Amaker, Belichick, and Harvard Basketball's Brand

Bert's Eye View

For the first time since 2002, someone with a name other than Tom Brady started at quarterback for the New England Patriots. Though technically not a rookie, Jimmy Garoppolo made his first career NFL start on Sunday in primetime.

Coming into the game, national expectations were low for Garoppolo. Jimmy G’s preseason performance was less than stellar, and while Tom Brady wasn’t physically present, the anger of his suspension loomed large in New England.

Long story short, Garoppolo exceeded expectations and led the Patriots to a win over a preseason potential Super Bowl contender in the Arizona Cardinals. His performance certainly did not wow anyone, but he was calm, collected, and performed better than each of his AFC East counterparts—including one Crimson alum in Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05.

But in New England, fans weren’t quite as surprised with the Patriots performance as national commentators were. Even with personnel changes on all parts of the field, one important position has held constant—Bill Belichick.

It was a typical Belichick game plan, shifting the playbook to adjust to Garoppolo’s strengths rather than taking the Brady-style and forcing Garoppolo in the mix.

But nowhere was Belichick’s influence on Garoppolo clearer than in his postgame interviews. Much like the infamously vague coach, Garoppolo gave minimal insight into his personal performance and spewed lines so Patriot-like that without hearing the words come out of Jimmy’s mouth, you wouldn’t know whether it was Belichick himself who crafted the language.

On WEEI, the Boston-area sports radio channel, he spouted that he was “just going out there trying to do [his] job”—a line so famous in the New England football dictionary that the team even sells official memorabilia that says “Do Your Job.”

So what does all this have to do with Harvard basketball?

Tommy Amaker is the Crimson’s Bill Belichick. Not just that they both hold the same title as the “Head Coach,” but that Amaker has the coaching style and a leadership ability that transcends individual players on his teams.

During the 2015-2016 season, the Crimson was missing its “quarterback” in point guard Siyani Chambers, who suffered a torn ACL during summer training and withdrew for the academic year in order to preserve his athletic eligibility. With the graduation of leading scorer Wesley Saunders ’15 and the injury to Chambers, the Crimson dropped to fourth in the Ivy preseason poll just months after nearly defeating North Carolina in the NCAA Championship Tournament.

Yes, the Crimson finished the season exactly as predicted, at fourth. But in the process, Harvard battled against Kansas (losing by single digits), defeated BYU and Auburn in the Diamondhead Classic, pushed Oklahoma to the wire, and defeated Ivy contender Princeton—something only eventual Ancient Eight winner Yale had done in league play.

But Amaker’s Belichick-ian style is most evident in the language he uses that is copied by his players—and potential recruits. Most notably is his consistent discussion of the Harvard brand and the Ivy brand. He talks about the fact that they are representing Harvard the university, not just Harvard the basketball team. This comes up most often in discussion of the recruiting process. He touts that coming to Harvard is not just a four-year decision, but a forty-year decision.

“This [Harvard] brand is a powerful one, and when we get a chance to present this to the right kids, it’s something that can make a lot of sense,” Amaker said in a post-season press conference last spring.

Just as Garoppolo has repeated Belichick’s mantras, so too have potential Harvard recruits have caught the Amaker bug. No other recruit has caused greater commotion, however, than top-five class of 2017 prospect: Wendell Carter Jr. of Atlanta, GA, who has made Harvard one of his final eight possible schools.

“I’m not just throwing Harvard on there to look good—I’m actually interested,” Carter Jr. told USA Today High School Sports. “”If I go to Harvard, and my basketball career doesn’t go as planned, I can pretty much do anything else I want.

And Carter Jr. isn’t the only one who is intrigued by Amaker’s pitch. Carter Jr.’s mother, Kylia Carter, has said to Fox Sports to “Just wait and see because I really think…Harvard has a better shot than people think. I think Harvard has a better shot than they even think.”

Carter Jr. is scheduled to visit Cambridge on his first official visit on Sept. 17th. Fellow top-five recruit Mohammed Bamba, who Carter Jr. has previously discussed teaming up with in college, visited Harvard unofficially on Sept. 6th.

These high profile visits come in the wake of Amaker scoring the No. 12 recruiting class in the country according to ESPN, with four of the seven rookies ranked among the top-100 prospects.

But college basketball players come and go. If Carter Jr. joins the Crimson, he may come and go even faster than most if he elects to join the NBA before he graduates. While players get only four years at most, as long as Amaker is at the helm, expect his messages and mantras o continue to woo recruits. Maybe next time people won’t be so surprised.

—Staff writer Theresa C. Hebert can be reached at theresa.hebert@thecrimson.com.

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