Scandal at Harvard?
The all-time coaching rogue heard the news and couldn’t decide whether to be stunned or entertained.
“Harvard?” Jerry Tarkanian kept saying with a laugh. “Harvard’s cheating?”
So alleges The New York Times, which Sunday unveiled one of the most unlikely, telling and, at least to some of us, humorous potential college basketball scandals by bringing to light a number of questionable practices by no less than Harvard Basketball.
The school that regularly produces presidents, Supreme Court justices and Nobel prize winners – but never before a compliance controversy – is suddenly dealing with multiple allegations less than a year into coach Tommy Amaker’s tenure.
“We used to joke we were the Harvard of southern Nevada,” Tarkanian laughed of his legendary run at UNLV that featured a national title, four Final Fours and endless fights with NCAA investigators.
So maybe now Harvard is the UNLV of eastern Massachusetts.
While what Times reporter Pete Thamel uncovered isn’t the juicy stuff they make movies about – fixed SAT scores, cash to recruits, a free house for mom and dad – the questionable actions appear to be deliberate attempts to, at the very least, work around well-known NCAA rules.
And, again, this is Harvard. This is the Ivy League, of all places. These are supposed to be the standard bearers of what is right about college sports, not places trotting out the old, “Hey, everyone else is doing it” defense.
This isn’t necessarily about what was being done as much as where it was being done.
Consider this one: It’s against NCAA rules for college coaches to have in-person contact with potential recruits in June, and it’s always against the rules for them to play ball against or work out a potential recruit.
But last June a guy named Kenny Blakeney, who just happened to have played at Duke when Amaker was an assistant there, began repeatedly playing pickup games with high school players Harvard was recruiting – Max Kenyi of Washington, D.C., and Keith Wright of Norfolk, Va. Blakeney even traveled nearly 400 miles roundtrip for the supposedly casual games with Wright.
“We talked and exchanged numbers,” Wright told the Times.
“He was someone I could relate to, someone I could talk to about anything,” Kenyi said to the paper.
On July 2, after all that time hanging out with the recruits when no other recruiter could, Blakeney was – surprise! – hired by Amaker to be a Harvard assistant. A few months later both players signed with the Crimson.
To argue this was a coincidence would be an insult to everyone’s intelligence and, as we know, Harvard prides itself on intelligence. If it isn’t a violation of the letter of the NCAA rules – the NCAA won’t comment on potential cases – it certainly smashes the spirit of it.
Then there is the fact that some members of the remarkable Crimson recruiting class – some analysts rate it among the top 25 nationally – while plenty smart, might not meet previous Harvard or Ivy League academic standards, according to the Times.
Then there was the day last July when Amaker showed up in a New Jersey grocery store and just happened to run into the father of another recruit. The NCAA prohibits all contact between coaches, recruits and their families at that time of year, although if you innocently bump into each other you can make polite conversation.
But according to the father, Les Rosen, Amaker took the opportunity to pitch getting his son up to Cambridge for a campus visit, which was likely a rules violation. (Zack Rosen later signed with Penn.)
Amaker hasn’t offered an explanation for any of this, although the school did release this bizarre and empty statement attributed to him:
“Harvard adheres to austere standards in every area of the university and I am honored to labor within that framework. 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.”
Now, back in major college basketball, these kinds of activities would barely raise an eyebrow.
Amaker arrived from the Big Ten, which in the past 20 years has had nine major rules convictions among its basketball programs alone, not to mention a point-shaving scandal and the current investigation at Indiana. This is business as usual there and in other power leagues.
But in the Ivy League, where they take this stuff seriously? Try zero infractions since 1974. For its part, Harvard has never been in any trouble in any sport, according to the NCAA.
Of course, why would the NCAA even look? Prior to this the biggest issue in the Ivy was recruiters offering extra slide rules, coaches mandating too many chem labs and players being forced to participate in excessive library hours.
Has a coach ever apparently misread the culture of a campus worse than Amaker?
The point of being Harvard is to be Harvard – you raise the standards not lower them. Harvard (8-20 this season) hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in 62 years; the previous coach lasted 16 seasons without much on-court success. It’s not like there was any pressure from fans to win.
To show up at Harvard and start cutting corners is akin to being hired by Brigham Young and cracking open a beer at the introductory news conference.
All of which is why this has the potential to be the most entertaining “scandal” since the University of Georgia allowed assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. to “teach” class (actual test question: “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for?”) and Bob Knight and his chancellor nearly came to blows at a Lubbock, Texas, salad bar.
Seriously, if Harvard can’t run a clean program, what hope is there for anyone?
The good news for Harvard is if there is an investigation it doesn’t need to go the traditional route and hire an NCAA-connected law firm. It can just lean on its six current Supreme Court justices for advice. Not to mention Barack Obama.
If that doesn’t work and a coaching change is needed to clean things up, let the alma mater of John Hancock, John Adams and John F. Kennedy know that at least one unlikely candidate is available.
“Absolutely,” Tark, 77, said laughing. “I’m retired, but why not? Harvard was one school I never even thought about.”
The feeling was probably mutual … until Sunday.