Two years ago, the praise would have been unimaginable.
“That kid plays hard,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters.
“When we were in practice on [Friday], no one played harder,” Minnesota coach Dan Monson said after his team upset Indiana.
For a former walk-on to catch the eye of some of the biggest names in one of the top conferences in Division I basketball is something. But for that same walk-on to have started out as a football recruit at Harvard borders upon unbelievable.
That, however, is the very real path that Zach Puchtel took to pursue his athletic dreams.
Puchtel arrived at Harvard in 2001 after being recruited by Harvard coach Tim Murphy to be a tight end on the Crimson football team. Puchtel had initially wanted to be a Golden Gopher, since his father Scott had been a two-time football letterwinner at Minnesota, but he was reportedly informed that there would be no spots for him on the school’s basketball team and that he would have to walk-on to the football team.
So, Puchtel took the offer to come to Harvard, but decided, after his freshman season, that he no longer wanted to play football. His athletic career would continue, however, as he joined the junior varsity basketball team during his sophomore fall, though at the time he entertained little notion of making a charge for the varsity.
“I was doing it just to have fun and just to play basketball,” Puchtel said. “Of course the thought crossed my mind, but it was never a serious aspiration or goal.”
After the JV basketball season came to a close in the winter, Puchtel bounced over to the rugby team, but he began to feel the urge to take his athletic commitment to the next level.
“I considered going back and asking the football coach for another chance, but my pride wouldn’t let me do that,” Puchtel said. “Then I just started looking elsewhere, so I contacted [a connection at Minnesota], and he said that they had one open walk-on spot [on the basketball team] and that they’d love to have me.”
While leaving the friends he had made during his first two years in Cambridge would be tough, the Minnesota native knew he couldn’t forgo the opportunity to play Big Ten basketball. Puchtel made the transfer after the 2002-2003 school year and had to sit out the 2003-2004 season according to NCAA eligibility rules. The transition was hardly smooth, but Puchtel was determined to make his bold decision pay off.
“I wasn’t happy for a long time when I first came here,” Puchtel said. “It was a total culture shock, and it wasn’t working out right away. But I stuck through it, I was patient, and it ended up paying off. I’m extremely happy with the decision.”
After appearing only sparingly through his junior year and the first half of this season, Puchtel got his big break against then-No.11 Indiana on Jan. 29, when Monson inserted the 6’6 walk-on into the lineup to guard Hoosiers star Marco Killingsworth. Puchtel held Killingsworth to 6-of-14 shooting from the field, as Minnesota scored a huge 61-42 win. After Puchtel poured in 13 points as the Golden Gophers knocked off then-No. 11 Michigan State on Feb. 11, the legend of the former Harvard football recruit began to grow.
SUPPORT FROM AFAR
Puchtel’s meteoric rise from walk-on to starter caught the eye of one group in particular—the Harvard junior varsity men’s basketball team.
Some past and present members of the squad have pointed to Puchtel’s success at a different school as an indicator that the relationship between the junior varsity and varsity programs is in need of repair.
“I understand [Harvard] coach [Frank] Sullivan’s desire to separate the two programs, because it’s not supposed to be a feeder,” said one former JV player who asked not to be identified. “But it rubbed guys the wrong way.”
“There was no willingness to come to a practice, no formal introduction, and no recognition of [the JV program’s] existence,” he continued. “There are guys who are frustrated, not because we don’t get a chance to play, but because of his ignorance to the point of disrespect.”
Puchtel echoed that sentiment.
“I never had any contact with Coach Sullivan,” Puchtel said. “I was kind of under the impression that the JV squad and the varsity squad were separate entities and that they really had nothing to do with each other. We never practiced or played with the varsity, never had any social functions with them, and the only thing we did together was the final banquet.”
Harvard assistant Lamar Reddicks doubles as the full-time junior varsity coach, and for a program which has the smallest coaching staff in the Ivy League, more personal contact with junior varsity players might be difficult to manage.
