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Northwestern Basketball Coaching Search: Tommy Amaker

Tommy Amaker flamed out his first time in the Big Ten, but the Harvard coach has proven he knows how to win at a school with stringent academic standards. Will NU dip into the Ivy League after what happened with Bill Carmody?

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, Tommy Amaker was considered a future coaching star. After being a four year starter at point guard for Duke from 1983 to 1987, where he set school records for assists and steals and won National Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, he quickly realized he didn't have a future as a professional basketball player and returned to Duke as an assistant coach in 1989, just as Mike Krzyzewski was in the midst of his incredible run of six Final Fours in seven years. Duke's tremendous success combined with Amaker's "coach on the floor" college playing career made him a hot commodity, and he turned down numerous head coaching offers, including Northwestern in 1993, before finally deciding to go to Seton Hall in 1997.

Seton Hall had finished under .500 overall in the two years prior to Amaker's arrival, but he turned the program around rapidly, leading them to the 2000 Sweet Sixteen and landing the nation's #2 recruiting class to start the 2000-2001 season, a class highlighted by the nation's top recruit, Eddie Griffin. But the newcomers struggled to mesh with Seton Hall's returning players, Seton Hall limped into the NIT, and Amaker bailed out from the sinking ship to become the next head coach at Michigan.

Amaker's tenure at Michigan is probably what most Northwestern fans remember him for, and it was not a successful one, as Michigan failed to make the NCAA tournament in any of Amaker's six seasons. Some of that was beyond his control, as Michigan self-imposed a post-season ban in 2002-03 as fallout from the Fab Five booster scandal, but Amaker was certainly a disappointment. Much like at Seton Hall, Amaker's recruiting was solid (he brought in first team All-Big Ten players Daniel Horton and Manny Harris, along with lottery pick Ekpe Udoh (who transferred to Baylor during John Beilein's tenure), but he was never able to harness that talent into an NCAA bid.

After Michigan fired him in 2007, interest from major-conference programs had dried up, and Amaker was forced to take a major step down the coaching ladder, ending up at Harvard, a historically awful college basketball program. While Harvard at least avoided Northwestern's shame of never making the NCAA tournament thanks to an appearance in 1946, prior to Amaker's arrival, the program had never won the 8 team Ivy League (which was founded in 1954) or really done much of anything.

But Amaker has quickly turned the program around. In his third season at Harvard, 2010, he led the Crimson to a 21-8 record and a trip to the CIT, Harvard's first postseason appearance since the 1946 NCAA tournament. And even though the 2010 team lost Jeremy Lin to graduation, the next year Harvard won their first ever share of the Ivy League title, losing out on an NCAA tournament bid after Princeton hit a buzzer beater in a one-game playoff. Last year, Harvard won the Ivy League outright and made the tournament as a 12 seed, even spending two months in the Top 25 nationally. And this season, Amaker has pulled off his greatest coaching job yet, winning a third straight Ivy League title despite losing two of top three returning scorers for the season due to an academic scandal that implicated over 100 Harvard students.

To give you an idea just how bleak Harvard's basketball history is, here's a sampling from the Harvard Media Guide (pdf) of some program firsts Amaker has achieved, other than the ones listed above:

- first appearance in a major national poll

- first win over a ranked team, against Boston College in 2008-09. Harvard has now won at Boston College five years in a row.

- first win over a BCS conference team(!!!!!), over his old team Michigan in 2007-08.

- first sweep of a road trip west of the state of New York (admittedly, this is a strange one)

- first top 25 national recruiting class, in 2008-09

Amaker's tenure at Harvard has been extremely impressive, but that last point about the recruiting is the one that really jumps off the page. The biggest reason Northwestern has not been able to compete with the rest of the Big Ten in basketball is recruiting: the rest of the conference almost always has better talent, and talent wins games. Successful recruiting at Seton Hall or Michigan is one thing, but to bring in a top 25 recruiting class at Harvard, a place with no scholarships, zero tradition of winning, and a home gym that's worse than most high school gyms in the area, well that's something else. There's little doubt that Amaker, as Northwestern head coach, would greatly improve recruiting from where it is right now. And given that he just turned a historical doormat of a program in a perennial league title contender, he might well be able to do the same thing at Northwestern.

To play the role of provider of strawmen for me to knock down Devil's Advocate, let's bring in Rodger's old friend Boldfaced Question Guy

Isn't Harvard's successful recruiting at least in part due to NCAA violations and lowering of academic standards at Harvard?

