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Coach Tommy Amaker and a generous financial-aid policy turn Harvard into a hoops haven

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Harvard is the greatest brand in education, and getting someone from Harvard to tell you that takes all the coaxing of luring a Kardashian in front of a camera.

Nauseating to listen to for the non-Crimson among us? Sure. But here's the thing: It's true – no testimony from a brand analyst necessary.

"[Insert school here] is the Harvard of the [insert location here]," the saying goes, and it's never the other way around and it's always Harvard, never Yale – or any other university for that matter.

This is the carrot Tommy Amaker dangles in front of potential recruits he wants to come play basketball for him in Cambridge, Mass. That the allure (which has been around since, oh, before George Washington) is finally working for a team that is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1946 is fascinatingly simple: financially, Harvard is more accessible than ever before.

The Ivy League doesn't offer athletic scholarships, so in the past if you had the grades and you wanted to attend, get ready to fork over $60,000 a year. For coaches, that left a recruiting pool that included the very wealthy (and smart) and the very poor (and smart) who qualified for financial aid. Virtually nothing in between.

But in 2006, Harvard determined that any student (not just an athlete) of a family making less than $60,000 would be provided a free education, while students from a family making between $60,000 and $180,000 would be responsible for no more than 10 percent of their income.

With the financial barrier to entry lifted, an offer to play basketball at Harvard became instantly competitive with the rest of the world of collegiate athletics, where full-ride scholarships are (purportedly) the only currency. Throw in a well-pedigreed coach with a magnetic personality, the allure of a Harvard diploma and boom, there the Crimson has its first NCAA tournament berth in 66 years.

"Going to the No. 1 school in the world," Amaker explained earlier this week, "is an attractive option."

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Harvard is rich in athletic tradition. Harvard-Yale football dates back to 1875, the hockey team has been a powerhouse in the past, and all one needs to do is stroll across Anderson Memorial Bridge to watch the crew team busy at work on the Charles River.

Then there's Harvard basketball, which not even the Knicks' Jeremy Lin could lift into the national consciousness while he was there.

"We were the underfunded, underdeveloped redheaded stepchild of that school," explained Thomas Mannix, a 1981 Harvard grad and former captain of the basketball team. "We never got funding or love."

Whether it was because of or the result of, the bottom line was that Harvard basketball didn't win – not one Ivy League championship dating back to its official NCAA recognition in 1954. All the while, two teams – Penn and Princeton – were stockpiling league titles like they owned them, winning a combined 45 of 59 Ivy League championships.

"It felt like we were facing the Yankees and the Red Sox. It was pretty daunting," Mannix said. "It felt like it would never change unless something drastic happened."

The something drastic came in the form of Bob Scalise, Harvard's athletic director, who seven years ago met with Friends of Harvard Basketball – a group of alums that include Mannix, Staples founder Tom Stemberg and former Crimson point guard Carmen Scarpa – telling them he was committed to turning around the basketball program.

The first step was hiring a coach to replace Frank Sullivan, who was fired in 2007 after his teams produced one winning record in the Ivy League in 16 seasons. The search was well underway, with five interviews already conducted, when Amaker was fired after six seasons as head coach at Michigan. When Amaker became available, the search team immediately put his name on the board.

Over several years of attending fantasy camp at Duke, Scarpa had developed a relationship with head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Scarpa put in a call to see if Krzyzewski's former point guard would be interested in Harvard.

The seed had been planted, now all the Friends of Harvard Basketball had to do was convince Amaker to become the coach to turn the program around.

As it turned out, Amaker's decision to attend Duke wasn't so different than the opportunity facing him at Harvard. Back in 1983, when Amaker was a Parade All-American high school senior, Duke wasn't a powerhouse and Krzyzewski was an unproven coach coming off a pair of back-to-back losing seasons. But there was something about the coach that drew in Amaker, and the allure of a Duke diploma did the rest.

"That always was very appealing to me to have a great relationship with my coach, be a part of a program that was trying to grow and build and have an identity in that regard, but also attend a great school in a great conference – all those factors fit together very well during my time as a student-athlete," Amaker explained Wednesday.

"We have, at Harvard, with an institution – and that's what Coach K was able to provide as well, not to sell, but present the institution first – we certainly do that here with Harvard," he continued. "We think we have something that can be unmatched in terms of our institution. … It's unmatched in so many different ways."

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Still, the coach is only as good as his players, and for that Amaker's timing couldn't have been better. The Ivy League's enhanced commitment to financial aid meant he could begin competing for players who a few years earlier were destined for academic-rich institutions such as like Stanford, Cal, Northwestern and Vanderbilt, the Crimson's opponent on Thursday.

Amaker signed Keith Wright, a two-time all-state selection out of Virginia, and beat out Stanford and Vandy for Kyle Casey, a McDonald's All-American nominee. The two head into Thursday's game as the Crimson's leading scorers and rebounders.

"Harvard is an institution that speaks for itself, and the basketball is gonna stop bouncing one day and you gotta think about life after," Wright said earlier this week of his decision to attend Harvard. "That was definitely another major part of why I chose to come here."

Amaker's tenure hasn't been without incident. During the summer of 2007, Kenny Blakeney, whom Amaker hired as an assistant, played a game of pick-up basketball with Wright and Maxim Kenyi during a time when contact with potential recruits was not allowed per NCAA rules. Blakeney told the New York Times that he was not employed at the time, so "how could I recruit them to Harvard if I'm not employed?" An NCAA investigation eventually determined that neither Blakeney nor Amaker acted inappropriately.

Amaker's latest coup is Zena Edosomwan, a 6-foot-9 forward ranked among the Rivals 150, who on Selection Sunday announced he'd chosen Harvard.

"It's the best school in the world, the basketball is building, and I want to be a part of that," Endosomwan told the Harvard Crimson. "I want to make history there."

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He likely already has, considering there's a good chance Edosomwan is the first player ever to choose a fifth year of high school (something necessary for him in order to be accepted at Harvard) over full-ride scholarships right now from UCLA, USC, Washington or Texas.

Why? He wants to be a doctor, according to his high school coach, and Harvard presented him with the best in-season course load to get into medical school.

Wednesday afternoon, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was asked if he's ever described Vanderbilt as the "Harvard of the South."

"I've used it," Stallings replied. "I hope the people at Harvard don't take offense to that."

A few years ago they might have. Not anymore, though. These days, that's a recruiting tool … for Harvard.

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