Amaker, Tommy

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Tommy Amaker


Basketball coach

From the summer league games he played as a child, through his outstanding high school and college basketball careers, Tommy Amaker valued his coaches as mentors and friends. The men who trained and encouraged him on the court inspired him to choose coaching as his career and to devote his energy and talent to teaching young players. Amaker's dedication led him to become the youngest head coach in Big East conference basketball and the first African-American coach at Harvard University. Fiercely independent and generous with his energy, skills, and knowledge, Amaker has navigated the competitive world of college athletics with poise and integrity, earning the esteem of his colleagues and the trust and respect of his athletes.

Harold Tommy Amaker Jr. was born in the northern Virginia town of Falls Church on June 6, 1965, one of two children of Alma Deskins Amaker, a high school English teacher, and Harold T. Amaker, Sr., a career military serviceman. Tommy Amaker began playing basketball in local community centers and under a backyard hoop at his grandparents' house. He soon joined a summer league team, and, by the age of ten, he had already developed teamwork and a remarkable skill at ball handling that caught the eye of Red Jenkins, a basketball coach at the nearby W.T. Woodson High School.

Amaker's friendship with Jenkins prompted him to choose Woodson when he entered high school, and he joined the basketball team as a freshman. At first glance, the new recruit was unimpressive. At 15, Amaker was only five-feet, eight-inches tall and 108 pounds, and his mother had to hem his jersey at the shoulders so that his number did not disappear when he tucked the shirt into his shorts. However, the small freshman was a dynamo on the court, able to dribble and throw equally well with both hands, and willing to play cooperatively with his team. He was also a determined learner who practiced constantly to improve his skills.

Became a Strong Point Guard

Amaker found his strongest position on the team during his first season with the Woodson Cavaliers. The senior who played point guard was injured during a tournament game and Coach Jenkins sent Amaker in as a replacement. The point guard has a central role on a basketball team, controlling the ball and calling offensive plays. Amaker's speed, strength, and dexterity allowed him to step into that position of responsibility with confidence and flair. He would play starting point guard through his entire high school and college basketball careers. Jenkins gave Amaker the nickname "T-Bird" because he was low and fast like a Ford Thunderbird sports car. Even in the early 2000s, Jenkins still claimed that Amaker was the best point guard ever to play in Northern Virginia.

Amaker's skills on the court attracted the interest of several college athletic departments. He received an offer from North Carolina's Davidson College and hoped to get one from the University of Maryland, where his sister Tami attended college. However, while playing in a summer league Amaker met another coach who would influence both his basketball career and his life. Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of the Duke University Blue Devils men's basketball team, had come to watch another player in the Washington, D.C., summer league tournament when his attention was drawn to the dynamic point guard from northern Virginia. According to Mirza Kurspahic in an on-line Connection Newspapers feature, when Krzyzewski was introduced to Amaker's mother, he greeted her with a confident promise: "Your son is going to look great in Duke blue."

As Krzyzewski predicted, Amaker did go to Duke. He was not only persuaded by the excellence of the North Carolina university's athletic department, but by the warmth and respect Coach Krzyzewski showed his players. Amaker played starting point guard for Duke for four years, leading his team to an NCAA championship in 1986 and becoming captain of the team and an All-American athlete in 1987. In 1986, he also won a gold medal in the World Championships as a member of the U.S. team.

Throughout his college career, Amaker maintained relationships of affection and respect with his teammates and his coach, becoming almost like a son to "Coach K." His constant support and instruction to other players caused them to call him the "coach on the floor," and his quiet, serious manner gave authority to his comments and suggestions.

Returned to Duke as Coach

After his graduation from Duke with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1987, Amaker was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics professional basketball team. He stayed with the Sonics only a short time, then joined the minor league Wyoming Wildcatters briefly, before deciding to return to Duke to work toward a graduate degree in business. While earning his MBA, he rejoined the Blue Devils, this time as assistant coach.

Amaker's strong court skills coupled with his quietly authoritative manner and his real affection for his players made him an effective coach. He remained at Duke for nine years, progressing from assistant to associate coach and guiding the team through two NCAA championships and five "Final Four" playoffs. During his career there, the Duke men's team achieved a record of 230 wins and 80 losses.

At a Glance …

Born Harold Tommy Amaker Jr. on June 6, 1965, in Falls Church, Virginia; married Stephanie Pinder, 1992. Education: Duke University, BS, economics, 1987, MBA, 1989.

Career: Duke University, men's basketball team graduate assistant, assistant coach, then associate head coach, 1988-97; Seton Hall University, men's basketball team head coach, 1997-2001; University of Michigan, men's basketball team head coach, 2001-07; Harvard University, men's basketball team head coach, 2007-.

Memberships: USA Basketball, board of directors, 1990-96; USA Basketball, Men's Collegiate Committee and Men's Senior National Committee; National Association of Basketball Coaches; Black Coaches Association.

