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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tommy Amaker Is At It Again (and If You're a Harvard Recruit, Let the Buyer Beware)

Or not, perhaps. It depends on where you sit.

If you're a Harvard hoops fan tired of holding your Friends of Harvard Basketball meetings in a phone booth, you might be happy with the Big East/Big Ten-like Darwinism that Amaker is trying to bring to Cambridge. If you're a member of the Harvard community hoping solely that your team has a fighting chance to contend for the Ivy title each year, you might be concerned.

The New York Times broke this story yesterday, and USA Today followed up on it today. Basically, Amaker just told five returning players that they would not make the varsity for this coming season. The objection? He told them in September, not after the season, when presumably had they wanted to, they could have decided to transfer to another school (including another Ivy) should they have wanted that option. Instead, he told them after they enrolled, and that creates all sorts of problems for the individuals, basketball- and transfer-wise, not to mention their shaken faith in the Ivy ideal, where sports aren't supposed to be this cutthroat.

One jettisoned player actually paid his own way to return to Harvard in August to work at Amaker's basketball camp this summer. The thanks he got? A pink slip for the fall season.

Harsh.

And not the Ivy way, so the Times suggests.

I agree.

Here are the two takes on the argument.

First, if you're defending Amaker and tired of the failure of Harvard hoops to make a dent in the Ivy conversation for the past 25 years, you'll say that it's Amaker's prerogative, as it's the prerogative of any coach who takes over a program, to separate the wheat from the chaff and turn the program around. You'll argue that if the school decided that Frank Sullivan wasn't going to win a title, then the remaining players that he recruited also weren't going to win a title, so it was okay to cut the five players. You'll also contend that the Ivies aren't bound by the 5-8 rule that scholarship schools must adhere to (in essence, a team may bring in only five recruits in any one year, eight over a two-year period), so a new coach can bring in his guys rather quickly to turn a program around. You'll also argue that every Ivy brings in between four and seven kids every year, and attrition is part of every Ivy hoops program, so why single out Harvard? Finally, you'll contend that the critics are wimps, that they've never competed on the court, and that they want to preserve the tea-drinking image of the Ivies without the harsh realization that athletic competition is just that, that if you want to win you need better players, and that most winning coaches would do what Amaker has done. In Harvard parlance, then you'd utter "quod erat demostratum", dismiss the rest of us as whining fools, and walk away.

And you'd have made a pretty good argument.

However. . .

I have three major bones to pick with the argument. The first one is the way that Coach Amaker went about cutting his players. All coaches let players know they won't make the team, but why did Amaker wait so long? Did he do it to prevent other Ivies from getting some of these guys (even if they would have to sit out a year), was it plain mean, or just clumsy? To me, cutting players -- within reason and with dignity -- is fine and happens with some frequency. Otherwise, Ivy hoops rosters would be bloated beyond practicality (and it's hard to know what each and every player is told during the recruiting process). But what happened here was wrong.

Second, before you throw the "that's what winning coaches" do argument, Amaker wasn't exactly a smash success at either Seton Hall or Michigan. True, he started on some great Duke teams, but having played for Coach K doesn't make you the next coming of Coach K.

Third, and importantly, there is a bunch of smoke around the Harvard program that suggests at least the presence of some brush fires. The Times wrote earlier this year about some questionable practices of one of Amaker's assistants, and the linked article suggests that Harvard might be recruiting some players who aren't up to the Ivies' academic standards. [An investigation cleared Harvard, but I believe it's the first investigation ever -- if not in a long time -- about the recruiting practices of an Ivy men's hoops coach -- and it happened right after Amaker's first season]. Recruit hard, keep Princeton in the cellar and go after Penn and Cornell, fine, but remember, you're not recruiting against N.C. State and Maryland, you're recruiting against other Ivies. It's one thing to want to win the league, but it's about time that someone takes a stand not only for honoring winners, but honoring winners who win with class and dignity, and, most importantly, within the rules. Former Penn (and now Temple) coach Fran Dunphy is a great example. Tommy Amaker should make the Harvard team his own and do his best to win, but he should take a few pages out of Coach Dunphy's book. Have one car accident in ten years, fine, you had an accident, but have two in eighteen months, and, well, you might just have a driving problem.

The irony here is that Harvard fans and alums probably might admonish me not to believe everything I read in the Times, and that would be rich, because they seem to quote the Times for just about everything else. If the Harvard athletic department and the Harvard men's hoops team keeps up this type of sportsmanship, then kicking the living daylights out of the Cantabs might become the overarching priority of even Penn and Princeton, each of which delights in pounding the stuffing out of each other.

Incoming recruits also should beware of what Amaker is selling them. Because if he goes the route of bringing in more than four players each year (say 6), he could be doing to them what he did to the players he didn't recruit. The counter to that, of course, is to contend that Amaker's just doing this now, to reverse a losing trend, and he needs a lot of new players right away. The Amaker supporters (or apologists) would contend -- without proof -- that Amaker wouldn't intend to do this every year. But until Amaker has a few years under his belt without making cuts like the ones he has just made, recruits and their parents will have to put the question to the coach and wonder just a bit.

Fight fiercely, Harvard, for sure.

But also be sure to fight fair.

