One on one with Tommy Amaker

He was one of Coach K’s top backcourt players in the early days of Krzyzewski’s tenure at Duke. Soon after, Tommy Amaker would embark on a successful trip into the coaching world. He’s now the head coach at Harvard and has taken the Crimson program to unexpected heights. We spoke with him about his time at Duke, the journey to his current position, and much more in our latest alumni interview.

Thanks for making the time for this interview series Coach Amaker, we appreciate you being a part of this.

Tommy Amaker: Absolutely, thanks for inviting me on. I’m glad I can be a part of this.

To start I wanted to ask about your current team at Harvard, what is the approach to the upcoming season and how far it’s come?

Well as you can imagine we’re really thrilled with the growth of our program. We have been amazed at the quality of the kids that we’ve been able to attract here and how well they have been able to perform in every way. It’s been fun to see how things have gone and overall it’s been a fun and cool journey to be a part of. We certainly attribute that to the talent and character of the kids we’ve been able to attract here with the way they have desired to play and contribute to this school and we’re looking for that to continue.

It was a different year and different pieces to the puzzle for sure because they are a year older, but we’re working on it especially since we lose a lot from this past year’s team. The group of seniors that made an historic run their four years here but they leave a lot of holes we have to fill in many, many different ways. That includes leadership to experience to talent to size, but that makes it pretty fun to see how things will go forward. It’ll be a different team, exciting to watch I think because we have a little bit more shooting in this class than we had in the past.

We’re hopeful that some of those perimeter players can add that to our program which we missed this past year because we struggled to score a little bit. With this class there’s a couple guys who are shooters that we think can help us from beyond the arc and we’re excited about that. Then we also have some young post players who are finding their way and they are developing a little bit here and there. We’re excited to hopefully see them some more out on the court and hopefully that will pay dividends for our program.

How would you describe what your philosophy and approach has been to recruiting and building your roster at Harvard since you got there?

You know what, it’s very similar to what we were a part of and taught at Duke. We’re trying to attract the best player, the best kid and the best student. It’s pretty simple. That’s what we tried to do at Duke and working for Coach K with bringing in players. We were very fortunate and lucky to bring in an amazing group of guys that wanted to be a part of that program and now we’re trying to emulate that here at Harvard. It’s nothing complicated but bringing in the best player, the best kid and the best student.

Whatever way you want to capture those three categories in terms of what’s first and what’s second and what’s third or whatever, but we want all three and we’ve been able to find kids that meet that profile and are interested in finding their way to Harvard. That’s what’s helped us to be who we are and that’s how we’re building what we do on defense with the same way that we did it at Duke, we’ve built our program here around our defense and our institution.

How much did your coaching experience at Duke help form how you coach the game at Harvard?

It’s everything. I’m a product of Duke and Coach K and certainly it starts and ends with our defense, just like at Duke. We find that to be the same way that things have worked well for us and we’ve built our program on that. Again, we’ve built our program on our defense and our institution and that’s certainly how Coach K has done it at Duke, we’re doing it around defense and Harvard.

What’ are your thoughts on seeing both fellow former teammates and coaches coaching all around the professional and collegiate ranks?

Yeah, one is you feel old, haha. That’s the first thing and it’s true, I am a bit older now. You are filled though with an enormous amount of pride because you recognize the quality of your former teammates and the quality of the guys that you helped recruited and coached. You knew then and it’s just confirmed now even though it was confirmed and known a long time ago that they are all top level quality people, teachers of the game who were fortunate to learn from the very best with Coach K.

Speaking of coaches, I heard that Coach Brey and you used to be roommates when the team was on the road… Can you confirm that and can I also ask what your thoughts are on seeing him take Notre Dame into the ACC now and competing?

Yeah that’s exactly right, he was. I’m so happy and proud for Mike and for Notre Dame with what he’s been able to achieve there at Notre Dame. I think he’s an ideal fit for that institution, that was a match made in Heaven. He’s been tremendous in every way and he’s been a great friend and what he’s done with the Fighting Irish is just great. You are right that our friendship goes way back with being assistants together to do our part there and not mess anything up. That was our motto back then, just don’t screw it up. We were guys who were very hopeful for opportunities that we’ve been able to receive and while I can’t speak for him, he probably would say like I do that we both have been very lucky. We know how fragile this business is, it’s hard, but what he’s done with his system is just extraordinary and I’m proud to be a great friend of Mike Brey and hopefully I’ve been able to learn from him and hopefully he’s been able to learn at least one thing from me. We are friends and certainly we were roommates way back and were able to have great conversations about the game of basketball and our hopeful and potential futures with coaching and other things you tinker around with when you spend a lot of time with each other.

You got your coaching start at Duke as a grad assistant and then were promoted to becoming a full time assistant coach. What do you remember about your goals as you were making that transition?

