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Would Tommy Amaker succeed at Boston College? Track record raises doubts

03.20.14 at 12:22 pm ET
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With Boston College firing Steve Donahue this week, speculation has centered on Harvard’s Tommy Amaker as the leading candidate to take over the Eagles.

On the surface, Amaker appears to be a viable candidate. He’s had unparalleled success at Harvard, winning four straight Ivy League championships (including one tie), appearing in three straight NCAA tournaments and pulling off an upset of New Mexico in last year’s opening round.

He has an overall record of 138-70 in seven years with the Crimson — including 6-0 in matchups against BC — and is 67-31 in the Ivy League.

Additionally, he’s quite familiar with the ACC, having played under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke from 1983-87 and then serving as an assistant coach for the Blue Devils from 1988-97, during their incredibly successful run that included back-to-back NCAA titles.

For those who only follow college basketball this time of year, it’s easy to fall for the publicity-averse Amaker, whose 12th-seeded Crimson (26-4) are a popular upset pick in Thursday’s NCAA tournament opener against fifth-seeded Cincinnati. But dig a little deeper and there are questions about whether the 48-year-old Virginia native could translate that success to the Heights.

Here are five reasons for concern when considering Amaker for the BC job.

1. His track record outside of the Ivy League is not that impressive

Amaker’s first head coaching job was at Seton Hall. He led the Pirates from 1997-2001, going 15-15 in each of his first two seasons before assembling a heralded recruiting class (Eddie Griffin, Andre Barrett, Marcus Toney-El) and then putting together a 22-10 campaign in 1999-2000, advancing to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 as a 10 seed.

However, he followed that up with a 16-15 season and his third NIT first-round exit. Amaker’s overall record at the New Jersey school was 68-55, including a 32-36 record in the Big East. Even in his 22-10 season, the Pirates were only 10-6 in league play, tying them for fourth place.

Amaker left Seton Hall for Michigan in 2001, guiding the Wolverines for six seasons. His tenure got off to a rocky start in part due to NCAA violations related to a booster scandal that occurred well before his hiring, and the subsequent penalties that included a postseason ban.

In his third season, Amaker seemingly had Michigan well on the way to restoration. The Wolverines went 23-11 (8-8 Big Ten) and won the NIT.

However, the following season they dipped to 13-18.

Amaker’s last two seasons in Ann Arbor resulted in 22-win seasons, but the team was 8-8 in the Big Ten both years and settled for the NIT both times. After six seasons with a 108-84 record — including a disappointing 43-53 in the Big Ten — and no NCAA tournament appearances, Amaker was fired.

Said Michigan athletic director Bill Martin at the time: “There were moments of delight and success. But we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and that was the goal.”

In addition to the struggles in league play, Amaker’s Michigan teams had a tough time on the road, losing more than twice as many games as it won outside Ann Arbor.

2. Harvard had to adjust its guidelines before he could turn around the program

When Amaker arrived in Cambridge, he inherited future NBA guard Jeremy Lin from previous coach Frank Sullivan. He did not however, inherit the same set of recruiting restrictions. According to a New York Times article in 2008, Harvard lowered its standards to allow Amaker to recruit from a broader base.

Said Yale coach James Jones in the piece by Pete Thamel: “It’s eye-opening because there seems to have been a drastic shift in restrictions and regulations with the Harvard admissions office. 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.”

Acknowledged Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise: “It’s also a willingness to basically say, ‘OK, maybe we need to accept a few more kids and maybe we need to go after a few more kids in the initial years when Tommy is trying change the culture of the program. It’s a willingness to say that we really do want to compete for the Ivy championship.”

The article also accused Amaker’s staff of bending the rules in its recruiting (though, in fairness, the allegations were not major in scope). While the school was cleared by an Ivy League investigation, the NCAA did not concur. Harvard negotiated a settlement in 2010, admitting to secondary violations.

Unlike his predecessors, Amaker has been recruiting from a position of strength. Now he can walk into a recruit’s home as the coach of the most prestigious school in a league of prestigious schools, and he has the ability to usher in a student who otherwise might not be taken seriously by the admissions department. Contrast that with BC, where he would be at one of the league’s least popular schools — with arguably the least-cooperative admissions department (unless he can work out a deal similar to Harvard).

