One-on-one with Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker

Tommy Amaker is in his fifth season as the head coach of Harvard's men's basketball team. (Nick Wass/AP file photo)

As those of you who saw Sunday’s Inquirer know, I spent this past weekend in Boston for the Penn-Harvard football game. The night before the football game, Harvard’s men’s basketball team played a preseason exhibition against MIT, their neighbors down the subway line in Cambridge.

Even if you don’t follow the Ivy League that closely, you may have heard some of the buzz about the Crimson this season. They came within a Princeton buzzer-beater of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in decades last year, and did so with a roster that did not have any seniors.

Coming into this season, the Crimson were picked atop the Ancient Eight preseason poll for the first time ever this year - my vote included. That only added to the hype that has built up around the Harvard program in recent weeks.

The architect of Harvard’s success is Tommy Amaker. He has recruited basketball players the caliber of which has never before been seen in Cambridge, and the results have started to come with that talent.

And while I know what the Penn fans’ reply to that last sentence will be, even the most diehard Quakers will admit that the vast majority of Amaker’s recruiting has been done properly. There is only so far you can bend the rules in Ivy League recruiting, given how many rules there are to bend.

But we all know the trouble that Harvard got in when Amaker first arrived at Lavietes Pavilion. Although it's been some time since then, the memories still linger for a lot of people.

And we know Amaker's star-struck background: player and assistant coach at Duke, head coach at Michigan and Seton Hall.

Now five years into his tenure on the banks of the Charles River, Amaker has had a wide range of experiences in his coaching career. So when I sat down with him after Friday’s game, I didn’t just want to pick his brain about his expectations for the Crimson.

Given Amaker's past experience at some of college sports' most prominent programs, I wanted to get his opinion of the Penn State scandal. And given how well Amaker has adjusted to the Ivy League, I wanted to find out what his life is like when he’s not on the basketball court.

Here is what resulted.

You have had veteran players before, but perhaps not a veteran team like this. Certainly not compared to last year’s team, which had no seniors. What is it like having such an experienced squad?

Sometimes I expect a lot from them, and I have to temper even my thoughts of what a veteran team should always do and be. They still miss shots and make mistakes. We were 6-for-11 from the foul line. For us - not that they were all veterans that missed - I expect us to be sharper in certain situations, and execute better.

I’m hopeful that as we continue to go along, we’ll take the pride in areas like late-in-clock plays, end-of-half plays, things that we should do better as a veteran team. But for the most part, it’s really neat to have that, because they help me in terms of helping me coach. Things that they are going to say that they’ve heard me, and us [coaches], say in the past, they’re saying now without me having to bring it to them.

Oliver is coming to the bench talking about a situation where we think we can do better in the pick-and-roll, and this or that, and he was absolutely right. It was beautiful - those are the things that you hope for from veteran players.

Whether the expectations are coming from inside or outside the program - and they’ve come from a lot of places lately - what’s it been like watching these guys this year, with expectations on this program like there has never been before?

It’s exciting, and we’re embracing it. One of the things we talked about as part of our identity is that we have to have fun. If we get so wrapped up in trying to be this, or live up to, we lose sight of our identity and our goals and standards. One of them, for our identity, is that we have fun. That’s what we’ve got to make sure we continue to bring about with our kids.

We recognize it - they know more than I know, [being] all over social media. I just know what people tell me, and I hear from you guys [in the media], nothing more.

But they know. There’s no sense in me trying to say it’s not there, or shield it. It is there. And you know what? Let’s have fun with it. You’ve earned it. Now let’s go do what we do, and play the brand of basketball that has put us in this position.

We talk a lot about, let’s not forget how we’ve gotten to certain places. We’ve gotten to certain places because we’ve worked hard, we’ve been unselfish. We’ve had a terrific identity about us, we’ve believed in it. We love our style of play.

All the things that have allowed us to become whatever that is. I don’t know what it is, or what we’ve become, but we have to enjoy the journey and have fun, enjoy the process. Our kids are doing a magnificent job with [that].

