A Candid Discussion with Coach Tommy Amaker – Teach, Lead, Serve: A Playbook For Coaches in a Time of Crisis

On Thursday, March 19, 2021, the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society was fortunate enough to speak with Tommy Amaker, Head Coach of the Harvard Crimson men’s basketball team.  Coach Amaker has an impressive resume.  On top of being an All-American player himself, he coached for the University of Michigan, Seton Hall University, and assisted at Duke University.

Thursday’s discussion focused on (1) using sports as an engagement vehicle for mentoring, expanding horizons, and creating community; and (2) diversity, equity, and inclusion in sports.  Below is a summary of the questions and answers that were discussed.

Q: What role does a collegiate coach play in a student-athletes life, their development, mental health, and then later in life? How can coaches use the time that they have with their student-athletes to (1) get the most out of them on the court/field and (2) simultaneously mentor/develop these young adults to be upstanding members of society?

A:  Coach Tommy Amaker revels in implementing the same strategies as his favorite professor at Duke University — Professor Mike Krzyzewski. Coach Amaker’s statement was no slight to the esteemed faculty at Duke University. Instead, his statement spotlights the importance that Coach K had on his life. Coach Amaker thrives on being a teacher first, with his players’ performance beyond the 94 feet by 50 feet of an NCAA basketball court having the most importance — all characteristics he learned from his nine years as a player and assistant coach under Coach K at Duke.

Q:  How can we use sports to develop and teach a better understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion?

A:  Sport is a microcosm of society, and Coach Amaker believes that the answers to a better community lie in sports. Coach Amaker highlights the team dynamics of basketball and how important it is to get players and coaches from all different races, ethnicities, cultures, religions, incomes, and hometowns to work together to better the team. Coach Amaker believes that Harvard Men’s Basketball games are a great example not only on the court, but also off. Harvard Crimson Men’s Basketball games are considered the most diverse event on the esteemed Cambridge campus. Also, Coach Amaker continues to preach the words of NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, where Abdul-Jabbar told Harvard students to get to know someone who does not look like them. As seen in the diverse staff, coaches, and gameday experience, Coach Amaker believes he has created a culture that is doing just that.

Q:  There are times when coaches can find themselves in a situation where the health, safety, and/or wellbeing of their athletes may be at risk – anything from an unusually hot day on turf to COVID or civil unrest.  How do you suggest coaches manage the difficult decision whether to participate in that type of environment, and how to work with external pressures, such as those from parents, when making that decision? 

A:  Coach Amaker responded that he relies upon professionals to make appropriate decisions about participation in these situations.  His overall objective is to make sure that the athlete feels safe and comfortable voicing concerns and knowing that those concerns are of paramount importance.

Q:  What is the main difference between coaching at schools such as Seton Hall, Michigan and Duke and coaching for an Ivy League school, Harvard? How do values such as – school work v. basketball, expectations of players, expectations of you, work life balance – differ? Did you find you adjusted your coaching style or culture?

A:  Coach cited the main difference between coaching at Harvard, an IVY League School, and other institutions, is scholarship funding. All students at Harvard are given financial-aid based on financial background information. Student-athletes are no different. If a student-athlete’s financial background has a family net income below $65,000, they can receive a full-academic scholarship, just as any other student at Harvard may receive. Aid is even, no matter a student’s status at Harvard. Thus, competing with schools such as Duke or Michigan can be tougher because those schools can provide student-athletes with full-ride athletic scholarships. 

Aside from that, when it comes to recruiting a player, Harvard is not just looking at athletes, they are looking for both top-tier basketball players and top-tier students. Student-athletes have to meet the same academic requirements as other students. Harvard rejects 95% of applicants out of 50,000 or so applications. Harvard admits only around 2,000 students. 

Harvard also makes resources available to all students; whether you are a student-athlete or not, all campus resources are accessible for all students. Student-athletes do not receive special tutors unlike at other schools. Nor do student-athletes receive extra outside resources. Harvard has two paid assistants and one volunteer coach, which again is different than other schools that can have a multitude of staff members. 

So, there is a difference in student-athletes Harvard recruits, the financial compensation an athlete may receive, and the resources sports teams have.

Q:  Youth sports has been described as a broken marketplace where parents have an emotional investment and end up spending excessive amounts of money in pursuit of scholarships.  What is your perspective on the cost of investment into high level travel sports? What would an ideal model of youth sports participation incorporate?

A:  Youth sports have changed a lot over the years. With the growth of travel team programs, we have seen a shift away from community-based teams. There has also been an influx of money from the major apparel companies. The reality is we have to deal with the system we have to the best of our ability. The most important thing we can do for kids in sports is to make sure they are having fun. The best way for kids to become great at a sport is to get them to love the sport and making sure they are having fun is the best to get them to love the sport.

Q:  How has COVID and the inability to recruit in person impacted the recruiting process?  Has the extended dead period for D1 programs been a challenge relative to D2 and D3 recruiting?  What advice would you give prospective student-athletes coming out of COVID?

A:  It’s been a different process.  The program has had to adapt to recruiting in different ways.  In the past, the program relied a lot upon the in-person visits that the athletes would have at the school.  However, this season, all recruiting has been virtual.  Therefore, it has had to rely a lot upon reputation.  Coach Amaker has told athletes to stay strong throughout this entire unprecedented experience and that they will be stronger when it is over.

Q:  Have you seen a change in the way that coaches treated you as a student-athlete versus how you treat your student-athletes now?  Do you think that student-athletes today have a different mentality than you and your teammates did?  How has coaching evolved?  What role has social media played in the interaction between coaches and athletes?

A: Coach Amaker believes it is important to trust in the leaders and let them have a say. Players now have more courage to do and say the things they believe in. With that, you have to let them have input on things like what time to practice, what to eat, etc. But the flip side is knowing how much responsibility to give them as well. The coaches should not have to do all the coaching because the student-athletes police themselves.

Q: Being an All-American athlete at Duke yourself, how did you view being unable to receive compensation off of your own NIL while playing? Furthermore, how do you anticipate that the new NIL regulations will impact Ivy League schools? Do you expect them to have any DEI impact?  Will they potentially impact team cohesion? 

A:  Essentially Coach provided, as a player, he would have liked to be compensated. However, now as a coach, he does not believe players should be paid. He understands that the NIL is different, but is cautious about what comes next after NIL. He cited the revenue sports of women’s basketball, men’s basketball and football. Conversely, what about athletes that play volleyball, soccer, etc. What about those athletes?

In terms of the Ivy League itself, he is unsure how this will play out. At Harvard, he not only has to follow NCAA guidelines, but he also has to follow the Ivy League guidelines. It is going to be difficult to decide if we start paying players who should receive what in terms of the star player versus a bench player. Lines may start to blur when it comes to at what age this will start.

Thanks to Project Play WNY and Medaille College for their collaboration on this special event with Coach Tommy Amaker! Happy March Madness, everyone!

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