This is not to downplay what Amaker has accomplished. There’s no denying that Amaker has proven to be an excellent recruiter. But he would go from being the big fish in a little pond — outrecruiting Princeton and Penn in the Ancient Eight — to a tadpole in a 15-team pond filled with the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and, next season, Louisville. Good luck with that.

3. He’s a great recruiter at Harvard, but is he a great coach?

We’ve already addressed Amaker’s unremarkable record at Seton Hall and Michigan and noted his struggles in road games. And while last year’s NCAA tournament upset of New Mexico is the kind of milestone win that can make a coach’s reputation, it’s not representative of what Amaker has accomplished. One of the criticisms at Michigan was his lack of a win over a name team.

Amaker has put loaded Harvard teams on the floor the last four years, and there were expectations that this year’s team would earn a spot in the Top 25 and roll through the Ivies without a loss — in a year when no other league team had close to the same talent (validated by the Crimson being represented by six of the 15 players named All-Ivy first team, second team or honorable mention, led by Player of the Year Wesley Saunders).

Harvard went 13-1, getting upset at home by Yale before rebounding to win the league by four games over the Bulldogs. And after some frustrating losses at Princeton the last few seasons, the Crimson finally ended their 24-year losing streak at Jadwin Gym. Outside of the conference, the Crimson came up short at Colorado and UConn in the only games against fellow NCAA tournament teams, and they dropped a 15-point decision to a Florida Atlantic team that finished with a 10-22 record.

Yes, Amaker won an NIT and reached the championship game a second time with Michigan. If NIT success is enough — granted, that’s more than what Donahue accomplished — so be it. But for a school in BC that has never made a Final Four, it might seem like settling for less.

4. He’s been able to succeed without much media scrutiny, but will that work at BC?

Amaker is almost Bill Belichick-esque when it comes to dealing with the media. He’s substantially more polite than Belichick, but he’s evasive and dodges questions with the best of them. One-on-one interviews with him are few and far between. As mentioned, he defers to his players and prefers to avoid the publicity. That’s fine at Harvard, which does not have a huge following (media or fans). But with Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim larger-than-life figures, and with spotlight-hogging legend Rick Pitino on his way to the ACC, Amaker likely would need to establish more of a presence to make sure BC doesn’t continue to get buried in the pile.

One thing’s for sure, he would garner respect from everyone for the way he carries himself. Consider how he handled the barrage of questions about his future at Wednesday’s NCAA tournament press conference.

“I certainly can appreciate the question, but our focus certainly is on our team and that’s only fair for our kids and our program and our school,” he said.

Those who think he’s trying to hide something just aren’t familiar with the Tommy Amaker experience.

“I don’t ever comment on other jobs or positions,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have the one that I have. I’ve been on the other side of not having a job and having lost a job. So I’m sensitive always to coaches and people and programs that go through those unfortunate circumstances. ‘€¦ I’ll only comment on the job that I have, and I’m very proud to have the one representing Harvard.”

5. How did it work out the last time BC hired a guy who took an Ivy League team to three straight NCAA tournaments?

Steve Donahue led Cornell to Ivy League titles in 2008, ’09 and ’10. When he led a talented Big Red squad to the Sweet 16 in 2010, he became a hot commodity, and he capitalized on his good fortune by accepting an offer from BC.

Like Amaker, Donahue is a likable, principled coach who is happy to let his players take the spotlight. But he could not lift up the program, posting a 54-76 mark (24-44 in league play) in four seasons before being dismissed with a year left on his contract. His only success came in his first season with players left over from Al Skinner‘s tenure, when the Reggie Jackson-led Eagles went 21-13 (9-7 ACC) and won one game in the NIT. BC appeared to building something the last two years, but this season’s disappointing 8-24 mark (4-14 ACC) was a big letdown.

Is there reason to think it would be substantially different for Amaker?

Read More: Steve Donahue, Tommy Amaker,
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