- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

At best, Tommy Amaker’s tenure at Michigan has inspired ambivalence. At worst, outright angst.

Ask any Michigan basketball fan or read any column on the Wolverines and you’re likely to receive some version of the following sentiment regarding the team’s sixth-year coach: superb person, excellent recruiter, unacceptable record.

In today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture, college coaching is an often-cruel, bottom-line business — particularly at a major-conference school like Michigan. Fact is, the Wolverines haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1998, a staggering streak of futility Amaker hasn’t been able to reverse since taking over for Brian Ellerbe before the 2001-02 season.

“Amaker has been sitting on the stove longer than any coach in America,” said Bob McClellan of Rivals.com after listing Amaker as his coach on the hot seat in his Big Ten preview.

The prevailing notion holds that Amaker’s team must make the NCAA tournament this season in order for the 41-year-old coach to keep his job. Today, Amaker’s 12-2 Michigan team takes on Georgetown (9-3) at Crisler Arena.

It wasn’t so long ago that Amaker was regarded as one of the profession’s brightest young stars. After his playing career at Duke, the Falls Church native joined Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski’s staff before coaching at Seton Hall from 1997 to 2001. Amaker led the Pirates to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2000 and one season later lured the nation’s top recruiting class to South Orange.

After four seasons at Seton Hall (68-55), Amaker became the Wolverines’ coach in March 2001.

Despite the exemplary standard of the overall athletic department in Ann Arbor, the team Amaker inherited was in shambles. In 2003, the NCAA sentenced Michigan’s basketball program to four years of probation, a two-year postseason ban and cut one scholarship a year through the 2007-08 season after determining that Detroit bookmaker and Michigan booster Ed Martin had loaned more than $600,000 to players Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock between 1992 and 1999.

The NCAA also ordered Michigan to vacate the records from two Final Four appearances (1992 and 1993) and four other entire seasons (1995 through 1999).

“Obviously, I think you have to consider the circumstances when you evaluate the job Tommy has done at Michigan,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played with Amaker at Duke. “When he arrived in Ann Arbor, that program was in the toilet. It honestly could not have been any worse. In spite of the sanctions, he’s led them to an NIT title [2004], an NIT final [2006], and if not for injuries the last two seasons, they would have made a couple of trips to the NCAAs.

“Does he need to win this season? Sure, everybody does. But the notion that he can’t coach is ludicrous. He’s an outstanding coach who inherited a really bad program, and he’s turned it in to a really good, clean program. If Michigan really wants to go back to the good old days, all they have to do is take a look at all those asterisks in their yearbook.”

Entering the season, Amaker had a record of 87-70 at Michigan, a mark that translates to 17 wins a season. Despite the sanctions, it’s not as if Amaker hasn’t had his share of talent. His first five years were defined by blue-chip recruits like LaVell Blanchard, Bernard Robinson Jr. and Daniel Horton.

His current roster includes a pair of Mr. Basketballs from Michigan (senior guard Dion Harris and freshman forward DeShawn Sims), as well as highly touted senior big man Courtney Sims, who leads the team in scoring (14.4 points) and rebounding (6.8).

Few of Amaker’s critics have been impressed by Michigan’s somewhat misleading record, which is largely the result of a soft nonconference schedule that was ranked 325th by Jeff Sagarin before last weekend’s trip to top-ranked UCLA. The Bruins humiliated the Wolverines 92-55 with Amaker saying afterward: “We didn’t play as capably as I thought we could.”

However, after Thursday’s 62-50 victory over Army, in which Amaker benched his entire starting lineup, the Hoyas probably should expect a more focused effort from the Wolverines.

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