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Before a recent Monday practice in Cambridge, Mass., reporters from national news outlets surrounded Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker. They were not there to gain insights into the weekend’s games against Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, but to ask questions about Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American economics major and point guard for the Crimson from 2006 to 2010. He’s posting All-Star numbers for the Knicks, reinvigorating a perennially inept franchise, and becoming a national obsession that can only be described as Tebowian.
“It’s pretty neat to see how he’s become a global figure,” Amaker says, referring to the global frenzy known as Linsanity. A former point guard at Duke University from 1983 to 1987, Amaker has enjoyed his own impressive run of success. While there is no media phenomenon bearing his name, he has led the Crimson to its greatest height in the program’s 101-year existence. This year the team cracked the Top 25 in a national poll, which never happened when Lin was playing. The Crimson stand atop the Ivy League and are poised to win it—another first—and could make their first appearance in the National College Athletic Association tournament since 1945.
Harvard’s recent transformation has not been without controversy, much of it focused on Amaker, who took over the team in 2007. (He had previously served as head coach at the University of Michigan and assistant coach for his alma mater, Duke.) In 2008 minor recruiting violations surfaced involving one of Amaker’s assistant coaches, and some alleged that Harvard had lowered its academic standards for incoming players. Yale University basketball coach James Jones told the New York Times there was a “drastic shift in restrictions and regulations with the Harvard admissions office”—a charge Harvard denies.
Regardless, it’s very clear that Amaker harbors ambitions for Harvard that go beyond the Ivy League. He intends to compete with top programs such as Duke and Syracuse—schools that, unlike the Ivies, offer athletic scholarships. “We go against places that offer full rides,” says Amaker. “It’s always going to be a factor. It’s money.”
The last Harvard man to play in the National Basketball Association was Ed Smith, in 1954. Like Lin, he played for the Knicks, but averaged only 2.5 points per game. His professional career lasted a mere 11 games. Harvard has traditionally placed more institutional focus on football, hockey, squash, and crew.
In 2007, Harvard fired coach Frank Sullivan, who in 16 seasons compiled a 178-245 record. Justifying the decision, athletic director Bob Scalise said “consistently contending for the Ivy League championship” was the university’s goal. He asked Harvard’s players to help vet prospective coaches—an unusual step. “It became clear that the athletic department was trying to jump-start this program to a level that hadn’t been seen before,” says Andrew Pusar, who played two seasons for Sullivan and two under his successor.
Amaker was the players’ top choice. The changes were immediate. He switched the team’s athletic wear sponsor from New Balance to Nike (NKE) and fought for a tougher schedule. Most important, he changed the psychology. “As basketball players, we had felt like second-class citizens compared to Penn and Princeton,” Pusar said. “Amaker’s approach was to say, ‘You’re part of something special here at Harvard, and there’s no reason the basketball team shouldn’t be part of it.’ ”
In Amaker’s first season, Harvard was 8-22, and during his second, 14-14, even with Lin on the team. “When I came, even on our own campus, we weren’t important at all,” says Oliver McNally, a senior guard who was part of Amaker’s first recruiting class. But as Harvard gained momentum, its typically anemic fanbase swelled. “I grew up in Cambridge and have been coming to games since I was little,” says Martin Kessler, a Harvard junior who covers the team for the Crimson. “Attendance used to be abysmal. Now, the games sell out and you can’t just walk up and get a ticket. Having Linsanity coincide with the rise of the program has taken it to another level.”
“There’s a buzz on campus,” says Charles Ogletree, a law professor and season ticket holder. “It’s not only here, but Harvard is selling out games on the road.”
Nike shoes and a newfound confidence do not alone make a great basketball team. “Recruiting is the life’s blood of everything we do,” says Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who won 10 Ivy titles during his 1989 to 2006 tenure at Penn. “We like to flatter ourselves, and I think Tommy is doing a great job [at Harvard], but really we’re only as good as the athletes we get.”
Here is where Amaker has encountered suspicion. Two former assistants under coach Sullivan told the Times they were held to higher recruiting standards than Amaker’s. “I’ve heard those rumors, and they’re just not true,” says Carolyn Campbell-McGovern, deputy executive of the Ivy League.
The eight schools in the Ivy League developed an academic index to regulate the gap between athletes and nonathletes admitted to the universities. The index tabulates a grade point average and standardized test scores, and assigns potential recruits a single number. Currently the lowest allowable score for admittance to any Ivy League school is 176 out of a possible 240; 176 translates into a B average and 1140 on the combined math and reading parts of the SAT. Harvard, which dedicates around 20 percent of its admission slots for athletes, hasn’t dipped below the threshold, according to a Brown University study.
There’s little incentive for Harvard or other Ivies to lower admissions standards—no lucrative TV contracts or bowl appearances await. Making too many concessions to athletic departments also risks tarnishing the schools’ academic prestige. Says Jason Brown, class of 2004 and a former Harvard pitcher: “Harvard’s elite intelligence brand is far more valuable than a ranked basketball team or a Nike endorsement.”
Amaker, though, doesn’t believe winning games is incompatible with that brand. Harvard basketball still has a long way to go before it becomes a national force. Recent losses to Fordham and Princeton revealed weaknesses. But if Harvard doesn’t win the Ivy this year, it likely will soon as Amaker continues to recruit top high school players. Lin’s success should provide another recruiting bump. By charting an improbable path from Harvard to NBA All-Star weekend, he’s become a prime example of the athletic potential of Ivy League sports.
“This kid has come from our program—from Harvard,” says Amaker. “He has made it to the pinnacle of the world of basketball. We want to present to other kids that you don’t have to sacrifice anything by choosing Harvard.”