Is Tommy Amaker Killing Ivy League Basketball?

To say that Tommy Amaker is bringing a different approach to Ivy League basketball as head coach at Harvard is a bit of an understatement. You could either look at his recent actions on the recruiting and player development front as an aggressive, experienced coach bringing big-time basketball to a school, or a blood-thirsty coach destroying the Ivy League experience by instituting a reckless, “win at all costs” mentality.

Tommy Amaker

Case in point: The NEW YORK TIMES reports that Amaker has dismissed five players from the team - including three sophomores who had started last season - and told them they wouldn’t be on the varsity team this season. They could play on the JV team if they wanted, though (and isn’t is quaint that Harvard still has a JV team).

Needless to say, the players and their families weren’t too pleased about this, especially since Amaker waited so long to do it that they couldn’t transfer and play somewhere else this season. This strikes a lot of people as cheap:

“If you want to cut my son, fine,” said Tom Carey, whose son turned down Princeton and Yale to attend Harvard. “You could have done it last year. Give them the opportunity to move on.”

And what a coincidence: the newly-opened roster spots helped make room for seven players recruited by Amaker this year, a class that has been rated by some services in the Top 25. Pretty amazing for a team that went 8-22 last season, hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1946, and (like all Ivy League schools) doesn’t offer athletic scholarships.

All of this has raised a lot of eyebrows inside Ivy League circles. In fact, Amaker was just recently cleared by the Ivy League of charges of illegal recruiting practices stemming from a NEW YORK TIMES article on his aggressive techniques, including having an assistant play pick-up games with recruits just before he was hired, and going after players with weaker academic records. As Yale’s head coach told the paper:

“It’s eye-opening because there seems to have been a drastic shift in restrictions and regulations with the Harvard admissions office,” he said.

“We don’t know how all this is going to come out, but we could not get involved with many of the kids that they are bringing in.”

Balancing academics and athletics is a tricky sitution: just ask the Adams State Atoms. And I’ll leave it to John Feinstein to get choked up about the “death of the amateur athlete in college”: that train left the station a long time ago. But is Amaker justified in doing whatever he can (including pushing boundaries) to bring a winner to Harvard?

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