It's fairly common. It's like having a redshirt year, which we can't do in the Ivy League,” he adds, referring to the NCAA policy, outlawed in the Ivy League, that allows students to take a year off from competition but remain practicing with the team.
More serious questions have been raised, too. In fact, ever since Amaker arrived in Cambridge, his program has been subject to allegations that recruiters, and even Amaker himself, broke with NCAA protocol in pursuit of players. Some have contended that the University allows Amaker to recruit with significantly reduced admissions standards in order to attract a new, more talented, brand of player.
The most prominent criticisms came in 2008, when New York Times reporter Pete Thamel wrote that “Harvard is willing to consider players with a lower academic standing than previous staff members said they were allowed to.” Thamel also alleged that Blakeney had played pickup games with Wright, in a violation of NCAA regulations, before Blakeney became Amaker's top assistant and Wright became Amaker's top recruit.
In response to Thamel's allegations, the Ivy League conducted its own investigation and declared Harvard innocent of all wrongdoing. Two years later, Harvard said it had committed only one of the se condary recruiting violations the article alleged, and the school self-imposed recruiting limits for the 2010-2011 school year.
Six years later, Amaker says he's still troubled by the claims.
“Nobody has ever told me or come to me and intimated in any way that we're going to [lower admissions standards],” he says in Lavietes, his voice growing more focused and emphatic. “The phrase 'dropping standards'—it's insulting to the kids that are here. It's insulting to [the coaches] that somehow we weren't competent enough to do our job or to do it in a way that's befitting of this gr eat institution.”
University President Drew G. Faust says that standards have not been lowered.
“No. I think one of the things that's important to understand is that the Ivy League has ways of measuring the academic expectations of students who come in,” she says firmly. “We police each other.”
Nonetheless, some of the charges have persisted. In the 2008 New York Times report, Yale head coach James Jones said that his school “could not get involved with many of the kids they are bringing in .”
Bu t another Ivy League coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that he was often unable to target the quality of recruits that Amaker has.
“We don't get involved with as many athletes in a comparative situation...they are recruiting a little different player now, a little different level, and we hope to get there,” the coach said.
The coach, who said his team has to hit a target index of 195, added, “If I could recruit more top-100 players athletically I would, and if I could do it academically I would.... Academically, th ere haven't been a lot of [top-100] kids who have fit us.”
Despite these charges, Amaker has attracted significant support from leaders across the University. Faust attended several games this year, and many prominent faculty members have gotten involved with the team.
“I've really enjoyed the team, and I think Tommy has set a great tone,” Faust says. “I think he's a teacher, its fun to watch the players grow as they move from their first year on the team to their second year on the team. I think he always behaves in an impeccable manner and is generous in his praise for his opponents and frank in his expectations of his team, and I feel really proud of him.”
For all of the attention, the humble and spotlight-shy Amaker is careful to ground his team, and its success, in the context of the University's larger mission.
“One thing I've learned along the way, and I certainly have learned this being at Harvard...is [that the basketball team] might be visible, but we're really not that important,” he said at a postgame press conference this month in New Haven, just minutes after winning the Ivy League title outright. “And I think to say that at our school, that's really true. I felt like I've always kn own that about the way athletics fit in higher education and on a campus.”
But it cannot be denied that the vibrant atmosphere surrounding Amaker's team is a far cry from the empty gyms that Frank Sullivan's boys played in. And the coach wouldn't have it any other way.
“There's been a renewed sense of energy and excitement and also connection and that touches my heart more than many people realize,” he says in Lavietes. “Seeing our campus and our community rally around and get energized by a silly game of basketball...how cool is that at Harvard?”