Yeah I think first of all, one I know was, I was very proud and recognized how fortunate I was to even have the opportunity. I think that’s the first thing. Secondly, I always remember that I didn’t want to screw up what was, by that point, a well-oiled machine. Certainly being a former player there, there’s a certain level of comfort and confidence that you have and most importantly, belief in the institution and the program and ultimately the head coach with Coach K. I really felt great about that because I believed in it because I was a product of it and so I could, no one could tell me more about what Duke Basketball means and certainly what it means to me and the impact it’s had on my life.

So many things that are genuine and real and sincere, it was blood, sweat and tears as they would say and I left it there. That was a big part of my journey and so being an assistant coach there, I had the opportunity to impart that through your teaching and through your recruiting and coaching the current student athletes. I think anybody that was around me during my time there, they knew it was for real, it was a part of my DNA. There’s a lot to say to that just in life with any organization, people have experiences from ground zero.

That transition was very natural for me, and the other thing was I felt I was surprised, but I felt very good about the teaching part of it as well. I come from a family of teachers, my mother taught, so many members of my family have been school teachers and that’s been a part of my wiring as well. I didn’t understand that then like I do now, but it became natural to me to be thought of as a teacher while I was there, and that’s something I was very proud of even to this day, that’s one of the most important things that matters to me is to be thought of as a teacher and a leader, more so than even coaching. That was certainly the beginning of it for me in a very formal sense and so the transition was there just like any other coach, so you are learning  and the thing that Coach K enjoys about his former players in that role is that he wants you to learn from him and from the other staff members. I think he recognizes that is a good thing and having younger staff members who are still able to impart their lessons learned as a young student athlete and now as a coach, those are positive things in the transition to learn from him on what goes into running an organization, what goes into building and running a program and so many things behind the scenes that you have no idea about when you first get into coaching is how thorough and deep it actually goes and you recognize how lucky you when you recruit and coach guys like Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill and Kenny Blakeney and the list goes on and on and on with the list of individuals who said they wanted to be a part of what we were doing there.

To follow up on the end of your response, what was it like for being involved in the day to day recruiting of building those classes with those players you mentioned and many others that ended up taking Duke Basketball to such incredible success?

Yeah all of them whether it was Collins or Wojo and to Nate James who is on the bench now, so being a part of that during that time, you are just grinding and trying to attract like I mentioned before, the best player, the best person and the best student and those guys were. You are just trying to put together classes of players that fit our program and our institution and fits the style that Coach wants to play and certainly have enough talent to stay at the highest level, that’s the way basketball has always been.

It was fun but it was also nerve-wracking because of how small the group of guys were that we were recruiting and that’s still probably the way he does it now. The list was always short, but he always honed in on the ones that he wanted and truly believed in and we didn’t have a lot of backup plans or plan Bs or depth charts, we were all in with the guys that we really wanted and we did that under the direction of Coach K because that’s what he believes in and that’s why he’s been so great at attracting those special guys that built that special relationship and connection with him and the staff.

Our job as assistants with that effort, we would do a lot of leg work and gather information. Times were different then, there weren’t cell phones and websites and stuff of that nature, it was the day that you picked up the phone and you hustled in that regard and people hustle in different ways now, but that was the way you were really trying to paint the picture by gathering information of who these kids and families were and we just tried to set the table for Coach K. Our job was to give him accurate and updated information and then he would take it and determine which way we needed to go, how we were going to close on a certain kid or what the strategy was. My job I always felt was he needed to have accurate and updated information and that was our job and we certainly took pride in doing that.

Were there certain players that you helped bring in that you kinda consider “your guys” because of the effort you put in to help lead them to Duke?

Well you know that’s one of the things that’s always the beauty, all of those guys are Coach K guys. The beauty of the way we did things and I’m assuming it’s still done the same way now is that everyone was a part of it. It was never like this is my guy or I’m recruiting this kid, it was always we are recruiting these guys to come to Duke because we knew that these kids were coming to play because of Coach K and Duke Basketball. We never felt like it was taking a player year or a player there and getting wrapped up in that each year, it was all of us including support staff, managers, everyone took ownership and it certainly led to a sense of appreciation as a whole when things went our way. It was never this is “my guy”, they are going to come because it’s Duke and it’s Coach K and it’s Duke Basketball that they want to be a part of and we all had a hand in hopefully helping it along the way.

You won two National Championships and two other Final Four’s during your coaching career at Duke—do you have any memorable memories for you personally from those runs?

You know it was a magical period of time having been a former player and knowing that you were a part of the program becoming great and then getting even better. It’s kinda like when you start with a business, we were a part of it when it was in its infancy and then we were a part of it as a staff member and assistant coach and to see it going to an even different level, it was an amazing seat to see it from. We had so many amazing games that set the tone for those seasons and setbacks that we learned from and moments of sheer joy. The practices, the process that goes into becoming great and some of those teams from that era, it was as good as any, certainly at Duke and even in general with college basketball. You just look back and recognize how lucky and fortunate you were to be a part of it and you kinda exhale and know that you didn’t screw it up, haha.

Switching gears to your playing career—what do you remember about the recruiting process and what led you to decide to become a Duke student athlete?