I'd imagine you are referring to this Pete Thamel piece in the New York Times from March 2008 that raised some questions about how Harvard was able to bring in such a good recruiting class. The one violation of substance here was an assistant coach who had not yet been hired helping to recruit two players, which was later deemed a secondary violation by the NCAA. Amaker has never been accused of any serious violations like paying players or the like, but he does seem to toe the line occasionally when it comes to recruiting, which could be a problem going forward.

As for the lowering of academic standards part, it's thoroughly misleading and a complete non-issue, and Thamel's reporting on it like it was a real controversy was irresponsible journalism. As Thamel himself explains, the Ivy League uses an Academic Index for all athletes, and refuses to admit anyone below a certain minimum score. According to assistants under Amaker's predecessor, Harvard had previously decided that their own academically prestigious league's minimum standard was too low, and all Amaker did was convince the Harvard administration to lower the admissions standards to the standards the rest of the league had agreed upon. Amaker also recruited some players who ended up falling below this Ivy League minimum standard, and such players were not admitted to Harvard. The only one upset with Harvard's new approach in the article was Yale's coach whining about Harvard now recruiting players who previously wouldn't have met their admission standards. So there was nothing the slightest bit controversial here, unless you think that admitting talented basketball players who meet the league's agreed-upon standards for academics is a bad thing, in which case you are a moron.

Don't Mike Krzyzewski assistants tend to do poorly as head coaches?

Yes, it is generally true that Duke assistants haven't done great, with Amaker at Michigan, Quin Snyder at Missouri and Johnny Dawkins at Stanford being the best examples. However, Amaker is sixteen years removed from working under Krzyzewski, so I'm not sure how relevant his Duke background is. And also, I have a tough time believing that learning how to coach from the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history is somehow a point against a guy.

So Amaker had great success in the Ivy League. Big deal, so did Bill Carmody and we all saw how that worked out!

This is a facile argument. Yes, Northwestern would be hiring a successful Ivy League coach again, but that's about where the similarities end. Carmody inherited a thriving Princeton program that had built an Ivy League dynasty under Pete Carril, who in 29 years at Princeton won 12 Ivy League titles and never once finished below .500 in the league. Harvard's basketball history was described above, and was about the complete opposite from what Carmody inherited. Harvard and Princeton are both in the Ivy League the way Northwestern and Indiana are both in the Big Ten; conference affiliation is about all they have in common in basketball. There's also the fact that Amaker has 16 years of head coaching experience, including six in the Big Ten and four more in the Big East. Carmody, when hired at Northwestern , had 5 years of experience as a head coach: four at Princeton and one at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in 1976. So let's stop with this one.

Would Amaker even take the job? What about that urban legend about how Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley couldn't have gotten into Northwestern?

There is an urban legend that's made the rounds for a while about how when Tommy Amaker interviewed for the Northwestern job back in the day, he showed NU administrators Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley's high school transcripts with the names removed, and was told that neither would have been able to get into Northwestern. Lake The Posts has frequently repeated this on his site, but oddly seems to have removed mention of it from this piece, because it was certainly in there when I linked to that post in this piece I wrote last summer, and a Google search for "laketheposts laettner hurley" brings up that story as the first hit. Anyways, I always thought that story was a bit dubious, but Amaker's apparent insistence that Harvard lower its admissions standards to sane levels makes it sound a lot more believable.

As for whether Amaker would take the Northwestern job, that's a fair question. He's got all the job security in the world at Harvard and seems poised to build them into an Ivy League dynasty, with three consecutive league titles and another monster recruiting class by Ivy League standards coming in next year, highlighted by a guy ranked 69th overall nationally by Rivals. Amaker might be content to just dominate the Ivy League for the next 20 years in a low pressure/high job security environment rather than take on a challenge like Northwestern. But the Northwestern job would certainly pay him a lot more money, and would give him an opportunity for redemption in the Big Ten after his failed time at Michigan.

If Northwestern does decide to aggressively pursue Amaker, his response will say a lot about the future of the program, because past history would indicate that he requires a certain level of commitment to winning from a program before accepting the job. If Northwestern makes a strong push for Amaker and he says no, it will likely be because he thinks the administration's lack of support for basketball will prevent him from succeeding. Which means whoever they hire instead probably won't be very good, and worse, will not have the necessary administrative support. Which means we're right back where we started with Carmody.