As a player at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, Tommy Amaker was called "T-Bird" by his coach because the point guard was sleek and fast like a 1956 Thunderbird. Indeed, Amaker's smooth style and passing prowess would make him a star at Duke University in the mid-80s, where he helped transform a team on the rise to a perennial powerhouse.
Now a head coach, Amaker has helped transform the unlikeliest of teams - the Harvard Crimson - into a dominant Ivy League program. Last year he led the iconic academic institution to its first NCAA tournament in 66 years. Last night, he led the team to its first NCAA tourney win ever as the No. 14 seeded Crimson stunned No. 3 Mexico 68-62 in Salt Lake City.
But Amaker's success hasn't come overnight. The man once known as "T-Bird" has stalled more than a few times on the bumpy road of collegiate coaching.
An assistant coach for his alma mater during the Blue Devils' glory days in the late 80s and early 90s, Amaker became the youngest head coach in Big East history at age 31 when he was hired by Seton Hall in 1997. The Pirates, who had missed the NCAA tournament in the prior two years, immediately returned to the postseason under Amaker, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2000.
But things unraveled the following year. Despite a highly prized recruiting class, Seton Hall finished the 2000-2001 season at 16-15, losing in the first round of the NIT Tournament. Amaker, who had tallied a mediocre 68-55 record in South Orange, N.J., abruptly resigned to take the head coaching job at Michigan. The sudden departure shocked his players and some local sports writers, who say he misled his team.
"It's one thing to lie to the media. Coaches lie to reporters all the time. But Amaker's players deserved a little honesty," wrote Ken Davis of the Hartford Courant.
But Amaker's decision to bolt for Ann Arbor hardly provided an escape from critics. Amaker inherited a team that was still struggling to emerge from the sanctions imposed over the Michigan basketball program booster scandal. Still, Amaker helped the Wolverines win the NIT title the year after the program was banned from participating in the NCAA tournament.
Though Amaker cleaned up the program - and in 2006 led the team to its first national ranking in eight years - he never led Michigan back to the top of the Big Ten, let alone to the Big Dance. He was fired after six seasons.
The following season, another team in turmoil came calling - only this time it wasn't an athletic director from a power conference. Harvard, which was mired in a streak of five straight losing seasons, hired Amaker as head coach in 2007.
Amaker struggled in his first three season but things changed after he, who helped bring buzz - and wins - to Cambridge. After five seasons, Amaker took a program that had won just eight games to a squad that tallied 26 victories - the most in school history.
"We've talked about, from day one, to be an upstart,". "Then, we want to become a contender; then we said we want to be a winner; then we want to be a champion; and we're hopeful that we can maybe one day build a dynasty."
But Amaker couldn't escape scandal - even at a school known for producing Supreme Court justices and Nobel Prize winners. Last summer, the school dropped a bombshell when it disclosed thatafter officials discovered they may have shared answers on a final exam. Several athletes were implicated and soon after the scandal emerged, the teams' co-captains - Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry - withdrew from school.
Casey was the team's leading scorer last season and his departure seemed to doom Harvard's chances of returning to postseason play. But Amaker, who had weathered scandals before, would not let it happen.
"We were very proud of them for accepting the responsibility and we talked about this being an opportunity for our basketball program and our school in general," he said, "how we're going to handle situations, because we're all going to get faced with moments that are going to be very trying."
In stepped freshman point guard Siyani Chambers and Harvard has not missed a beat. After winning their third Ivy League championship under Amaker, the team made history Thursday night by knocking off heavily favored New Mexico in the NCAA tournament.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford, who starred at Indiana and beat Amaker's Duke team in the 1987 regional semifinals, says he's as impressed with Amaker, the coach, as he was the player.
"I've got all the respect in the world for Tommy," Alford said. "He does it the right way."