Tommy Amaker was talking about the past to make a point about the future. When you have a Duke pedigree, as Amaker does (former player and assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski), a Coach K reference is almost expected.
“About 100 years ago, as a freshman for Coach K, I learned that he had a favorite phrase,’’ said Amaker. “ ‘Next play. What is our next play?’ ’’
Simple translation: Once you have accomplished your goal, start thinking about another one.
“That’s what we will tell our kids,’’ said Amaker, who is completing his fifth year as the Harvard men’s basketball coach in what has the potential to be the greatest season in the program’s history. “What is our next play?’’
The most salient point right now is that Harvard even has a next play. Until Princeton’s victory over Penn last Tuesday night sealed the Ivy League title for Harvard, no Crimson men’s basketball team since 1946 had qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
With this being Selection Sunday, the Crimson, like 67 other teams around the country, will watch and cheer as they find out whom and where they will be playing.
But for Harvard, the most important thing is that it will be playing.
It already has been a marvelous winter for Harvard basketball, not only because of the team’s glittering 26-4 record, but also the 15 minutes of fame for the program created by Jeremy Lin and the mania that developed with his emergence for the New York Knicks.
“Things have given a spotlight to Harvard basketball in a very positive way,’’ said Amaker. “I’m confident that they will handle things very well.
“That’s been the key, whether it’s an adverse or positive situation: They have been really good at taking things in stride.’’
Amaker seems to do that as well as anyone. This is not his first rodeo. After coming out of the Duke system, he began his head coaching career at Seton Hall, then moved to Michigan, and five years ago came to Harvard as a replacement for Frank Sullivan.
He has embraced not only the job but the school and the community. He has elevated the recruiting at Harvard - to the displeasure of some Ivy League brethren who feel that Harvard may be pushing the limits. But he is also a presence in Cambridge and in Boston, taking part in monthly “Breakfast Club’’ meetings with community leaders to discuss issues that go far beyond the confines of Harvard Yard.
Harvard has become a beast in the Ivy League, but Amaker knows things will change quickly in NCAA play.
“We are going in as the underdog, and that’s a good thing for us,’’ said Amaker. “It’s a thing we can embrace. We were picked and targeted the whole season.
“Maybe this gives us a new sense of order. People follow top dogs, but they root for underdogs.’’
As they have done throughout this season, the Harvard players will accept the challenge when their first-round opponent is announced tonight. It has been their mantra since Amaker arrived on campus with a dream and a goal.
“Everything happens for a reason,’’ said senior forward and cocaptain Keith Wright. “We had a lot of success. Last year wasn’t our time. We still had to grow.’’
Harvard has done that steadily.
Senior guard and cocaptain Oliver McNally remembers his first visit to Harvard four years ago.
“I wanted to take a scholarship and play in the Bay area,’’ said McNally, who made the trip to Cambridge at his parents’ behest. “I was kind of reluctant, but once I met Coach Amaker, I was committed. I wanted to come right away.
“He was very confident coming in. He does things his way. He has had his failures. He’s had his successes. He has kept our team level-headed. He has a quiet confidence that helps our team.’’
Amaker said the plan last week was to regroup after the rugged Ivy League season and prepare for the next challenge.
“It was important to take a minute and feel good about ourselves,’’ he said. “And it’s important to put a game plan together.’’
Asked about the success of the past few years, Amaker smiled and talked with the pride of a parent discussing his children’s accomplishments.
“These kids have done things that have been special,’’ said Amaker. “I’m proud to be a part of it and organize it and get them to believe.
“It’s wonderful to be part of this campus. Special things are happening on a special campus. I’m thrilled the way the campus has rallied around this team.’’
When Amaker first arrived, his message to his team was to simply embrace the moment, follow a dream.
“We talked about having a vision, having a plan - to do something that has never been done before,’’ said Amaker. “That’s been our calling card for our players and they have embraced that.
“They believed it when we presented it to them as a vision. Now we have seen how it is developed. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it certainly has been a rewarding one.
“So much has happened with sports, but to have our basketball program become relevant from a national perspective is worth its weight in gold to me. To see that evolve on this campus, I find that mind-boggling. The journey has been incredibly warming and it has been incredibly quick.’’
Amaker wants his players to enjoy the moment while it happens.
“I tell them, ‘You’re not always guaranteed the next opportunity,’ ’’ he said. “I want us to live up to what we have been and make sure our identity remains the same.
“It’s important to be who you are. To be true to that. That’s what we will feel good about, ourselves, no matter what the scoreboard might say. Our standards are more important than any expectations. I think our kids will embrace the opportunity we have.’’
Amaker remembers being on a trip when he first took over the program and identifying himself as the Harvard basketball coach. That prompted the response, “I didn’t know Harvard played basketball.’’
“I don’t know if they were being funny with me,’’ said Amaker. “But that hasn’t happened lately. Obviously what we have done is pretty darn good for us.’’