Is Harvard Basketball the New Duke?
The NCAA men's basketball tournament tips off tomorrow, so we'd better hurry up and answer the question that's on everyone's mind: Should I root for -- or against -- Harvard?
On one hand, Harvard is an underdog. It may have dominated the Ivy League, losing only once (to Yale), but it enters the tournament seeded 12th in its region, and will play its first game against a 5th seed, Cincinnati. On the other hand, Harvard is Harvard.
We'll return to our dilemma in a moment. First, a little background. This is Harvard's fourth straight Ivy League championship, and its third straight appearance in the NCAA tournament. It's premature to call Harvard a college hoops juggernaut -- it has won just one game in those two previous March Madness appearances -- but it's getting there.
Harvard may not have the benefit of athletic scholarships, which are prohibited in the Ivy League, but it does have gobs of money that can be used to underwrite need-based financial aid packages for athletes from unprivileged and middle-income backgrounds. It has been landing top recruits for several years now, if necessary steering them toward a post-graduate year of prep school -- Northfield Mount Hermon is the school of choice -- for a little transcript-burnishing.
For colleges such as Stephen F. Austin or Mercer or North Dakota State, a few of this year's potential Cinderellas, you can understand the appeal of having a top-flight basketball program. You might even be able to quantify it. Butler did, calculating (somehow) that its improbable run to the 2010 Final Four translated into $639,273,881.82 in publicity for the university. And that didn't include increases in merchandise sales or donations, or the 41 percent surge in applications.
Harvard doesn't need the publicity, and it has never had any trouble selling branded merchandise. (The Harvard sweatshirt is the perfect aspirational product: It's affordable, but it also says HARVARD!) The school received a record 35,023 applications last year for 2,029 spots; does it really want more? As for donations, Harvard already has an endowment of $30 billion, the largest in the country.
None of this has stopped Harvard from overhauling its basketball program. Harvard has the power and money to do pretty much anything it wants, and it has apparently decided that it wants to become a basketball powerhouse.
That's Harvard's prerogative. And why not? College basketball is entertaining, and it helps build school spirit. But what we don't need is another Duke, or worse yet, a Duke on steroids, which is what Harvard could very easily become.
The foundational myth is already being written. In a recent interview with SB Nation, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker -- a Duke grad -- recalled a pivotal conversation he had had with Clifford Alexander (Harvard, '55) when Amaker was debating whether to take the Harvard job: "He said, 'I'm standing out on a balcony on vacation, and I just had to call you and tell you that you have to do this. This is bigger than basketball. This is Harvard.'"
Here's how Alexander retold the story, according to SB Nation:
"What I hoped to convey," says Alexander, who noted that Amaker had more lucrative opportunities, "was that ... the life of basketball is not the entirety of any man or woman's being and that fulfillment for somebody like Tommy would mean that he would want to be able to contribute to the institution that he is a part of and that the institution he is a part of could contribute to him.
On second thought, maybe a Duke on steroids is exactly what we do need. It's so much fun to hate Duke because of the school's absurdly inflated opinion of itself. But imagine how much more fun it would be if Coach K were preaching about the Harvard Way! A juggernaut Harvard team would do so much for college hoops fans. THAT would be a team worth hating.
So there's your answer: Root for Harvard now, so that you can root against them later.
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(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)
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