Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Amaker Ushers in a new Era at Harvard: of Recruiting Violations?

Almost everyone involved in college basketball engaged in collective head-scratching when Tommy Amaker, who had coached at both Seton Hall and Michigan, was hired this past spring by Harvard. Harvard AD Bob Scalise noted at the time that:
“We’re delighted Tommy Amaker is joining us at Harvard. He has been a well-respected head coach at the highest level of college basketball, and his experience as a player and assistant at Duke, where athletic and academic success is paramount, makes him a terrific fit. We’re looking forward to the support of the Harvard and local communities as we pursue our first Ivy League championship in men’s basketball.”
But at what cost? According to a story in the New York Times the price may very well be both a relaxation of academic standards which are typically as rigorous for student-athletes as they are for fellow students, and an introduction of rule-breaking typical in conferences like the Big Ten, but unheard of in the Ivy League:
Yet the group of six recruits expected to join the team next season is rated among the nation’s 25 best. . . . It is also because Harvard is willing to consider players with a lower academic standing than previous staff members said they were allowed to. Harvard has also adopted aggressive recruiting tactics that skirt or, in some cases, may even violate National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. . . .

Two athletes who said they had received letters from Harvard’s admissions office saying they would most likely be accepted have described tactics that may violate N.C.A.A. rules, including visits from a man who worked out with them shortly before he was hired by Harvard to be an assistant coach.

An N.C.A.A. spokesman, Erik Christianson, said the organization’s rules state, “Should a coach recruit on behalf of a school but not be employed there, he or she is then considered a booster and that recruiting activity is not allowed.”

Yale Coach James Jones said he had seen an academic change at Harvard. “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.”

Harvard’s athletic director, Bob Scalise, acknowledged that Amaker’s staff had recruited some players with lower academic profiles than the previous staff had, but he stressed that no athletes had yet been admitted.

“It’s also a willingness to basically say, ‘O.K., 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 to change the culture of the program,’ ” Scalise said last week. “It’s a willingness to say that we really do want to compete for the Ivy championship.” . . .

Scalise said he was made aware of “three or four” complaints of recruiting incidents from rivals and sat down with Amaker last November for “a teaching moment.” He said he told Amaker that he and his staff needed to act in ways “beyond reproach.”

But Scalise said he was not aware until told by The New York Times that Amaker’s top assistant, Kenny Blakeney, had traveled a long distance to play pickup basketball with a recruit during periods when the N.C.A.A. does not allow contact with prospective players. Blakeney said he had not been officially hired by Harvard when he visited that recruit and another prospective player. . . .

[Keith] Wright received interest from Illinois, Davidson and other Ivy League members before committing to Harvard.

Wright said that Blakeney had visited him when in-person contact between coaches and recruits was not allowed. Kenyi said Blakeney, a former Duke player, played basketball with him “a couple of times” at his high school last June or July, which is against N.C.A.A. contact rules. Harvard announced Blakeney’s hiring on July 2, 2007. . . .

Amaker, who declined to respond to specific questions in person, released a statement Friday through a university spokesman.

“Harvard adheres to austere standards in every area of the university and I am honored to labor within that framework,” the statement said. “Individuals with knowledge of our staff understand the high principles under which we operate. We work within the spirit of Harvard and the Ivy League.”

The New York Times followed up on their initial story today:

Harvard and the Ivy League have said they will review the possibility that the Crimson men’s basketball program committed recruiting violations. . . .

“We’re going to do what needs to be done, and it’s going to be done in a timely way,” said Jeff Orleans, the Ivy League executive director, who declined to comment further in a brief telephone interview.

Numerous Ivy coaches and athletic directors also declined to comment, saying that any statements should be made through the league. Other coaches said that their athletic directors would not allow them to speak about the issue. . . .

The only Ivy League athletic director who responded to a request for an interview, Yale’s Thomas A. Beckett, said he believed the matter would be handled fairly.

“I think that there are some very bright and very caring people that have worked very hard over many years and decades to make sure the league is operating properly,” Beckett said. “I have full confidence that this will be handled properly and the league will do the right thing, as will Harvard.” . . .

As part of his recruiting pitch, Amaker talked to the players about the possibility of playing together at Harvard. When a reporter visited his office for an interview in January, Amaker had his director of basketball operations, Kirsten Green, print out numerous articles about the recruits.

Publicizing recruiting classes is considered risky in the Ivy League, where nothing is final until admissions letters are sent.

“He just has to learn that things are done different in the league, especially compared to a big-time school like Seton Hall and Michigan,” said Pete Carril, the longtime former Princeton coach, referring to Amaker’s previous coaching stints. “They’re done differently.”

But for how long? Jonathan Lehman, a writer at the Daily Crimson was skeptical of the NYT's comments about relaxed academic standards:

None of this, however, means that Harvard is planning to slip below the lofty codified “standards” for admitting basketball players. It can’t. The Ivy League has a strict system based on a formula known as the Academic Index to govern the admission of athletes. . . .

Amaker cannot navigate around these regulations: If Frank Ben-Eze, the reported prize of his incoming freshman class, does not bump his AI up to 171, he will not be admitted to the Class of 2012 next month. Nor can he attend traditional top dog Penn—another suitor mentioned in the Times article—which had its string of three straight Ancient Eight titles snapped this season.

At the same time he found the allegations of NCAA rule-breaking 'distressing':

Violations of NCAA regulations are a different story. The anecdotes included in Thamel’s article, the one about Blakeney in particular, are distressing. The piece describes Blakeney, who played at Duke when Amaker was an assistant there, playing pickup games and developing friendly relationships with a pair of recruits in the months before he was hired to join Amaker’s staff. Both of the recruits, Max Kenyi and Keith Wright, were eventually wooed to commit to the Crimson and confirmed their meetings with Blakeney in the story. NCAA rules forbid contact by team staffers with recruits during the months in which the meetings occurred and also forbid recruiting by unemployed coaches on the behalf of a school. Blakeney’s actions are fishy at best and consciously rule-skirting at worst.

Harvard should investigate this matter, as well as a more tenuous accusation that Amaker stalked a point guard prospect’s parents to a grocery store and illegally discussed recruiting with them, and I invite the NCAA to do the same. If Amaker or his staff members are guilty of any wrongdoing, the program should be punished.

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