“There are a couple of things that are very important to us,” Sullivan said. “Number one, [the JV team] is coached by a full-time staff member—Coach Reddicks. And that’s important. Number two, they do the exact same things that we do. They do the same plays, and they play the same defense.”
Another complaint that has been lodged against the varsity program was its failure to offer Puchtel a tryout for the varsity squad. Tryouts for the varsity basketball squad are invitation only and are usually doled out to fill needs.
“At the end of each year, Coach Reddicks will talk about the personnel that he had on the junior varsity team,” Sullivan said. “And we’ll try to determine if there’s anybody that we think will be significant in terms of fitting needs that we have because of recruiting or attrition or anything like that.”
Sullivan extended an offer to JV point guard Teddy Bressman ’06 this past offseason, as Harvard desperately looked to fill its most glaring hole, and he has seen a handful of JV players make a significant contribution to the varsity team during his tenure—most recently Brian Sigafoos ’03, who started games for the Crimson as a sophomore and a senior.
According to Reddicks, Puchtel was a “great kid and a tough kid,” but he didn’t put in the necessary effort to merit being offered a tryout for the varsity squad.
“I would say guilty as charged,” Puchtel said. “I wasn’t into it. It was something I did more to stay in shape than anything.”
For Puchtel, a spot on the Harvard varsity squad wasn’t enough to fulfill his athletic desires. He felt drawn to a bigger challenge.
“I have no hard feelings toward Sullivan,” Puchtel said. “If I was more interested in doing that, I would have taken a more pro-active approach.”
The manner in which some of Harvard’s other high-profile varsity sports deal with their JV counterparts varies tremendously by team.
The Harvard football program uses its JV squad as a proving ground for many of its recruited freshmen, harkening back to a time when first-years were ineligible to participate by Ivy League rules.
The men’s hockey team adopts that view in part, loaning varsity players who don’t get much ice time to the junior varsity circuit to give them an opportunity to hone their skills and gain experience.
“It’s twofold,” said Harvard men’s hockey coach Ted Donato ’91. “Yes, we do look at them, and we can very definitely call kids when guys get injured...We also use the JV program as a way to evaluate kids that are not getting in as many games as they would like.”
For Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh, maintaining a solid relationship with the JV squad is pragmatic, due to the nature of the game.
“We’re seeing kids, if I’m lucky, once,” Walsh said. “With my limited recruiting budget, I might see a kid from Washington and Texas [once] at a tournament. And he hasn’t even played his senior year. So you go back to these kids. And the same thing with many of these kids who come in to Harvard and they want to play JV baseball, you watch them. You see if they come on.”
For that reason, Walsh makes an extra effort to seek out the best talent from the JV club.
“What we do every year, we have a policy,” he said. “We invite the three best JV players from the team, whether or not they have varsity ability or [don’t]. We’ll take the three best. And we’ll let them come out in the fall and we’ll play them. And we’ll hang with them. And then we’ll make a decision on them.”
THE PUCH STOPS HERE
Minnesota’s regular season drew to a close last Saturday, as the Golden Gophers fell at Northwestern by the final score of 57-53. Barring a miraculous run through the Big Ten tournament, starting with today’s 2 p.m. matchup against Michigan, Minnesota will likely end up in the NIT, where Puchtel’s rollercoaster ride will come to a close. After finishing out the academic year at Minnesota, and then he will re-enroll at Harvard in the fall to complete work toward his degree.
And he’ll return victorious, with two career nights, a half-season worth of starts, and two years of memories to show for his gutsy decision.
It might have taken five years and four different teams, but for Puchtel, finally realizing his athletic dreams made it all worthwhile.
“I really wanted a big athletic challenge, and this has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, so I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
“No offense to the Ivy League, but Big Ten basketball...it was something I couldn’t pass up.”
—Staff writers Alex McPhillips, Caleb W. Peiffer, and Rebecca A. Seesel contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Michael R. James can be reached at email@example.com.