Tommy Amaker: A leader on and off court
Harvard locker room to be named after legendary coach
I first met Tommy Amaker, Harvard’s men’s basketball coach, while he was a player at Duke University in the 1980s. He and backcourt mate Johnny Dawkins drove Duke’s rise to national prominence under a young coach named Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils had just lost the men’s NCAA Division 1 championship to Louisville. I admired the grace and poise of the Duke players, particularly Amaker. More often than not, the pain of losing such a monumental game brings out the worst in young athletes. But that was not the case on that occasion. Amaker stood tall in that moment of tremendous disappointment.
Over the next 20 years, I watched Amaker climb the coaching ladder after he was cut from the Seattle Supersonics in 1987. So many young men who don’t make it to NBA glory fade away. Not Tommy Amaker. He moved in a direction that even he had not thought of pursuing.
“When I got cut, I wasn’t thinking about coaching basketball,” he recalled. “Things opened up for me, and I took advantage of the situation.” That situation came in the form of a graduate assistant coaching position at his alma mater.
Just six years after losing a national championship as a player, Amaker was on the bench as an assistant coach when Duke beat Kansas for its first championship. Christian Laettner was considered the main star of the team. Still, the outstanding play of a freshman named Grant Hill proved to be the difference for a Duke team that had lost by 30 points to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the title game the year before.
“I am proud to say that I recruited Grant Hill to Duke,” says coach Amaker. “He lifted our team to national championship quality.”
Hill, the son of former Dallas Cowboy running back Calvin Hill, would help Duke to back-to-back national championships before forging a Hall of Fame career in the National Basketball Association.
Amaker would move on to head coaching positions at Seton Hall and Michigan, where he guided the Wolverines to an NIT Championship in 2003-2004. After being dismissed amid an NCAA scandal, not of his making, he decided to take the head basketball position at Harvard.
Many skeptics wondered why he would go Harvard, which had not won a basketball title since 1946.
“I chose Harvard for the challenge of building something special,” Amaker said in a recent interview. “Harvard provided a unique opportunity to do more than just coach basketball. It allowed me to help young men make a pathway to better lives.”
After 17 years on the job, Amaker has proven his worth as a leader of young men, a teacher and a leading voice in the Harvard University community.
He is the winningest coach in school history with seven Ivy League titles and a record of 275 wins and 162 losses, for a .629 winning percentage entering this upcoming season. But that only tells a small part of the story.
“My mother taught school. My father was in the military,” he said. “With their guidance and that of loving grandparents, I was able to grow to be the man I am today.”
That man, who has won far too many honors and awards to mention here, is one of those rare men who has left an indelible stamp wherever he has planted his feet.
“Of all my lifetime achievements, making my family, especially my mother, proud of me stands at the top of the list,” Amaker said. “Also on that list are people like the late Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard, and others who have made a major impact on my life from the day I came to Harvard until now. And last, but certainly not least, are my players.”
Amaker’s list of achievements includes such weighty titles as:
• 2021 fellow at the Hauser Center for Public Leadership at Harvard
• executive fellow at Harvard Business School
• special assistant to Harvard presidents Larry Bacow and Drew Gilpin Faust.
When asked why he came to a city like Boston — Cambridge, to be precise — Amaker replies: “I had visited Boston over the years and grew to like the city. I am aware of the racial climate and problems of this area, but I do my best to make a positive difference, especially when I am recruiting young men from across the country on the values of a Harvard education.”
It was recently announced that the players’ locker room will be named after Amaker once he retires. The first-of-its-kind Harvard honor, part of the recent Lavietes Pavilion renovation, was made possible by a generous donation from the Shutzer family. The ceremony will take place upon Coach Amaker’s retirement
“We are grateful for the generosity of Bill and Fay Shutzer to name the men’s basketball locker room for Coach Amaker,” said Erin McDermott, the John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics. “Their gift has enhanced our team’s experience and will indelibly honor Coach Amaker as a true educator and impactful coach.”
Not to take anything away from this honor, but this reporter remembers the first interview I did with Tommy Amaker when he was named the head basketball coach of Harvard in 2007. I distinctly remember telling him: “If you win an Ivy League title, they should erect a statue of you.”
Note to Harvard: It’s now seven Ivy League titles. Where is the statue of Coach Tommy Amaker, the winningest basketball coach in the history of Harvard?