Ivy Rules Bring New Challenge for Amaker

As coach hits recruiting trail, no scholarships mean new tactics

Hillary W. Berkowitz

With coaching experience at programs like Duke and Michigan, new men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker knows recruiting. But he must adjust to Ivy League rules, which don’t allow athletic scholarships.

Recruiting top-notch athletes can be a tough job for a Harvard coach. Though forced to compete with other Division I programs for players, the Harvard name could carry some significant weight.

But, as the adage goes, money talks, and because the Ivy League prohibits awarding athletic scholarships, it’s often the case that an athlete might choose another institution which comes through with a significant financial offer.

New to this Ivy experience is recently-hired men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker, who replaced former head coach Frank Sullivan, fired after 16 years at the helm of the program.

Amaker got his feet wet this summer with the new recruitment process, and has been quick to embrace the challenges that go along with being a coach in the Ancient Eight.

“Given the situation for a kid in a family to have the opportunity to go to a school that is going to give a full ride [scholarship] is incredibly attractive and enticing,” Amaker explains. “But we offer something that we think is even more exciting and enticing—a Harvard education.”

This is a different gig for Amaker, whose résumé includes an assistant coaching position at Duke University, as well as head coaching jobs at Seton Hall and, most recently, the University of Michigan, where he coached for six seasons before being fired in March.

“It’s our first summer to get indoctrinated into a different formula and format of recruiting,” he says. “But I certainly feel that we were able to get off to a tremendous start.”

Ready or not, Amaker and his crew hit the ground running, traveling to find talented young athletes to compose the basketball squad for the Class of 2012.

“We’ve been all over—we’ve been out west, we’ve been down south, and we’ve been here in the northeast,” Amaker notes. “We’ve been everywhere to see the kind of kids that we think will be the right kind of candidates for our campus.”

Trust Crimson junior forward Evan Harris: the new coach knows what he’s doing.

“[Amaker] knows a lot of people on the West Coast,” Harris explains. “He knows so many people everywhere, and all around people knew what he was doing.”

With all the traveling, Amaker has a clear picture of what he sees as a Harvard athlete, and from his viewpoint, he may be getting the type of players that he’s after.

“That’s what we are going to try to attract—kids that belong here, and obviously candidates that can be admitted to Harvard, but yet have the capacity in athletics from a basketball standpoint to help us raise the level of our program,” Amaker says. “I think we’ve been able to target those kids, we’ve been able to get involved with those kids now, and we’ll see if we can get those kids.”

Recruiting hasn’t been the only challenge for the rookie Crimson coach. He has had to quickly learn that Harvard isn’t like most other Division I universities.

While many institutions keep their basketball teams on campus in summer school during the off-season, many Harvard student-athletes are off training on their own.

“This is a little bit new for us as a coaching staff because the majority of our kids weren’t here [over the summer],” Amaker explains. “All our guys kind of spread out, went back home, doing their summer internships and things of that sort, so we stayed in touch with them.”

Whether in Cambridge or not, players say they were reinvigorated by Amaker’s presence in their efforts at improving. Harris, a Los Angeles native, cut his sunny Southern California summer short to work on his game.

“I was in L.A. in June and July, working with a couple of NBA guys and a couple of college guys,” Harris says. “Then, in August, I was working with [strength and conditioning] Coach Fitzgerald almost every day.”

And, whether it was Amaker’s influence or not, high-quality basketball players were coming in to work out with Crimson players in an effort to improve the squad.

“We worked with some Celtics here,” Harris continues. “[Celtics guard] Gabe Pruitt is a rookie on the team—I’ve known him since I was eight or nine, playing in L.A. I was also with [Celtics forward] Glen Davis.”

Now that fall has arrived and the players are all back on campus, the team can get into a routine and familiarize themselves with the new coaching staff and the new system. NCAA rules don’t allow official practices to begin until tomorrow, but Amaker said that the team has been taking advantage of the informal workouts and sessions that they are allowed.

“It’s really good because we can first get to know our kids because this is different—we’re new, we’re just starting, and they are learning from us,” Amaker explains. “We’re implementing probably a new system, a new style, a new philosophy, and we’re getting our freshmen acclimated in that philosophy as well.”

Under new leadership, the future looks bright for Harvard basketball. It will likely take some time to adjust to the new system that Coach Amaker brings, and it will be another year before his recruits hit the floor at Lavietes Pavilion.

Regardless, players and fans alike have reason to be excited about the potential that the new coach brings to Crimson basketball.

—Staff writer Kevin C. Reyes can be reached at