CAMBRIDGE, MASS. (AP) - When Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker would meet with recruits, he talked to them about the doors they could open with a degree from the nation’s most prestigious university: Nobel Prize winner, president of the United States, and even NBA star.
It was a tough sell.
“It’s always been somewhat of a barrier in the Ivy League: Can they see themselves becoming a professional player,” Amaker said this month before watching New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, Harvard class of 2010, visit Boston to play the Celtics. “There’s not a bigger example of that now, in the country and in the world, than seeing what this kid is doing on the grand stage of professional basketball.
“And it couldn’t be better for us.”
Boston College gave birth to the Flutie Effect in the 1980s, when applications for the freshman class jumped 30 percent in the two years after Doug Flutie threw a Hail Mary to beat Miami, the defending national champion, and win the 1984 Heisman Trophy. The theory: A school’s athletic success could create positive publicity that lifts the academic side as well.
But now it’s that brainy school across the river that’s spilled onto the sports pages, led by last month’s Linsanity and followed by an Ivy League title that gave Harvard its first NCAA tournament berth since 1946.
Could there be a Lin Effect for Harvard, which according to the popular U.S. News and World Report rankings is already the No. 1 university in the nation and never in its 375-year history a victim of insufficient attention?
“We anticipate that the prominence of Jeremy all over the world is certainly going to have an effect,” said Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, who also attended the Knicks game at the TD Garden. “We like to underscore that excellence comes from high aspiration and talent and commitment, and we like to support that across the board. And we’re delighted to see it happen in athletics.”
In a 2008 paper examining the Flutie Effect by BYU economics professor Jaren Pope and his brother Devin, a professor at the University of Chicago business school, success in football or men’s basketball was shown to increase applications anywhere from 1 percent for reaching the NCAA tournament field to an average of 8 percent for winning it all.
Other research has shown similar bumps: One at George Mason showed that the SAT scores of incoming freshman there went up 25 points, applications increased 22 percent and fundraising and attendance received a boost in the years after the school’s 2006 run to the Final Four. Butler reported a 41 percent increase in applications after reaching the national basketball championship game in 2010; it made it back last year, losing both times.
“Harvard is different than Butler, certainly,” Jaren Pope said in a telephone interview. “It’s well-renowned for its academic prowess. That’s probably their advantage: touting their academics rather than their athletics. Nonetheless, sports can provide publicity that academics can’t.
“Football and basketball act like the front porch of the university. Students like to have sports as the basis of conversation. I think that would be attractive even to students who want to go to Harvard.”
The oldest and richest university in the United States, Harvard boasts 44 Nobel Laureates on the faculty, an endowment of around $32 billion and five U.S. presidents among its undergraduate alumni; George W. Bush, who went to the business school, and Barack Obama, who went to Harvard Law, make it seven.
And while more than a few Harvard athletes have made it big _ including current Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a handful of NHL players and a dozen or so Olympic gold medalists _ success in basketball has been rare. Harvard’s last NCAA tournament berth was during the Truman administration; the Crimson went almost 50 years without an Ivy League basketball title, and it’s never had an NBA star.
Lin, who was not offered a scholarship out of high school and was not drafted out of college, seemed to be the latest in the ignominious line of Harvard hoopsters when he was cut by the Golden State Warriors, cut by the Houston Rockets and nearly cut again by the Knicks before he scored 25 points in a Feb. 4 game against the New Jersey Nets.