Tommy Amaker Comes to Harvard
Posted by Steve Bzomowski on April 12, 2007
Tommy Amaker, Carols Ororio/AP photo
Tommy Amaker, the former All-American point guard at Duke and the former head coach at Seton Hall and, most recently at Michigan, has accepted the head men’s basketball position at Harvard University. I think he will do well, and by “doing well” I mean but one thing, the only thing that counts: win Harvard’s first Ivy League Championship in men’s basketball. After sixteen years, I’m back to rooting for The Crimson.
Some stuff I know about Amaker:
The year before I joined the staff at Harvard (1983-84), Amaker, as a freshman, was on the Duke team that first cracked the top 20 under Coach K. Johnny Dawkins, later to be the College Player of the Year (and now top assistant at Duke) and Mark Alarie (also first team all-American) were sophomores. Jay Bilas, the insufferably correct college basketball analyst, was a junior. That year, they played Harvard at Harvard and after being down eight at one point rallied for a 86-83 win in what was the best game ever played at the old Briggs Cage. Dawkins had 30+ as did Harvard’s Ivy Player of the Year, Joe Carrabino. Two years later as part of the backcourt that Al McGuire called the “greatest backcourt in college basketball history”, Amaker with Dawkins led the Dukies to the championship game where they lost to Danny Manning and the Kansas Jayhawks. The next year, as Duke captain he was named the nation’s Defensive Player of the Year. From the guard position! He was that good.
That season, his senior year in which he captained Duke, I was an invitee of Coach K (whom I knew from working Duke’s camps and from our yearly, ahem, battles with Duke), at the first Duke practice of the season. They had a freshman that year, Phil Henderson, something of a loose cannon who never quite matured as a player but who was a great athlete and very good player. Henderson, a reed-thin 6’4″ from Chicago, is most famous for a down-the-lane, out-of-the-halfcourt offense, delirious, one-handed tomahawk dunk on and over and in the mug of Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning, the most feared big-man defender in basketball. That dunk was replayed a gazillion times during March Madness. Anyway, at that first practice, Duke was doing a deny-the-wing player defensive drill where the coach has the ball out past the top of the key and the offensive wing player moves in and out to try to get open. Amaker was defending the athletic, effervescent, youthful Henderson. Henderson could not get open on the wing. Amaker-glue-Henderson. Usually the drill quits right there and the next two players come on. But Henderson started moving all over the halfcourt trying to get open, and Coach K let the scene play out. Coach K was teaching. (Imagine?) Henderson ran to the baseline and fired out, but he couldn’t shake his shadow. He hid in the corner and sprinted out. Not an inch of an opening. Henderson literally ran all over the halfcourt, like a startled, desperate chicken in a pen, looking for a way out, but it was like he was looking in a mirror and an image traced and tracked, almost to a synchronized swimming type perfection, his every move. That was amazing. Duke beat us by twelve that year in a game in which our point guard, yes, had more than a little trouble.
Amaker had no interest in playing pro ball, probably knew that his lack of shooting range and scoring punch made the odds a little long. (He was drafted by Seattle and might have played one year.) I always admired that (assumed) self-assessment and restraint. He went on to assist Coach K for nine years and then spent a few as head man at Seton Hall and four more at Michigan before being fired. Only one NCAA apearance in ten years might be cause for concern among some Harvard faithful. I say not to worry. Interesting, though, that in 2007 he winds up in Cambridge because in 1991, after my boss Pete Roby resigned, I was told, rather naively or stupidly, by an assistant AD who was going to be in charge of the hiring committee, that I, as the in-house top assistant, was “in the lead” for the job. That sounded good to me, but I didn’t really believe it. I immediately called Coach K to get advice and support and he told me that he’d have to check with Amaker first to see if Amaker was interested in the job before he threw his considerable weight behind me (which he soon did). Amaker was not interested, wanted to ride the waves to a bigger beach, I guess. Took on a little water in the swamps of New Jersey and more off the shores of Lake Michigan and here he is: Down by the Banks of the River Charles!
On a personal note, I used to talk with Amaker in the weight room at Duke when I was working the camps; likeable, thoughtful, generous guy. And when I left Harvard and had a couple of opportunities with coaches at different schools, Amaker (through Pete Gaudet, another Duke assistant with whom I was closer) gave me advice and feedback on the coaches and staffs I was considering joining. Again, thoughtful and willing to help.
Basically all he’s gotta do is recruit and recruit well. Princeton’s down and Penn graduated a lot, leaving a B-I-G opening. Recruit like Frank McLaughlin and, later, like Pete Roby and his staff did, keep expectations in check for a couple of years and not suffer some of the injuries and bad luck that we suffered. Get them fit to play relentless defense; be consistent in approach and message to the players. Reach out to former players and staff and students; and, then, “I’m a-wishin’ and a-hopin’ . . . ohhn, ohhn, Cambridge you’re my home!”