Awards: Los Angeles Athletic Club, Wooden Defensive Player of the Year, 1983; National Association of Basketball Coaches, Henry Iba Corinthian Award, 1987; New Jersey Basketball Coaches Association, Coach of the Year, 2000; New York Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association; Coach of the Year, 2000; Duke University Athletic Hall of Fame, 2001.

Addresses: Office—Harvard Basketball, 65 North Harvard Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02163.

Colleges and universities constantly seek successful coaches, and Amaker received several job offers while working at Duke. In 1997, he decided to take a job as head coach of the men's basketball team at New Jersey's Seton Hall University. He had begun to feel that he needed to leave Duke to forge an independent career as head coach, and he decided that Seton Hall was the right place to launch that career. He remained at Seton Hall for almost four years, building and improving the team there through the aggressive recruitment of new players and his self-possessed, respectful teaching style. Under Amaker's leadership the Seton Hall Pirates achieved a record of 68 wins and 55 losses.

Amaker's first experience as head coach brought difficulties as well as successes. His job at Seton Hall had made him, at the age of 31, the youngest head coach of a basketball team in the Big East conference. As head coach, he bore most of the public responsibility for the team's successes and failures, and he became the focus of criticism if things went badly for the team. Amaker took on these additional responsibilities with his usual calm assurance, and, as he coached the Pirates through three National Invitation Tournaments and one NCAA tourney, he continued to attract the notice of college athletic departments around the country. In 2001, just after gaining Seton Hall one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, he left the university to take a job as head coach of men's basketball at the University of Michigan.

Rebuilt Respect for Basketball at Michigan

Working at Michigan in 2001 presented special challenges for a head coach. The university was still under the cloud of a recent financial scandal involving illegal gifts to players from wealthy team supporters. The athletic department suffered from league penalties, poor facilities, and weak recruiting practices, and the Michigan Wolverines had not made the NCAA Final Four playoffs since 1993. Amaker went to work to build the team into a national competitor once again. Within a few seasons, he had succeeded in bringing a renewed confidence and respect for basketball at Michigan, making the Wolverines once more the kind of team that could attract good high school recruits. By the 2006 season, the team was ranked 20th in the nation and had played three seasons with 20 wins. They played in three National Invitation Tournaments, winning the NIT in 2004, making Amaker the youngest black coach in the history of basketball to win a national tournament. However, the Wolverines had not earned the right to play in an NCAA tournament, the standard by which many fans and sports writers judge college basketball success. Since Amaker's team did not gain a place in the tournament after six seasons, he was fired as head coach at Michigan in April 2007.

However, other athletic departments sought Amaker's coaching skills, and within days of his firing by Michigan, Harvard University announced that Tommy Amaker would head up their men's basketball team. As coach of the Crimson, Amaker would become the first African-American head coach at the prestigious Massachusetts university since its founding in 1636.

Throughout his career, Amaker has studied the work of other coaches to improve his teaching skills. He has also worked to become a guide, mentor, and father figure to his players, just as his high school and college coaches were to him. He has built a reputation as a serious and devoted teacher who treats both players and referees with polite respect and retains his composure even during stressful moments. During games, referees frequently call technical fouls on coaches who exhibit unsportsmanlike behavior, such as cursing, arguing, or threatening a referee. It says much about Amaker's self-control as a coach that in his nine years as head coach of a university basketball team, he has received only three technical fouls.

In 1992, Amaker married Dr. Stephanie Pinder, a clinical psychologist he met at Duke. Pinder-Amaker has accompanied her husband through his career changes and served on the faculties of both Seton Hall University and the University of Michigan.



Weiss, Dick, True Blue: Mike Krzyzewski's Career at Duke, Sports Publishing, 2005.


Jet, April 7, 1997, p.47; April 16, 2001, p. 51.

Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2000, p.1; December 21, 2006, p. D1.

New York Times, March 12, 2006, p. 8.1; April 14, 2007, p. D5.

Sports Illustrated, February 16, 1998, pp.100-2.

Washingtonian, May 1983, p. 9.


"Amaker Dismissed After Six Seasons As Michigan Coach," ESPN, (July 4, 2007).

"Being Tommy Amaker," Michigan Daily, (July 4, 2007).

"#8, Tommy Amaker, Woodson Basketball, 1983," The Connection Newspapers, (July 4, 2007).

"H. Tommy Amaker," Biography Resource Center, (July 4, 2007).

"Latest from the Ann Arbor News: 2006 profile: Who is Tommy Amaker?,", (July 4, 2007).

"Tommy Amaker Named Men's Basketball Coach at Harvard," Harvard University, (July 4, 2007).


Information for this profile was obtained through an email interview with Tommy Amaker on April 18, 2007.

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