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tara sullivan

Harvard’s Tommy Amaker, Kentucky’s John Calipari, and their plan to change leadership in sports

Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker has been a passionate champion of civil rights activism.
Harvard men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker has been a passionate champion of civil rights activism.Jonathan Wiggs

Tommy Amaker and John Calipari are big-time college basketball coaches. And maybe, upon first glance, it seems their commonalities end there.

Amaker is the head coach at Harvard, the Ivy League school in Cambridge where four-year undergraduate stints are common and getting a degree is paramount. Calipari is the head coach at Kentucky, the national powerhouse out of the vaunted Southeastern Conference where one-and-dones are common and getting drafted by the NBA is a realistic goal.

Yet here they stand, side by side, co-leaders of the new McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative, a groundbreaking project that aims to increase diversity in college athletic administration by creating internships on campuses nationwide, jobs that open an important crack into the doorway of an insular world. Here they stand, joining a national conversation on equality with a plan of action, one that draws from the very foundation of Amaker’s coaching tenets, something he calls “inside-out.”

“We ask, ‘What can we do in our lane, in our space as coaches on our campus?’ ” Amaker said by phone this week. “And our philosophy at Harvard is inside-out. It’s a mantra.

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“Look at how we want to play, how we carry ourselves on campus, what can we do here, what’s available here on our campus. Before we go outside, how do we feel about us internally? That’s our philosophy, looking to our teams, our campus, and our surrounding area and community first, before we go try and change the world. Let’s make sure we are working inside-out.”

And that’s what these coaches are doing. The idea is the brainchild of Calipari, whose anger and sadness in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police moved him to look for some way to alter a future that would honor the many, many Black athletes upon whom he’d built a national championship coaching career.

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He turned quickly to Amaker, a longtime colleague whose activism at Harvard, including a seat on the board of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, made him the perfect partner. Now, with 35 coaches (and counting) on board with them, the profession is doing itself proud.

The McLendon Initiative, if it works as planned, will change the face of athletic leadership in collegiate sports. Listen to the official description: “This coach-driven initiative will provide minorities a jump-start to their careers through practical experiences, opportunities to build their network, and instilling the values of John McLendon: integrity, education, leadership and mentorship. Participants in the initiative will be known as MLI Future Leaders.”

More on McLendon in a minute, because it’s important to note just how perfect a namesake he is for this. But first, a nod to the nuts and bolts of the plan, whose first phase Calipari is funding out of his own pocket at Kentucky. Basically, each participating school will create and fund five internships in any facet of athletic administration, setting up candidates with mentors to help them build the type of professional contacts that feed our hiring networks.

Kentucky coach John Calipari sees this project as "a springboard for future leaders."
Kentucky coach John Calipari sees this project as "a springboard for future leaders."Andy Lyons/Getty

Candidates can begin a preliminary application now at MinorityLeaders.org, and while Calipari hopes for 1,000 or more men and women vying for coveted spots, the benefits won’t end for those who don’t get hired. In offering guidance as to what a rejected application might be missing and encouraging those not selected to apply again, the Initiative envisions an entirely new database of minority leadership candidates, one that can be shared beyond the borders of college sports.

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“If we get the pipeline going, we can become a springboard for future leaders,” Calipari said. “If we give them real work experience — but you have to earn your way, prove yourself — real work experience and give them leadership training and mentor them, what would happen in 5-7 years?

“First of all, we’d have data, information to tell us where we’re having success and falling short. That’s why whatever we do it has to be for a period of time. This is not for optics. Not for one year.

“When I grabbed Coach Amaker, who I have great respect for and have known for 30 years, I said, ‘You have a tree, I have a tree, you have friends, I have friends. Let’s see how many people we can get on this.’ Then the name John McLendon and putting it under his foundation was the answer.”

It certainly resonated with Amaker.

Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker cuts down the net after his team defeated Yale for the Ivy League championship in 2015.
Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker cuts down the net after his team defeated Yale for the Ivy League championship in 2015.Michael Perez

“Any person that does any research or any recognition of his legacy hopefully will understand why or take into account for me personally why I’m proud to honor his legacy by being a part of this,” he said.

“That’s the first thing that drew me in my attention and my wanting to be associated with this, be a part of what he stood for, his legacy, what he stood for as more than a coach. He was a teacher and an educator, a person like I’m trying to do, be more about beyond the 94-by-50, to embody the things I’m trying to do, those directly derived from people like John McLendon.”

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As a student at Kansas in the 1930s, McLendon couldn’t play on the all-white men’s basketball team. But he could learn from its coach, Dr. James Naismith, who was a mentor while McLendon became the first Black student at the school to earn a degree in phys ed.

McLendon would become a civil rights pioneer, the first Black man to coach a predominantly white institution (Cleveland State in 1966), and a basketball innovator, the inventor of the modern fast break.

With a scholarship program in his name since 1999 providing grants to minority postgraduate students in athletic administration (former Boston College athletic director Martin Jarmond was a recipient in 2000), the addition of the Minority Leadership Initiative seems perfect, at least to a certain sports columnist who must confess previous ignorance of his accomplishments.

The bottom line here? Coaches are coming together to do this from within the profession. A lot of them. Amaker and Calipari can’t count the number of phone calls they’ve fielded since announcing this initiative last week, efforts pouring in from coaches who want to establish internships on their campuses, business people looking to offer services or help raise matching funds (ProLink Staffing in Kentucky was on board at the start, donating $250,000 of work to interview the initial candidate pool), and friends who want to know how they can help.

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For Amaker, who may not be one of the sport’s loudest activists but is certainly one of its most passionate and experienced, this effort, along with recent work to get rid of ACT/SAT scores in athletic admission, this is a labor of love. And hope. And action.

“This is a unique opportunity,” he said. “The current times have presented this. We are trying to make a difference, not just what we’re talking about, this is trying to execute something.

“One of the things that’s important to note is that it’s not just a pathway into athletic administration. That’s the avenue we’re creating, but schools, programs, the entire Pac 12 is going to do it, the whole Power 5 conferences decided they’re in, it’s not just one thing. This is creating a pathway for future leaders in so many potential areas.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.