In April of 2007 when Harvard University’s athletic director, Bob Scalise, hired Tommy Amaker as the 14th coach of Harvard University's men's basketball team, it could have been viewed as an Affirmative Action hire or a face-saving one, or many other things. Amaker was hired only weeks after a story in the Boston Globe revealed that of the 32 head coaches of athletic programs at Harvard, exactly zero were Black. In fact, 31 were white, including Jason Saretsky, the coach of the cross-country and track and field teams. He was 29-years-old in 2006 and had been hired despite having no head coaching experience.
The weeks leading up to Amaker's hire saw Harvard's athletic department responding to media inquiries about their hiring practices. Chuck Sullivan, Harvard’s director of athletic communications attributed the lack of diversity to a low turnover rate amongst the coaches. “Tim Murphy, for example, has served as head football coach for 13 years and is under contract through 2011,” wrote Bob Hohler in the 2007 Boston Globe article. “Harry Parker has coached heavyweight crew at Harvard for 44 years, while Scott Anderson has coached men's lacrosse for 20 years and Sue Caples has guided the field hockey team for 19 years.”
With the firing of Frank Sullivan, who had been the basketball coach for 16 years, all eyes were on Scalise to see whom he would hire.
Then, along came Tommy Amaker. He had recently been fired from his head coach position at the University of Michigan despite his 108-84 record, winning the National Invitational Tournament in his third year there and having brought the Wolverines back to respectability following a scandal that nearly took their basketball program down. Prior to that, he was the head coach at the Big East's Seton Hall University where he had a 68-55 record and took the team to the post season in each of his four seasons there. After his time at Michigan, Amaker could have taken an assistant position with a big program somewhere and waited it out until another head coaching opportunity came along, but he decided that he wanted to be a head coach even if it was at a smaller place. He also didn’t mind that there is less pressure to win at a place like Harvard so, he and the Crimson were a perfect match.
When Tommy was introduced as Harvard's new head coach of men’s basketball, he became the only Black head coach at the 376-year-old Ivy League institution. To be clear, they had had Black coaches before, like Peter Roby who headed the Crimson basketball team from 1985 through 1991. But after his departure, there was no Black representation in the head coaching ranks until the arrival of Amaker.
Weeks after Amaker's hire, the school hired a Black woman, Traci Green, to be the head coach for women's tennis. Green was coming off of a successful run as head coach at Temple University so, like Amaker; she was definitely qualified for the position.
Fast forward to March of 2011, and Tommy Amaker, who may or may not have been brought in to take some heat off of the University, guided the team to its’ highest win total ever with 23, and its’ first ever share of an Ivy League title. This season, as the school was ranked in the Nation's Top 25 for the first time ever, he led the team to 26 wins — surpassing the record he set last year — an Ivy League championship and the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946. Yes, you read that right. They haven’t played in the Tournament in 66 years. They weren’t even able to make it when the great Jeremy Lin was playing for the coach.
Coming out of the Ivy League, one of the lesser-talented conferences in college basketball, Harvard has had several quality wins over good teams this season including Boston College, Central Florida and Florida State, who finished the season ranked 17th. It’s not like they snuck up on these teams, because they weren’t exactly playing under the radar having been ranked in the Top 25 for much of the season. However, in Tournament play, Harvard will definitely be taken lightly — the Ivy League representative usually is.
While the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) routinely get six or seven teams into The Big Dance, the Ivy League only get its’ champion in there. Similarly, those conferences along with others like the Southeast Conference and the Pacific 10 have countless players in the NBA; but, prior to Jeremy Lin, the Ivy League hadn’t had a player in the League since Princeton’s Chris Dudley and University of Pennsylvania’s Matt Maloney retired in 2003. To put it in perspective, Harvard has produced twice as many United States presidents as NBA players.
So, now it is up to the coach to try to bring this all home. As an undergrad, Amaker played in the NCAA Tournament all four years that he attended Duke University, the owner of 19 ACC titles and four national championships. For a school like that, anything short of a national championship is considered a failed season, but for Harvard, one tournament win would make Tommy Amaker the most successful coach the school has ever seen.
Isn’t that the reason he came to Harvard in the first place?
Chris Wilder is a Philadelphia and New York-based journalist who covers sports for the Associated Press and ESPNU.com. He also writes for Black America Web and Common Ground News Service. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Source Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ceewild