When researching the origins of Harvard’s basketball program, you’ll quickly find that its founding and early history are not nearly as significant to the story as Harvard’s recent saga. A lot of Crimson fans like to ignore the first 112 years of losses and mediocrity, and instead focus on the lead-up to Harvard men’s basketball’s first-ever Ivy League championship win on March 5, 2011. The defeat over Princeton was the biggest day in Crimson basketball history, on the back of their now-highly-renowned coach, Tommy Amaker.
So, how did Harvard’s basketball program begin, and how did it transform from unending losing streaks to a top-ranked program?
Harvard Basketball Basics
Harvard’s basketball teams compete in the Ivy League sector of Division I in the NCAA. They play home games at the Lavietes Pavilion in Boston, Massachusetts, and they’re currently coached by Tommy Amaker. You can find the Harvard basketball schedule here.
Early Days of Harvard Basketball
Basketball came to Harvard in 1900. John Kirkland Clark graduated in 1899 from Yale, where he had captained the basketball team his senior year. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he launched and captained the first Crimson basketball program. Their first season was a success, with an 11-8 record, and they had two more double-figure winning seasons the rest of the decade.
Basketball lasted for nine years at Harvard before the program was stopped from 1909 to 1920. The physical training department pushed to bring basketball back in 1920, bringing in Edward Wachter to rebuild the program. Wachter was considered “the Dean of U.S. basketball shooters,” and he ushered the Crimson squad to nine winning seasons in a 10-year period. It seemed like Harvard basketball could be destined for greatness.
Harvard Basketball Enters the NCAA Tournament
Harvard earned a spot in the NCAA tournament with the 1945-46 season, which a lot of people consider to be Harvard’s finest team in history. Floyd S. Stahl was the coach, and the captain, Wyndol Gray, went on to play for the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks in the NBA. The 1945-46 team had just one loss, and closed the season with a 39-37 triumph over Yale. This fondly-remembered season held the school record for wins in a season until 2009-10.
Can basketball players keep their jersey numbers from college if they go pro? Check out these pro athletes that kept their college numbers to learn more.
The Turnaround of Harvard
Flash back to five years before Harvard’s first championship: Harvard men’s basketball was defeated on the final night of the 2006-07 regular season, dropping the ninth conference game. The team ended the season with a 12-16 record, marking their fifth-straight losing season. Frank Sullivan, the head coach at that time, had a losing record for 15 conference seasons of his 16-year reign.
Harvard was sick of losing, and even sicker of never having won a basketball championship. Although Crimson were excelling in other sports, they were the only team in the Ancient Eight that had never won a basketball championship.
There were great players on the team, but they weren’t seeing the successes they were capable of. It was time to make a change.
Check out this Dartmouth opinion piece about the Ancient Eight basketball.
Harvard Basketball Snatches Tommy Amaker
Two days after that 2007 loss, Frank Sullivan was let go. At the same time, University of Michigan’s men’s basketball team was also facing a disappointing record under Tommy Amaker. At the “end of an ugly season,” Michigan let Amaker go because he’d never reached an NCAA tournament.
Robert L. Scalise, the Athletic Director at Harvard, had visions of success—and he was eager to find the right coach for the job. He sought a financial commitment to make Harvard’s offer competitive with other Ivy League programs, since they had formerly been paying Frank Sullivan a below-average coaching salary for the league level. However, there was a practice that no Harvard coach can make more than a University Professor, so a salary cap was unavoidable.
After garnering significant support for finding a reputable coach, Harvard sifted through a number of candidates until Amaker soon became the frontrunner. He came from a top-notch program, and held a strong image and name-recognition. They especially loved his passion for the game and his level of integrity and talent. The team loved his vision for the future and the players were eager to work with him.
On April 9, 2007, Amaker was offered the coaching job for the Crimson. Two days later, he signed a five-year contract. Amaker quickly decided to work on recruiting, renovate the locker room (for a greater home-court advantage), and raise money for the team through meet-and-greets across the country. He jumped right in and created a beautiful relationship between the team and the alumni that would shape the team’s resources moving forward.
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Amaker’s first few years were met with controversy. The team still had a losing streak, and the program was accused of recruiting violations. This was later cleared up, but the incident created much-stricter recruiting limitations for the 2010-11 season.
Still, Amaker had always been a strong recruiter of college-bound athletes, and his first round of recruits became major contributors to the Crimson team. This included Wright, Keny, McNally, and Van Nest, which became the first class to be ranked in the top 25 in the nation by ESPN. Finally, the Harvard basketball players were receiving some recognition.
Time to Win
In the 2009-2010 season, Amaker’s third season, Harvard saw a 21-8 overall record; winning was coming back to Cambridge.
This set them up for the 2010-11 season, where Harvard broke the Harvard school record by winning 23 games. They earned their first Ivy title and played their first playoff game. Keith Wright from Harvard was awarded the Ancient Eight Player of the Year. It was the first time Crimson earned their spot in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). This marked a huge success for Harvard men’s basketball.
They continued to see success in the 2011-12 season, this time beating their own record with 26 wins. The team earned its second Ivy Title, earned its first NCAA tournament berth (aka “March Madness”) since 1946, and won the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. It also earned its first ever Top-25 ranking.
Ongoing Success for Harvard Men’s Basketball
Harvard saw success again in 2012-13, with a third-consecutive Ivy crown and 20 wins for the fourth-straight season. It also earned its second-straight NCAA tournament bid, and freshman Siyani Chambers was the unanimous selection as Ivy Rookie of the Year. In 2013-14, Harvard reached the NCAA tournament’s Round of 32 for the second year, after winning their fifth-straight conference crown.
Harvard men’s basketball has continued to dominate the Ancient Eight in recent years. From 2010-2015, the Crimson matched the Ivy League record with six consecutive 20-win campaigns. They also received five-straight Ivy titles and four consecutive years reaching the NCAA tournament.
Since 2015, the team hasn’t seen the same levels of success as they did during those first few years of the decade, but they did go to the National Invitation Tournament in the first and second round in 2019. Amaker is still leading Harvard to victory, finding his 250th win at Harvard last March 2020.
Harvard Women’s Basketball
Although Harvard women’s basketball doesn’t receive the same sort of notoriety as men’s, the program has seen just as much (if not more) success. The Harvard women’s basketball team has won the Ivy League eleven times, four shared and seven outright. Their success started in 1986 (long before men’s) and has continued to 2008. In a significant feat, the Harvard women’s basketball team has reached the NCAA Tournament six times from 1996 to 2007.
Curious what Harvard women’s basketball will continue to look like moving forward? We love this piece from The Harvard Crimson: A Fresh But Uncertain Future: 2019-20 Harvard Women’s Basketball Preview.
Harvard’s women’s basketball team is a powerhouse in its own right. Although this article was about the founding of the men’s team, we’ll be circling back to talk about the incredible athletes on the women’s team who have been working diligently to bring a name to The Crimson.
Are you a Harvard basketball fan? Get all your NCAA-licensed Crimson gear here for another exciting season of Harvard basketball!