Harvard Basketball Gathers Assists From Knight Capital to Tudor
Harvard University, one victory from reaching the men’s national college tournament for the first time since 1946, can credit basketball-loving alumni with helping to turn around its program.
Harvard will play Princeton University tomorrow for the Ivy League’s automatic berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament. Harvard tied Princeton this season for a share of its first conference title.
“It’s a ‘pinch me’ moment,” said Thomas Mannix, co- captain of the 1980-81 Crimson team and a managing director at Jersey City, New Jersey-based Knight Capital Group Inc. (KCG), the largest trader of U.S. shares by volume. “I’m ecstatic.”
The moment is especially gratifying for Mannix, one of a group of former Harvard players and boosters who took a role in elevating basketball from what he called a “second-class citizen” on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus.
Mannix, 52, was among those who helped woo former University of Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, 45, to Harvard. He and others, including Staples Inc. (SPLS) founder Thomas Stemberg, then led a fund-raising effort to supplement Amaker’s budget for facilities, equipment and recruiting.
The project has paid off like a good investment, according to Carmen Scarpa, a partner at Boston-based private equity firm Tudor Ventures Group LLC and a reserve point guard from the class of 1986.
“We put some money behind a good management team and now we’re seeing the fruits of that,” said Scarpa, 46, who was on the committee that recruited Amaker.
Harvard Nobel Winners
Harvard, whose faculty has won 34 Nobel prizes, has produced more U.S. presidents (eight) than NBA players (four), according to the school. Over the 80 years preceding Amaker’s hiring, the team had 21 winning seasons.
The Crimson’s basketball legacy is primarily in the women’s game, with 11 Ivy League championships. Princeton’s men’s program, meanwhile, has won or shared 26 league titles and reached the national semifinals in 1965.
The Tigers also have produced two members of the Basketball Hall of Fame -- Bill Bradley, who won All- American honors three times before a championship career with the New York Knicks and then three terms in the U.S. Senate, and Pete Carril, a coach who built winning teams with a deliberate offense that used repeated passes to eventually find a player free under the basket.
Princeton’s alumni include Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve; John Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group Inc., and Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc. Princeton has had 12 Nobel prize winners on its faculty. Two U.S. presidents were Princeton graduates, and John F. Kennedy went there before transferring to Harvard. Princeton most recently was in the NCAA tournament in 2004.
Mannix said basketball at Harvard lacked the facilities, equipment and prestige among students and administration that other sports enjoyed.
“Football and hockey are rich in tradition at Harvard, and wealthy alumni support things like crew and squash,” Mannix said. “Basketball players always felt a bit like outsiders.”
That lack of support has changed under Athletic Director Robert Scalise, Mannix said. It began in 2007, during a meeting of the committee responsible for finding a new coach, when Scalise proposed pursuing Amaker, who had just been fired as coach at the University of Michigan after going 109-83 over six seasons.
“We knew at that point Scalise wasn’t going to take a second-rate person,” Mannix said. “He wanted to make this a signature hire.”
When the move succeeded, Scalise then turned to the alumni on the committee, challenging them to raise extra money for the program from other former players and supporters. Stemberg, a 1971 graduate and long-time basketball booster, did the most fund-raising work, Mannix said. Stemberg talked Ballmer into making a “big” donation, Mannix said. He wouldn’t disclose the amount.
Ballmer didn’t respond to a request for comment through Microsoft spokeswoman Jackie Lawrence. Harvard spokesman Tim Williamson said the university doesn’t release information about donors. Stemberg, 62, declined to comment about donors.
“I certainly felt the alumni rally behind me,” Amaker said in an interview. “So, we identified some upgrades that could help or were necessary.”
The fund-raising efforts so far have helped renovate player locker rooms and coaching offices, buy new video equipment and pay for additional recruiting trips. All of that, Scarpa said, has helped attract talented players.
Amaker posted one losing season and a .500 season in his first two years. The last two seasons, his squads have gone 44-13.
Tim Hill, a former point guard from the class of 1999 and now head of short-term interest rate trading at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), said Amaker has not only brought a winning attitude to the court, he also has raised Harvard’s sights when recruiting high school players.
“Harvard had underestimated how many kids out there put a value on balancing basketball with academics,” said Hill, 34. “Amaker is going after good basketball players who happen to be smart, rather than smart guys who happen to play basketball.”
Now the Crimson are one win from college basketball’s so-called March Madness, a 68-team tournament that CBS Corp. (CBS) and Time-Warner Inc. (TWX) agreed last year to pay $11 billion over 14 years to broadcast. Play begins March 15.
Game at Yale
Harvard’s showdown with Princeton will tip off at 4 p.m. tomorrow on the neutral court of Yale University’s Lee Amphitheater in New Haven, Connecticut, and will be shown live on ESPN3.com. The teams split their two meetings this year, with the home side taking each decision.
“What we’ve accomplished already has made a tremendous difference in connecting basketball to so many people at Harvard,” Amaker said. “Making the NCAA tournament would be another attention grabber.”
To Mannix, the best part of this year’s success is the likelihood that more will follow. There are no seniors and just three juniors on the 14-man roster.
“This is all happening probably a year earlier than most of us thought it would,” he said. “Tommy Amaker doesn’t have to win the Ivy League every year, but if we’re always good, he’s going to have a group of happy people here.”
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