Thursday, December 10, 2009

Harvard beating BC -- one reason I love college basketball; Stories of Tommy Amaker

If you want to know why I love college basketball, consider the following: In the calendar year 2009, Harvard University has a record of 2-0 against crosstown rival Boston College. In that same calendar year, North Carolina coached by hard-working Hall of Famer Roy Williams was 0-1 against Boston College. Duke, coached by two-time Olympic coach and Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski was 1-1 against the Eagles.

Think about that: Harvard, which last played in the NCAA Tournament in 1946 (its only appearance) has beaten BC twice—once last January a few days after the Eagles had won AT North Carolina—and once last night, 73-67. Both Harvard victories took place (surprise) at BC.

Now you may say I have a bias here—and I do—because I’ve known Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker since he was a high school junior. In this case though my bias has very little to do with it, especially since Frank Sullivan, the man Amaker succeeded at Harvard, is a good friend whose firing three years ago was grossly unfair.

In fact, I would say this: if any Ivy League team beat an ACC team two seasons in a row I would get a big kick out of it. It just isn’t supposed to happen. And yet, in college basketball, results like that DO happen. Already this season Cornell has won at Alabama and in seasons past my friends in The Patriot League have pulled off some decent sized upsets as in Bucknell over Kansas and Arkansas in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments and Holy Cross going into Notre Dame and beating the Irish in the NIT.

Let’s go back to Amaker for a moment. I remember the first time I saw him play because it’s a funny story. I was doing a magazine piece on Mike Krzyzewski, who had just finished his first season at Duke and had more or less washed out in recruiting—finishing second for players like Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Uwe Blab and Jim Miller. In recruiting, finishing second and $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks.

Krzyzewski was in Washington to see Johnny Dawkins play in the old Jelleff League, which was up Wisconsin Avenue in northwest DC. The league was a Washington tradition, with games played indoors and outdoors and was most famous for a game in the early 1970s when DeMatha was supposed to play St. Anthony’s for the championship. Because DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten had refused to schedule St. Anthony’s during the regular season, St. Anthony’s Coach John Thompson played his cheerleaders in the game.

“If he won’t play me in the winter, I’m not playing him in the summer,” Thompson said at the time.

When Thompson was the coach at Georgetown he refused to recruit any of Wootten’s great players. I asked him about that once and he said to me, “there are some people on this earth who you can live away from.” Of course now that Wootten and Thompson are both retired and in the Hall of Fame they joke when Wootten appears on Thompson’s radio show about how the media created their alleged feud.

Sure. And Thompson and Lefty Driesell were buddies back then too.

Anyway, on this particular night, Krzyzewski was sitting in the stands watching Dawkins play when Red Jenkins, then the coach at W.T. Woodson High School in northern Virginia stopped to say hello to him. “You need to stay for the next game,” Jenkins said. “You need to see my point guard. He’s only going to be a junior and he’s little but watch him play.”

Krzyzewski figured he didn’t have much else to do so he decided to stick around at least for a few minutes to see what Jenkins was talking about. “Red’s a good coach,” he said. “I don’t think he’d tell me to watch this kid unless he was pretty good.”

By halftime, Krzyzewski was like a teen-age kid in love for the first time. He couldn’t take his eyes off of Amaker, who probably weighed about 140 pounds at the time. Someone had pointed Amaker’s mother out to Krzyzewski and at halftime he walked over and said (probably breaking about 14 NCAA rules) to her: “Your son is going to look great in Duke blue.”

The funny thing is Amaker really wanted to go to Maryland because John Lucas had been his boyhood hero. But Lefty had recruited a kid named Keith Gatlin so he didn’t pursue Amaker, who was only 6-feet-tall, that hard. A few years later when Amaker was a junior at Duke and Gatlin was a sophomore at Maryland, Gatlin sat out a game at Duke with a bad back.

That was the year I was in Indiana doing ‘Season on the Brink.’ Two days after the game at Duke, Maryland played at Notre Dame. I drove up to South Bend to see the game and my friend Sally Jenkins, who was covering the Terrapins at the time. When I walked into the arena the first person I saw was Driesell.

“Hey Lefty, how’s Gatlin feeling?” I asked.

Lefty looked at me quizzically. “Gatlin?” he said. “He’s fine.”

“Really? I saw where he didn’t play at Duke because something was wrong with his back.”

“Oh that was nothing,” Lefty said waving his hand. “He just had a case of Amaker-back.”

Any guard knowing he was going to be guarded by Amaker for 40 minutes began to feel back pain. Gatlin was no exception.

Amaker seemed destined for stardom when he became a college coach. In his third year at Seton Hall he took the Pirates to the Sweet Sixteen and he had a big time recruiting class on the way including Eddie Griffin, who was supposed to be a superstar. But Griffin proved to be a troubled kid and at the end of the ’01 season he left for the NBA and Amaker left for Michigan. There, he constantly seemed on the verge of turning the program around after taking over in the wake of the revelations about The Fab Five, but never made the NCAA Tournament in six seasons. He was fired after the ’07 season—a stunning turnaround for someone who had appeared to be a lock for coaching stardom.

He landed at Harvard but not without controversy, although it wasn’t his doing. Frank Sullivan had done remarkable work keeping Harvard competitive for 16 years working with one hand tied behind his back in recruiting because Harvard’s admissions standards were far more difficult than any other school in the Ivy League—not to mention the entire country.

When Amaker got the job, Harvard agreed to loosen the admissions standards to bring them in line with the rest of The Ivy League. Naturally, other Ivy League coaches instantly noticed that Amaker was recruiting kids that Sullivan couldn’t have touched and they talked about it to Pete Thamel of The New York Times. Harvard’s response should have been simple: “Yes, we decided to give our new coach a level playing field to recruit just as we do in football and hockey.” Instead, some blowhard in admissions insisted the standards hadn’t changed and Bob Scalise, the athletic director, tried to claim Amaker was just a better recruiter than Sullivan.

Whether that’s true no one will ever know because the two men were working under completely different sets of rules. Regardless, Amaker’s done a good recruiting job with a more level playing field and his third Harvard team appears to be behind only Cornell right now in The Ivy League. The Crimson play at Cornell on January 30th and host the Big Red on February 20th. Both those games will probably be worth seeing.

Maybe next year there can be an ACC-Ivy League Challenge Series. As of right now, The Ivies appear to have the edge. Come on, even if that’s not close to true, you have to love it. I wonder when the BC folks will let Harvard know that they won’t be playing anymore. My over-under is sometime this morning.

5 comments:

MasonFan said...

John,

Cornell beat Alabama at Alabama this season, not Miss St. But your point is still valid.

DrBear said...

How about an ACC-Horizon League Challenge? Wi-Green Bay beat Wisconsin last night, and Wisconsin beat Duke...

FOTB Staff said...

MasonFan - good catch. For the record, Miss State lost to Richmond, so the point is still good on that as well!

FOTB Staff

Bo Smolka said...

Mississippi State lost to Rider, not Richmond. Heck, maybe both. And Arkansas lost to Morgan State. For all the best upsets, check out midmajority.com, and the link with 'upsets.'

John -- the old Jelleff league takes a DC guy like me way back. My older brother used to work as a score/timekeeper at those games. There was some serious, serious hoops in that league.

thedean said...

John Thompson holding a grudge! There is a real surprise!