Does it make it easier for you to convey that message given the places that you’ve been along the way - Duke, Seton Hall and Michigan?

Not so much where I’ve been, because this is their time and I’m always cognizant of that. Wherever I’ve been - good, bad or indifferent - this is their moment and their time. I’m just trying to help them see things, and guide them a little bit.

But I like the veteran players, the leadership that we have, that are allowing this to flow in a very good direction right now. Certainly, when you are playing well and shots are falling, everybody’s happy.

Is last year behind you - especially the buzzer-beater loss to Princeton in the playoff game at the end of the regular season - or is it motivation?

It is behind us. Obviously, we’ll never forget it - [how the season ended] in gut-wrenching fashion - but also in a way that is as good as it’s gotten here at Harvard. So there are kind of conflicting feelings about it.

But it’s over. We recognize it. The banner’s up, and we recognize how difficult it was at the end for us. We’re very proud of last year, but we’re on to this year. We think it’s neat that we’ve had that kind of special year, with a tough ending, and we get to back at it now this year.

We have these guys returning, and young guys coming. It’s in front of us. That’s how we’re approaching it: that it’s in front of us, and how we’re trying to take it one step at a time.

As we discussed earlier, you didn’t have any seniors last year. You’ve got some this year, but it seems like this team is really - I don’t want to say peaking now, because the underclassmen you’ve got coming in are very good. But there’s a moment here for you guys to seize. Do you have that same sense?

I think our kids are hungry. I think they recognize that. I mentioned to them that this is our best team - on paper. We don’t play games and it doesn’t count like that on paper. So who are we going to be as we go through some tough moments? It’s not always going to flow our way. Whether that’s on the road at Holy Cross, coming up next week, it’s going to get tough.

We’ve worked hard at this, to grow our program and our brand here, to put things into motion and to work hard with our kids. To have fun with them, and schedule neat games. This is what we’ve hoped and dreamed for. We’ve been very blessed to be in this position, as we were last year, and we hope that our program is going to be in this kind of position for years to come.

You mentioned some of the neat games that you scheduled. We know that a lot of big-time teams don’t like to come to gyms like Lavietes Pavilion, since it’s so small. What do you hear from other programs, and would you consider playing a game at the TD Garden or something like that?

We would, and we are interested in trying to be creative with our scheduling. We’re going to the [Battle 4 Atlantis] tournament in the Bahamas, with a tremendous field. We’re trying to make sure that we can engage different people to think of different ideas and concepts, whether that’s playing here, or at the TD Garden for a game.

We’re trying to recruit on the West Coast, [and play] one or two games out in that area if we can get involved in them. We would love to entertain creative, interesting thoughts for our scheduling.

What’s the vibe like on campus?

Well, I think you could see a little bit of it tonight.

[Friday’s game drew a sellout crowd of 2,195, including full student sections from both Harvard and MIT.]

Especially with the Harvard men’s ice hockey team playing a big game against Cornell next door.

To have some of the folks that I saw here tonight - former president of the school Derek Bok, and other people that I know were here - it’s pretty neat. I just think that we’re developing this into something where people are excited to come and be a part of it. Not just to see us, but to be a part of it.

And that’s the part that I really am proud of, that we’re gathering momentum. People that are coming to our games are coming from all walks of our community and the school. That’s something that’s always been important to me, to see if we can connect our school in ways that it has not been connected before.

And you’ve been very personally involved, in ways that have sometimes been deeper than what Harvard has seen before in terms of the relationship between athletics and the rest of the campus.

I gain so much from it, just from a standpoint of learning and getting engaged with other folks here. The other night, I spoke to the Black Men’s Forum group here on campus. It’s open to everyone, but that’s the predominant group. That was neat.

I have a breakfast club that I meet with once a month that includes a lot of our African-American professors of business and law. I gain so much from it, and I hope it’s a way to get our players engaged in certain things.

