Amaker upends the route to the top

June, 5, 2014
6/05/14
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Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 22: Harvard’s Tommy Amaker. On Friday, we release No. 21.

Tommy Amaker’s résumé is all wrong, inverted more like a toy top resting on its point than a pyramid of success built upon a solid foundation. You are supposed to layer your coaching career upward, one triumphant stop begetting the next until you join the rarefied air of the big-name schools, where wins trumpet your arrival as one of the nation’s best.

Yet here’s Amaker, 22nd out of 351 Division I coaches, according to our forecast panel, in the top 6 percent of his profession as the coach . . . at Harvard?

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
A. Richardson/USA TODAY SportsBased on his career mark of 315-210 (.600 winning percentage), Tommy Amaker has proven he's an elite coach. It's just surprising he's at Harvard.
He should have been That Guy a decade ago, when he was the boss at Michigan, not now, after being fired from Ann Arbor and sent doubling back down to the Ivy League. You go up to get better, not down.

There are plenty of low- to mid-major guys who are well-respected and will make this top 50 list, but most have earned their stripes with staying power -- Bob McKillop (Davidson) and Rick Byrd (Belmont) -- or by succeeding wildly where they are, a la Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) and Shaka Smart (VCU).

Amaker doesn’t fit either description. He has been with the Crimson for only seven years and won exactly two NCAA tournament games. Yet the man once cast aside by the Wolverines is now considered a savant, his name appearing on every coaching vacancy wish list.

So how did he do it? How did he reinvent the wheel?

"I don’t think it’s anything, really," Amaker said. "You know how it is. If the ball goes in, you’re a great coach. If it doesn’t, you’re a bad coach. To get wrapped up in it either way is not very wise."

Amaker was never a failure. He was 109-83 at Michigan with three 20-win seasons, a pretty good run considering the whale of a mess he inherited after the Ed Martin scandal. Before that, he was 68-55 at Seton Hall.

But he was fired, which in the real world equates to a major malfunction. In coaching, of course, it depends on your definition. Amaker won plenty; he just didn’t win enough.

Fair or not, there is just one measuring stick in college basketball, and it is not the final score or even an overall record. It is the alignment of your postseason letters.

NCAA makes you a success; NIT earns you a pink slip. In Amaker’s six years, Michigan made the NIT three times, winning it in 2004. He never made the NCAA tournament, and that was that.

"I think it’s so fragile, what we do and how it’s looked upon," Amaker said. "We all know some really good people who are doing a great job and for whatever reason, they don’t win enough games. That happens all the time. I don’t think there’s a formula or a science to it."

All of that, then, as a backstory makes his emergence as a top 25 coach in the country pretty unusual.

That he was able to put himself on the map at Harvard makes it extraordinary.

Before Amaker, the Crimson’s basketball history wasn’t even enough to be a footnote. Harvard had never won an Ivy League title in more than a century’s worth of competition, and hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1946.

"This was not one of those destination jobs," Amaker said. "If I was trying to rectify something, this wouldn’t be a job I would have gotten engaged in."

Yet Amaker has turned Harvard into -- if not a destination -- a legitimate basketball presence. The Crimson have won three consecutive Ivy League titles, and an NCAA tournament game in each of the past two years.

The loaded question, of course, is which is easier: succeeding at Harvard or at Michigan? The expectations are certainly higher in Ann Arbor, but then so are the budget numbers. Getting to the NCAA tournament through the Big Ten is not an easy route, but there are multiple bids to be had. In the Ivy League, there are 16 chances, one bid and no tournament do-overs.

The real answer is all of the above. There is no such thing as an easy job in college coaching, but as Amaker is perhaps proving, there is more than one to get to the top.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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