Monday, March 3, 2008

A New Era at Harvard?

While the NY Times is still reeling from the 'should-have-published / shouldn't-have-published' story about Senator John McCain's close, um, ties, to lobbyists on behalf of Paxon Communications, another controversial bombshell was printed this weekend, but in the sports section.

Less than a year after being named the Harvard basketball coach, the Times story details a series of aggressive recruiting tactics that appear destined to upgrade the talent level in Cambridge.

The Ivy League holds itself to a higher standard than the NCAA for athletic recruiting; its "Academic Index" or AI, has been the standard by which athletes have been measured for years.
For example, a student with a 3.1 grade-point average and just over 1,560 out of a possible 2,400 on the SAT would register roughly a 171 on the Academic Index, the minimum score allowed by the Ivy League for athletes.
(For more on AI and Ivy League recruiting generally, see The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, by (former Princeton president) Bill Bowen and James L. Shulman, or Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League, by Chris Lincoln.)

Harvard, for years has had standards at the high end of the scale, even with the Ivy League, as detailed in the Times article. In short, the previous assistant coaches were working from the expectation that the team -- as a whole -- had to average 202, and that kids below about 195 were, basically inadmissible. The Times indicates that the average for Harvard going forward will be significantly lower, and that at least one potential recruit has not yet met the minimum threshold (171) to allow admittance at all.

But somewhat like the McCain story -- where the implication of an inappropriate romantic relationship overshadowed the more substantive John-McCain-can- be-influenced-by-lobbyists angle -- the more explosive element of the Harvard article is the citing of two specific (potential) NCAA recruiting violations.

First, one of Harvard's assistants (possibly before he officially accepted his position in Cambridge) played basketball last summer with two of the kids that Harvard ended up recruiting, and in one instance drove approximately 200 miles to play.

Second, Harvard coach Amaker himself 'bumped' (to use the recruiting parlance) one recruits' parents in a grocery store approximately 280 miles away from Cambridge. (The recruit ended up committing to Penn, which is undoubtedly how the story became public.)

While Amaker and his staff may be making great efforts to upgrade the level of talent that will be play in Cambridge in the next four years, it is far from clear that Amaker can harness such talent into a winning team. Just ask fans from Seton Hall or Michigan.

But ironically, the rap (at least according to the Times' own story when he was hired) on Tommy Amaker at Michigan was that he was "too principled to run a major college program."

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