I had a chance to go have lunch over at the Institute of Politics with Trey Grayson, who’s the director. Former Governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell came through and spoke, and had a chance to stop over here to see us. He’s a big hoops fan, we know that.

[Rendell, a longtime Penn basketball season ticket-holder, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics this semester.]

We talked about getting [Massachusetts] Governor [Deval] Patrick, who’s a Harvard grad, to come to the game when they play Penn.

And they’re going to have a friendly, shall we say, discussion about who’s going to win, and who’s going to pick up the tab that night for dinner.

I love that. This is a place where we attract so many interesting groups and organizations of people. To have a chance to be engaged in that environment here on our campus - and not just at Harvard, but across the Boston area.

I learned so much from having a chance to interact with [Harvard Law School professor] Charles Ogletree, having breakfast with guys like that who I can just sit back and listen to as they talk about what’s going on in the world. These guys are involved in it.

I try to make sure that our kids recognize that. Because it’s not just something for me, but for them to understand and appreciate. Sometimes as kids, they can’t appreciate it until they look back on it, but the fact of the matter is that when Gov. Rendell comes by, I’m trying to get one of our kids to meet him. When Trey Grayson comes over, he watches practice.

Kyle Casey can stop in for lunch with Charles Ogletree - who can knock on the White House door and get waved in. It’s the power of this place - and Penn, and other places - that these kinds of things occur on a regular schedule.

Let’s switch back to basketball. What do you see around the Ivy League this year?

I think our league is going to be very, very tough. I think Yale and Penn in particular are going to be as good as anybody, including us. I think it’s going to be very balanced. I don’t know how Brown was picked, or however that works, but we have the darndest time against them.

So every time that we suit up and play - we were down 24 against Brown [last year], we were down 12 at home to Dartmouth - our league is very, very tough.

I’ve said it before: Whatever league you’re in, it’s hard. That’s the Atlantic 10, that’s the Ivy, that’s the MEAC, that’s the Colonial Athletic Association. Whatever league you’re in, it’s hard.

And our league is very, very hard - given, obviously, how our league has to unfold. With no conference tournament, and back-to-back games [on weekends in conference play]. It’s unique in that regard, which makes it incredibly tricky.

I want to ask you for some of your reflections on the scandal at Penn State. Obviously, there are a lot of different kinds of scandals, but this was a failure the likes of which I don’t think we’ve ever seen before.

You’ve worked in two of the most prominent college athletic programs in the nation, Duke and Michigan. You’ve been at Seton Hall, which is a major program in the Big East - it’s not a football school, obviously, but it has its own profile. What do you think of what’s gone on at Penn State?

It’s unfortunate. With the specific situation there, it’s gut-wrenching to know the kinds of situations that are alleged to have happened with kids. My wife is a clinical psychologist, and the world that she lives in, and the things that she’s engaged in - it’s hard to put into words, just reading and listening to the things that are alleged to have happened.

It’s really a sad tragedy that has occurred. We’re in environments where we’re trying to teach and educate, and inspire, shape and mold. I think that adds to the feeling of absolute despair at what is alleged to have happened. I’m not sure what else I can say.

When you got to Michigan in 2001, it was not all that long after the Fab Five scandal, and the school did not reach a conclusion about players having taken money from a booster in the late 1990's until after you got there.

Michigan put itself on probation for the 2002-03 season, and the NCAA doubled that punishment and banned Michigan from the postseason in 2003 and 2004. So you’ve seen a school go through an athletic crisis first hand.

Obviously, what happened at Penn State is not the same as what happened at Michigan. But when a really big institution has fallen very far, very quickly, how does it turn around?

It takes patience. It takes time, it takes healing, it takes leadership and a plan. All of those things have to be entwined with re-gaining your soul, and putting back together who you are and who you want to be.

But will it happen overnight? No. I don’t see that in anyway. It didn’t happen there, and I was a part of that. Sometimes it can be a grueling stretch. But I think that when you have the right folks making the right decisions for the right reasons, you’ll find your way through.