SPOKANE, Wash. — The headlines in the Detroit Free Press were gleefully cynical.
“The Firing — Tommy Amaker Edition”
“Adios, Amaker Time to Go”
In his last season at Michigan, Amaker led the Wolverines to a 22-13 record and it wasn’t good enough. On March 17, 2007, Michigan athletic director Bill Martin fired Amaker after six seasons as coach. On the way out, Amaker’s critics made sure to list the reasons.
“His in-game coaching.”
“He never made an NCAA Tournament.”
“He hated appearing on TV and seemed to think that going on talk radio was an NCAA violation.”
Even the pluses seemed tongue-in-cheek.
“He was a nice guy, but he never showed the emotion some fans wanted.”
“He represented the university well. But as Amaker knows, he wasn’t paid simply to speak well at news conferences and avoid additional NCAA sanctions.”
“Hey, anyone was better than Brian Ellerbe.”
Amaker held his own news conference separate from Michigan’s announcement, and his response to the decision was restrained. He had hoped he would’ve been given the chance to keep building, but he wasn’t shocked by the firing. He refused to make excuses.
But about 70 miles away, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo couldn’t hold back. He and Amaker were rivals in the sense that their respective schools had built more than a century’s worth of hate for each other. But as coaches, Amaker and Izzo shared a mutual respect that went back to their days as assistants chasing down blue-chip prospect Chris Webber on the recruiting trail.
Outside of immediate family, Izzo was the first person to call Amaker after the news broke.
“He made that call to me and it didn’t surprise me, but it was certainly nice to hear his voice and offer support,” Amaker said. “Going through those kinds of situations, you think of hearing from people that really care about you and that was nice of him to do that for me.”
But Izzo also made it a point to make his displeasure public.
“When he got the job, it was like days later and some of those [NCAA] sanctions came and he really did a good job there,” Izzo said. “He was just in a tough situation. And that team was getting better every year and he had some great recruits coming in the year that he left.
In college basketball, there are certain coaches — Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, North Carolina’s Roy Williams — whose words carry added weight. Amaker knew Izzo’s did as well.
“Tom has always been I think a friend of coaches in the profession,” Amaker said. “I think he likes to look at different situations, especially people that maybe he respects or sometimes obviously he has a friendship with and he’s not afraid and he’s at a position and a status and a level where his words and his voice sometimes can carry a lot of weight.
“But I think he recognizes that and he wants to stand up for what he believes is right about the game of basketball. I’ve always known that about him and not just because it’s somehow related to me in that situation, but that’s what he’s done, again he’s been an ambassador for the game.”
Twenty-five days after he was let go by Michigan, Amaker was introduced as Harvard’s coach. In seven years with the Crimson, Amaker has won 139 games, leading Harvard to five straight 20-win seasons, four straight Ivy League titles, three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and second-round wins in two straight seasons.
It doesn’t surprise Izzo that the Harvard team Amaker has built from the ground up is what stands in Michigan State’s way with a Sweet 16 berth on the line Saturday night at Spokane Arena.
“There’s no question,” Izzo said. “He was getting that done at Michigan. He just went there during a tough time. Knowing Tommy like I do, Harvard’s been just kind of a great situation for him. Where he’s taken that place is unbelievable to me.
“They’re a good, solid basketball team. Tommy is a good, solid human being and a great coach. So consequently, nothing surprises me about this.”
Earlier this week, when Boston College announced the firing of coach Steve Donahue, Amaker’s name shot to the top of the list of possible candidates. Izzo understands why Amaker’s such a coaching commodity.
“I think Harvard’s lucky to have him because I know there’s been other people beating down his door,” Izzo said. “As you see what he does and what he accomplishes and the way he does it, there’s no question he’s one of the classier guys in college basketball.”
Izzo knew firsthand Amaker’s skill as a recruiter, but he thought Amaker’s ability to connect with people was his gift. Beyond coaching, what Amaker’s players value is their connection with him.
“What I appreciate about Coach Amaker is how much confidence he has in us,” said senior guard Brandyn Curry. “He puts a lot of responsibilities on our shoulders. He expects a lot of us but he has all the confidence in the world in us.”
Seven years can feel like a basketball lifetime, and Amaker downplayed the idea that he’s grown since his Michigan days.
“I’m getting older,” he quipped. “I don’t know how much I’ve grown as a coach, but you get a lot older quickly in this business. I have just been very fortunate, I think, to be with great institutions and then be incredibly lucky to have incredible people to work with in terms of our staff and, obviously, you’ve seen the like of our players.”
“If I’ve grown in any way, shape, or form, I’m very thankful for that. Because I think as we get older you like to think you get a little wiser, and hopefully that’s the case for me, as well.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.