Tommy Amaker didn’t need Harvard. As John Thompson ’88 and Sydney Johnson ’97 had so recently demonstrated for frustrated Princeton fans, young, ambitious head coaches were supposed to leave the Ivy League, not come to it. Amaker was a strong candidate: a Mike Krzyzewski disciple, a winning, if not a beloved, coach at Seton Hall and Michigan (from which he was fired), still in his early 40s — why would a guy like that accept a job at Harvard, a school with zero basketball tradition? And just as curious: Why would a school like Harvard want a hired gun like Amaker?
As it is with most good deals, it turned out that both parties had something to gain. The administration in Cambridge wanted, for reasons it knew only in its heart of hearts, to field a contending, perhaps dominant, men’s basketball team. Amaker, in turn, wanted to build a program from scratch, to “instill a legacy,” to “change the culture” and thereby establish himself as an eminent name in the sport. Of course, the vast majority of culture changes aren’t actually about a vague “new attitude in the locker room” but rather about talent and getting more of it.
So Harvard went about making sure Amaker got the talent he needed and, like any competent recruiter would, it used its brand to do so. Hundreds of thousands of parents around the world raise their children with Harvard as a pipe dream; some of those children become good basketball players; some of those good basketball players were busy enough getting good at basketball that they quite understandably did not have enough time to get their grades where they needed to be and the SAT tutor lined up and the extracurriculars in order, to form whatever magical, desperate elixir the admissions committees at top schools love drinking.
Might as well be unequivocal here: There is nothing wrong with relaxing standards in order to admit students like the hypothetical one described above, and anyone who says otherwise is entitled, deluded or both. O.J. Mayo these guys ain’t: Zena Edosomwan, the 6-foot-9-inch forward (and second-generation Nigerian-American) who made headlines this summer when he became the first top-100 recruit ever to commit to an Ivy League school, is serious enough about attending Harvard that when his SAT scores fell short of the League’s minimum for eligibility, he enrolled as a postgraduate at a prep school in Massachusetts in the hope that he would qualify in 2013. Edosomwan, it would seem, epitomizes the future of Harvard basketball: huge talents that are also interested in education, top recruits who nonetheless are interested in the bigger picture.
Enter Government 1310: Introduction to Congress. That’s the Harvard course you’ve heard about in the last few weeks because almost half of the 279 students enrolled in it this past spring are under investigation for cheating by collaborating on the final exam. Among those suspected are the men’s basketball team co-captains, senior forward Kyle Casey and senior guard Brandyn Curry. They’ve elected to withdraw from the university rather than fight the allegations; this will presumably allow them to keep their final year of athletic eligibility and play in 2013-14. Casey and Curry were two of the Crimson’s best, most experienced players, and what once seemed to be Harvard’s league to lose has now opened up considerably, perhaps to the Tigers most of all.
But the immediate, one-year outlook is an incomplete one: Casey and Curry’s withdrawal in the face of suspension underscores a key, long-term contradiction in what Harvard is trying to accomplish as a scholastic and athletic juggernaut. The Crimson’s athletic department has stated publicly that reaching the Final Four is a reasonable goal for the program, but any institution willing to deprive itself of two key players over an infraction like the one Casey and Curry committed cannot at the same time reasonably expect to compete on a national level. Major college basketball programs have all but divorced academics and sports — Duke is lauded for simply graduating their players, and Kyrie Irving may have signaled the beginning of the end of that practice in Durham.
In Harvard we find a classic house divided: Casey and Curry were Amaker’s guys, not President Drew Faust’s. Amaker recruited them, brought them on, coached them up, watched them break Harvard into the top 25. I can’t even begin to imagine how incensed he is that the same university that promised him the tools necessary to become a national power are now tacitly reneging on that promise, throwing the book at his star players and reestablishing athletics as a secondary issue.
If you think that the university’s hands are tied with regard to punishing athletes who cheat, look no further than John Calipari, who wrote the book on this stuff. You get to the Final Four first; then, a little while later, it comes out that so-and-so did such-and-such thing wrong, and the whole run is officially invalidated, but nobody cares.
It matters for us, too, as most issues facing our peer schools tend to. Princeton does not like to lose at basketball. It’s bad for us, in more ways than one. If the powers-that-be at Harvard decide once and for all that they care more about their USA Today ranking than their US News and World Report one, this could become an arms race pretty fast, and the athletic landscape that we’re so accustomed to here might start to look very different.
For now, if you want to know what Ivy League basketball will look like in the coming years, the man to keep an eye on is Amaker — the “History” section of the “Harvard Crimson men’s basketball” Wikipedia entry begins with the “Tommy Amaker era,” and he pushed in all his chips when he went to coach at Cambridge. His fate will likely decide things, one way or another.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/20/31167/