IN LEHMAN'S TERMS: Amaker's Standards Ramp Up Hoops Program

The most stunning statement to appear in Pete Thamel’s piece in The New York Times about possible recruiting violations made by the Harvard men’s basketball program under head coach Tommy Amaker wasn’t the implication of a new, dodgy admissions policy. It wasn’t the allegation of unethical conduct by current assistant coach Kenny Blakeney. It wasn’t the story about Amaker accidentally on purpose running into the parents of a recruit in a New Jersey supermarket.

It was right there in Thamel’s opening line: “Harvard has never won an Ivy League title in men’s basketball and has not reached the NCAA tournament since 1946.” Read that again—it’s also one of the only statements in the piece that’s definitely true.

The article, which graced the front page of the Times’ sports section on Sunday and has since sparked a minor wave of incredulous columnists and bloggers weighing in, is titled “In a New Era at Harvard, New Questions of Standards.” The headline refers to the program’s recruiting standards—“Harvard’s new approach could tarnish the university’s sterling reputation,” Thamel worries—but in the nascent Amaker Era of Crimson basketball the question of athletic standards is also salient.

Harvard’s sterling reputation, to borrow Thamel’s phrase, stems from its commitment to promote excellence in all areas of campus, including the classroom, the research laboratory, the concert hall, and the sports arena. Yet the men’s basketball team has languished for decades, falling well short of that standard. Meanwhile, the baseball and football teams grab Ivy League titles by the fistful, the school has nationally ranked squads in hockey, soccer, tennis, squash, and crew, and women’s hoops is poised to qualify for the Big Dance for the second straight year.

The April hiring of Amaker, who has experience helming major-conference teams at Seton Hall and Michigan, seemed to signal a long-overdue move on the part of the administration to repair the historically pathetic program. This process has to include giving the coach the go-ahead to attract Ivy championship-caliber players to Cambridge.

According to Thamel, several candidates who interviewed for the head coaching job along with Amaker confirmed that they were told that they would be allowed to compete with the other Ivy schools in recruiting. Normally reticent athletic director Bob Scalise was remarkably frank on this front in the Times piece. He conceded that Amaker’s staff is getting the recruiting leeway consistent with “a willingness to say that we really do want to compete for the Ivy championship.” Despite Thamel’s suggestions to the contrary, this is a good thing.

None of this, however, means that Harvard is planning to slip below the lofty codified “standards” for admitting basketball players. It can’t. The Ivy League has a strict system based on a formula known as the Academic Index to govern the admission of athletes. An individual’s AI score is computed on a 240-point scale, with 80 points apiece based on SAT I scores, SAT II scores, and class rank, the most malleable of the categories. The guidelines of the Academic Index mandate that all admitted students have an AI score of at least 171, and that the average AI of all of the school’s athletes, not including football, which operates under a more complicated AI-based system, land within one standard deviation of the mean AI of the entire student body.

Amaker cannot navigate around these regulations: If Frank Ben-Eze, the reported prize of his incoming freshman class, does not bump his AI up to 171, he will not be admitted to the Class of 2012 next month. Nor can he attend traditional top dog Penn—another suitor mentioned in the Times article—which had its string of three straight Ancient Eight titles snapped this season. Harvard can recruit athletes with lower AI profiles than it has in years past if it is already above its athletic AI minimum or if it counterbalances them with higher AI recruits in other sports. This is not only kosher but a bright idea to improve a moribund program.

Violations of NCAA regulations are a different story. The anecdotes included in Thamel’s article, the one about Blakeney in particular, are distressing. The piece describes Blakeney, who played at Duke when Amaker was an assistant there, playing pickup games and developing friendly relationships with a pair of recruits in the months before he was hired to join Amaker’s staff. Both of the recruits, Max Kenyi and Keith Wright, were eventually wooed to commit to the Crimson and confirmed their meetings with Blakeney in the story. NCAA rules forbid contact by team staffers with recruits during the months in which the meetings occurred and also forbid recruiting by unemployed coaches on the behalf of a school. Blakeney’s actions are fishy at best and consciously rule-skirting at worst.

Harvard should investigate this matter, as well as a more tenuous accusation that Amaker stalked a point guard prospect’s parents to a grocery store and illegally discussed recruiting with them, and I invite the NCAA to do the same. If Amaker or his staff members are guilty of any wrongdoing, the program should be punished.

But if Amaker and Blakeney are merely guilty of “playing the game,” as the title of a book on Ivy League recruiting puts it, more power to them. Harvard has been the second kind of dog in the dog-eat-dog world of hoops recruiting for too long.

Amaker, for his part, is diplomatic and stoic to a fault. He has refused to comment on the story. He has let robotic releases from the University spokesman and the admissions office serve as responses to Thamel’s broadside. If he’s clean, if his staff is clean, he should say so. He shouldn’t let others derisively or jealously suggest that the culture of Harvard basketball is changing; he should own it.

The Times article includes skeptical putdowns from Yale coach James Jones and Brown skipper Craig Robinson. Both have to be threatened by the idea of competing with a charismatic, nationally famous coach like Amaker who has the full backing of the world’s most resourceful academy, which recently unveiled a sparkling new financial aid initiative to boot. Pending admissions results, with Ben-Eze, Kenyi, and Wright, Amaker has already put together a better recruiting class than either Jones or Robinson has ever managed—some observers call it the best class in Ivy League history. According to Thamel, Scalise appeared to have the gall to call out the Ivy coaches on their anxiety. “Sounds like people are trying to protect the status quo for their programs,” he said.

When Amaker was introduced as the coach of the Crimson last spring, he said that his goal was to win the school’s first Ivy title. If he hasn’t broken any rules, he shouldn’t be blasted for spearheading the recruiting renaissance that could make that a reality. And Harvard shouldn’t be denigrated for trying to alter the status quo of its basketball program and the Ivy League landscape.

—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at jlehman@fas.harvard.edu.

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