Since taking the helm of the Harvard men's basketball team in 2007, coach Tommy Amaker has led the Crimson to two Ivy League titles and the team's first berth to the NCAA tournament in 66 years.
This article is one of two dueling columns debating "Who's the Better Coach?" The other part of the series can be found here.
When Tim Murphy took over as the Harvard football team’s head coach in the 1994 season, he inherited a program with a storied tradition; the Crimson boasted seven national championships, eight Ivy League titles (the most recent coming in 1987), and one of the nation’s oldest stadiums.
Current men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker faced a very different situation when he arrived in Cambridge back in 2007. Quite frankly, the Crimson’s past could not have been much worse.
Harvard played in one of the country’s smallest gyms, was the only Ivy League team without a conference championship, and, since 1984, had posted just one winning season in Ivy play. In case you have yet to fulfill your “Quantitative Reasoning” requirement, that’s one time in 23 years.
In five seasons, Amaker not only hung the Crimson’s first two Ivy League championship banners, he made Harvard basketball relevant on the national stage.
In just his second year at the helm, Amaker led Harvard to a win over then-No. 17 Boston College—the Crimson’s first victory against a Top 25 team in program history. And by the time Harvard defeated the Eagles for the fourth straight season last winter, the Crimson was the one in the national rankings.
There’s no denying that Murphy makes winning football games look easier than getting an A in “Babylon”—but that’s within the friendly confines of the Ancient Eight. Amaker has led the Crimson to the top of the Ivy League—and beyond. In addition to two Ivy League titles, he’s coached Harvard to wins over Michigan, Colorado, and Florida State and led the Crimson into the national rankings.
Amaker is not just thinking about Ivy League titles; he’s thinking about making noise in the NCAA tournament. And with his recent successes on the recruiting trail, that might not be too far off.
After setting the bar for Ivy League recruiting, Amaker took it to a whole new level last March when he secured a commitment from Zena Edosomwan, a 6’8” forward ranked among the Top 150 players in his high school class by Rivals. Edosomwan, who is expected to enroll at Harvard next fall, turned down offers from UCLA, Texas, USC, and others to suit up for Amaker.
Bobby, let me know the next time Murphy gets a top-150 recruit to turn down USC to come to Cambridge.
Part of this, of course, is a product of the inherent differences between college football and college basketball. With a few exceptions, it’s rare for a football team outside of the power six conferences—the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC—to compete nationally, both on the field and in recruiting. In basketball, it is not unheard of—I’m looking at you Butler, Gonzaga, Memphis, et al.
So if the men’s basketball team’s emergence on the national stage doesn’t convince you, let’s stay within the Harvard bubble.
Getting students to care about Harvard sports is nearly impossible. (If you don’t believe me, you should check out the number of hits we get to thecrimson.com/section/sports. Just kidding—sort of.)
But Amaker has managed to make people care. Not only has he produced a team that wins basketball games, he has created an entertaining product—at least entertaining enough that students willingly show up to games, get this, without being in a mental state that prevents them from legally driving home, if you catch my drift.
So while Tim Murphy may get the edge in the style category (I’ll concede that his camo baseball hats are a little cooler than Tommy Amaker’s turtlenecks), Amaker should get the overall win.
In just five years, he changed the men’s basketball program from “an embarrassment” to “nationally relevant”—and made the student body care about it.
—Staff writer Martin Kessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.