Commentary

Tommy Amaker and a Harvard first

Updated: March 10, 2011, 10:29 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Harvard has produced thinkers and visionaries, presidents (current one included), esteemed actors, economists, policy makers and inventors.

But there was one thing Harvard had not been able to produce, at least not with any real consistency: An NCAA tournament-bound men's basketball team.

Prior to coach Tommy Amaker's arrival, an automatic invitation once seemed about as likely as a Caltech conference victory.

But that has changed.

The biggest buzz on Harvard's campus this week isn't being created by a visiting scholar or Tyra Banks, who is reportedly taking a class for entrepreneurs at Harvard Business School.

[+] EnlargeKyle Casey
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images"It was a tough ending for us, but it was a call that the ref made," said Kyle Casey about the charging call on him that negated the basket that would have won Harvard the game Saturday against Penn.

Harvard's hoops team has stolen the spotlight.

If you knew Harvard's basketball history, you would understand just how surreal that is.

On Saturday, Harvard will play Princeton in a one-game playoff for the conference championship, with the winner receiving an automatic berth in the tourney.

Harvard has 44 Nobel laureates among current and former faculty members, and I'd bet that die-hard Crimson sports fans of the past would have eagerly traded one laureate for the kind of basketball success they are experiencing now.

The Crimson are on the verge of playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 65 years. (And no, that's not a misprint or calculated in dog years.)

When the Crimson clinched a share of the conference title with a win last Saturday over Princeton, it was the first time that had happened in the basketball program in 100 seasons.

How crazy is it to think that Harvard has been that bad at anything for a century?

A Harvard student during that drought has been more likely to see a future president on campus than the Crimson in an NCAA tournament game.

"It's just mind-boggling to think about something that's never been done at Harvard," Amaker said of the Ivy championship.

When he arrived at Harvard in 2007, the expectations were low for both him and the program.

No one knew what to expect of Amaker. He was supposed to turn things around at Michigan, but success never materialized the way the young coach with a Duke pedigree and four straight postseason trips at Seton Hall anticipated.

Amaker was fired after six seasons at Michigan. He never made the NCAA tournament. He went to the NIT three times. It didn't matter that Michigan was on probation the first five years Amaker coached there, that the school had substandard basketball facilities and still hadn't recovered from the Ed Martin scandal.

Amaker had gone to a big-time school and failed.

Tommy Amaker
Kyle Terada/US PresswireTommy Amaker's Harvard teams have improved every season from 8-22 to 14-14 to 21-8 to 23-5.

If Amaker couldn't succeed at Michigan, why would things be any different at Harvard? Before this year, the Crimson's best finish in the Ivy League was second place during the 1970-71 season.

Another coach might have viewed Harvard as an impossible situation, but Amaker relished the opportunity. Harvard afforded Amaker the chance to not only restore his reputation, but also chart a different course for a program that seemed aimless before he arrived.

"We lacked basketball tradition and success, but that was the attraction," Amaker said. "Harvard has a certain magic. There were a lot of positives that we saw."

Amaker pointed out that many of the nation's top prep players -- such as North Carolina's Harrison Barnes -- were also exceptional high school students. So Amaker never believed that Harvard's recruiting would be limited because only a small pool of athletes could meet Harvard's standards. The Ivy League is non-scholarship, but Harvard's substantial endowment allows the school to offer extremely competitive financial aid packages.

Harvard's prestige wasn't a roadblock for Amaker, but a major selling point.

There have been a lot of different names floated for national coach of the year. Steve Lavin. Thad Matta. Steve Fisher. Roy Williams. Mike Brey.

All of those coaches are deserving candidates, but if Harvard beats Princeton, doesn't Amaker deserve a little consideration?

Harvard's 23 wins this season are the most the program has ever had, as are the Crimson's 12 conference wins. The men's basketball team was the only Harvard varsity sport that had not won a conference championship.

It's a remarkable turnaround, especially when you consider that Amaker's teams won a combined 22 games in his first two seasons (eight and 14, respectively). Now, he's had consecutive 20-win seasons.

"Your eyebrows are raised and your eyes open wider when you hear the name Harvard," Amaker said. "It has a powerful name and brand. It just hadn't had the kind of basketball program and success that some other teams did in our league."

Amaker's success hasn't come without some controversy. Last July, the Ivy League cited Harvard for committing a secondary violation of NCAA rules. While the investigation found Amaker wasn't at fault, recruiting limitations were still imposed.

But a minuscule infraction shouldn't diminish what Amaker, who is 45, has achieved.

Ten years ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that Amaker would have a better chance making history at Harvard than at Michigan.

But Amaker has put Harvard in a position to command attention. Just not the kind the school normally gets.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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