The whole Ivy League is watching.

10 Comments:

Blogger Charlottesvillain said...

Let's also consider the fact that Amaker, thus far in his career, has proven to be a pretty lousy basketball coach. Just sayin.

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wondering aloud. Have you heard about the AI (Academic Index)in the Ivy League? Every student has an AI. I've heard that teams are measured on the basis of their cumulative AI. This prevents a team from recruiting below Ivy level students who are great basketball playersand is done to maintain a level playing field. If Amaker was bringing in players with calculated AIs that would bring the team average below the level the IVY league requires could he have kept the 5 players on the roster, assuming they are good students, to bolster the team average? Then jettison them after the team AI was calculated - this could explain the timing of the cuts. I think it is worth looking in to.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Escort81 said...

Interesting idea about the AI.

If Harvard goes undefeated in the Ivies and has many quality non-league wins (BC + GW are on the schedule) and is a near-Top 25 team, then Amaker's success may shine an even brighter spotlight on the situation.

I wonder if anyone up in Cambridge would even care. Their home court is the Lavietes Pavillion and seats about 2,000 people, and when you are there, it seems as though it is not much nicer than any number of larger HS gyms.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With Penn and Princeton and, more recently, Cornell and Brown doing it the righteous way, the Harvard situation is embarassing and counterproductive. Where's the commitment to "Veritas"?

12:26 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Are any of you concerned about the following maxim, that in today's world winning is everything, that people only remember who won, so there are some who will do anything to win? Those who defend Bill Belichick and Tommy Amaker will be quick to say that they're pushing the boundaries, not breaching them. But that's what they're supposed to say. What do any of you think about that? Is Harvard that desperate?

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given Harvard's symbolic position as the most visible Ivy school nationally and globally as well as top numbers in most categories of admission, test scores, academic excellence, etc., I think what will stick is precisely the hypocrisy and unfairness associated with these reports. Places like Duke and Georgetown, Stanford have become the places were, for the most part, winning big in basketball is not inconsistent with academic success. For better or worse, the Ivies are "not in the same league" as those schools at this point.

9:53 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

I am not sure I am clear on your point.

Are you saying that the other Ivies (and I for that matter) are being hypocritical and even envious or jealous regarding Harvard? Or, are you saying that the Ivies just won't match up with Duke, Stanford and Georgetown?

As for the former point, you're entitled to your opinion. The point of many posters here is that Harvard has drawn more attention to its basketball program under Amaker for its roster-staffing practices than the other Ivies combined have over the past 10 years. Is it hypocritical or unfair to call those issues into question?

As for the Ivies not matching up with Duke, Stanford and Georgetown, you're right, as they seldom if ever win when recruiting against those schools. That said, I don't think that they recruit against those schools all that often any more. Also, the non-Ivies don't have an academic index to deal with, so when you say combining academic success with winning you're painting with a broad brush. Some would argue that "academic success" is in the eye of the beholder and relative to each institution, its overall philosophy, and the student himself.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I wasn't clear... yes the malpractice draws more attention than winning because: 1. Harvard is undermining the basis of its reputation; 2. They haven't won big yet at this point, so the sleaziness cannot be offset by ends justfying means. If/when they win, that will be questioned.

While Duke, Stanford and Georgetown athletic programs are not dogged the same way by the Ivy agreement and academic index, my admittedly personal opinion is that overall they are equal or superior to the Ivies in a variety of comparisons.

11:42 PM  
Blogger bill russell said...

Sometimes smoke is just smoke. The investigation cleared Amaker and Harvard. End of story. That leaves the fact that Amaker cut a bunch of players after recruiting better players. We don't know why he did this when he did it but we know it's not against any rules -- none at all. Most of the allegations of bad sportsmanship in the Times come from fired Harvard coaches and Harvard's rivals and the parents of the players who were cut. It's a lazy afternoon's work for any journalist to cook up a suspicious sounding story from such sources. The Times pieces smell of the same righteous froth that embarrassed the paper on the Duke Lacrosse scandal (and, no, I'm not prepared to argue all the way through that one again). There is no lack of Veritas. To compare a coach who has not been found to have committed a single infraction to Belichick (who cheated and should have been suspended for a season, at least) is vicious. If there is any desperation here, I think, all due respect, it is in these efforts to slur Amaker and Harvard.

12:43 AM  
Blogger bill russell said...

Sometimes smoke is just smoke. The investigation cleared Amaker and Harvard. End of story. That leaves the fact that Amaker cut a bunch of players after recruiting better players. We don't know why he did this when he did it but we know it's not against any rules. Most of the allegations of bad sportsmanship in the Times come from fired Harvard coaches and Harvard's rivals and the parents of the players who were cut. It's a lazy afternoon's work for any journalist to cook up a suspicious sounding story from such sources. The Times pieces smell of the same righteous froth that embarrassed the paper on the Duke Lacrosse scandal (and, no, I'm not prepared to argue all the way through that one again). There is no lack of Veritas. To compare a coach who has not been found to have committed a single infraction to Belichick (who cheated and should have been suspended for a season, at least) is vicious. If there is any desperation here, I think, all due respect, it is in these efforts to slur Amaker and Harvard. I won't speculate as to motives.

12:44 AM  

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