Being from the Washington area and being coached by a great high school coach and playing on some great high school teams, I was fortunate to have some guidance and tutelage along the way. I knew that I wanted to play for a coach that I believed in and that I would have a special relationship with if that were possible. I was able to develop that with Coach K and that was as big as any piece of the puzzle for me. The institution itself and just how amazing a place it is on its own, I couldn’t really ask for much more to have the opportunity to attend one of the greatest university’s in the country.

The timing was great too for me to have an opportunity to play with a guy that I had known for years and years before with Johnny Dawkins who was from the same area. Just to see the vision for it going and taking off and being a part of was very attractive to me as a high school player trying to make a decision. Ultimately, it was the thought that I was playing for someone that I absolutely fell in love with and someone that I believed in and that was Coach K?

You came in as a freshman when Johnny Dawkins was just a sophomore—what do you remember about the adaptation process for you as you shared a backcourt with him for three years?

Yeah it was wonderful to play with him and he was as dynamic and good as anybody in college basketball. I loved it and I loved being there with him and more than anything, I loved playing with him. I loved seeing him become the all-time leading scorer of Duke Basketball during that time and to see his number get retired and be his backcourt partner, it was just wow and I loved every second of that because I knew how terrific a player he was, he was just an explosive scorer and I loved being a point guard for Duke next to him. I rode him because you talk about the swagger that he played with and you talk about the three guys during the ACC during that time, there were many really good players in the ACC during that time, but Johnny Dawkins and Len Bias and Michael Jordan  were the three guys that just stood above during that time. Even if you didn’t root for those other teams, those three guys were just guys that you just wanted to see play because of how dynamic they were and it’s evident by the great things that they were able to do.

Speaking of records—you set Duke records for assists and steals and you also were the inaugural winner of the NABC Defensive Player of the Year while at Duke. What components of your game helped you set those records?

Well, playing with Dawkins—you are going to have some assists, haha. That part and not just Johnny  but also with Mark Alarie and Henderson and Bilas, those guys were good and as a young guy coming in when Danny Ferry came in, he ended up being one of the best players of all time at Duke during his time, so I played with some great players and being a point guard and recognizing that kind of talent was part of my job.

Again, I was fortunate to have been around during that time and being the point guard for that program. You talk about a time that was very meaningful to me and had a great deal of fun and I always look back on those times with incredibly fond memories.

We’ve spoken about transitions in your career during this interview with going to Duke and then shifting to coaching at Duke and I noticed your first head coaching opportunity came right before the Shane Battier, Will Avery, Chris Burgess and Elton Brand class came in—what do you remember about being involved in recruiting those players and then taking your first head coaching opportunity before they played at Duke?

Yeah, not a smart decision, eh, haha. We were all involved in those recruitments but as I got older and I saw the opportunities coming my way, you were certainly excited about the opportunity to take a head coaching position and to pursue those opportunities and at least consider them. I was fortunate to have those a few times during my time at Duke and we just decided to do that.

You think you are ready but I’ll tell you what, it’s a very interesting dynamic to start over and moving over as a head coach for the first time at a place that’s not Duke and that’s OK, you just didn’t have infrastructure and things that Coach K had built for a long time. For me it was great to start that process and you recognize how lucky you are to have people who want you to lead at their place and to be a teacher and leader at their place and I was fortunate to do that at Seton Hall.

What sparked the desire for you do you think of wanting to transition from being an assistant coach to a head coach and then actually seriously considering the offers?

Watching how Coach K led Duke Basketball was the ultimate for me to try and emulate with how he teaches and how he leads and especially how he serves his team, his family, his former players, his institution. It’s very inspiring to see him lead in that regard, so I thought then that maybe one day I would be able to do something like that and I would ask myself, “what’s better than teaching, leading and serving” and doing that on a college campus. So for the reason that he does it is to enrich the lives of those that he’s around and to empower them to go and be who they can become in their own system, it’s a really neat thing and to see him do that, to have an up close and personal seat to that and to be a product of that, it inspired me as well to hopefully one day do something like that myself and to be a part of something that like at another place in a way like he’s doing it as a teacher, as a leader and as a servant.

I’m sure the relationship with Coach K has evolved over time so I was hoping to hear from your perspective how you have seen your relationship over time change with him, and what was it like for you seeing him hit 1000 wins knowing that you were a part of a good portion of them as a player and a coach?

He’s gotten over 1000 and he broke the record before that, and then he broke the 1000 win plateau, so what I did each time was call him, text him, send a message via video tribute or something like that as the list kept growing. I will always say that I wish I had been a better player and a better coach when I do that because he would have gotten there a lot sooner than he did if I were better for him as a player and as an assistant coach. I always would tease him about that and it was funny when it happened, but there was also a belief in that because that’s how great he is and that’s how proud I am to have been a part of that great run and that I was a small part of that journey with him. It’s not easy, it’s an amazing journey he’s been on and we have all been very lucky and very fortunate to be with him and to also be lucky and fortunate to be with others because it’s been truly special.

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