UPDATED: May 19, 2015, at 2:43 a.m.
This is part II in a two-part series about the geography of Harvard athletic recruiting. Part I ran on May 6.
This year, Harvard’s football and men’s basketball teams shared more than just championships in common.
Both teams won Ivy championships late in the season with rousing victories over rival Yale, sealed in the last minute by plays from two of their biggest seniors: Steve Moundou-Missi on the court and Zach Hodges on the gridiron. Both also have shared the bulk of the Athletic Department’s national media attention, which has only intensified as Hodges—a recent free agent signee with the Indianapolis Colts—and senior wing Wesley Saunders prepare to pursue their sports at the professional level.
The growth in attention is largely a byproduct of the work that the teams’ coaches—football’s Tim Murphy and men’s basketball’s Tommy Amaker—have done rebuilding their respective programs into national powers. According to data taken directly from rosters listed on the Harvard Athletics Department website dating back to the 1970-1971 season, the two teams currently recruit nationally in a way they haven’t in nearly half a century.
Amaker has already recruited more athletes from Texas in seven years than his predecessors did in nearly 40, and while Massachusetts natives comprised just over a quarter of the football team for the 24 years before Murphy arrived, they made up just 10 percent of the 2014-2015 squad.
“When I was at the University of Cincinnati, you go into a lot of the same high schools, and it was somewhat more regional recruiting,” Murphy said. “We got here, and I think having so many Eastern Mass. kids was both a strength and a weakness. I felt for us to reach our potential, we had to go with a much more national approach to our recruiting.”
Will Wade, a former assistant coach for the men’s basketball squad, told The Crimson last year that the team’s on-court success has propelled its recruiting success. One of the program’s biggest early catches under Amaker, Oliver McNally ’12, a three-time California Division V state championship winner in high school, had to be convinced that the program could continue to recruit at a high level in the future.
“We had to convince him this would be different, [that] we are going to be able to attract more people of [his] cloth,” Wade said. “I thought he was good for us, and he raised our profile in recruiting.... I think that once we had that first one in the bag, we got some other guys.”
The “other guys” soon became a flood of the nation’s top recruits. Current sophomore Zena Edosomwan became the first Scout.com recruit to sign with an Ivy League School the year McNally graduated, and he turned down basketball powerhouses UCLA and Texas in the process. Freshmen Andre Chatfield and Chris Egi were listed as at least three-star recruits in their draft class. Chatfield turned down offers from two SEC schools—Auburn and Mississippi State—as well as rival Yale, in choosing Harvard. In January, Harvard secured a verbal commitment from high school junior Chris Lewis, the 44th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2016.
Part of the recruiting success has come from Amaker going into areas that his predecessors hardly tackled. From 1970 to 2007—the year Amaker arrived on campus—the team took 64 players from New York, Connecticut, and Maryland combined. None are considered to be recruiting hotbeds for basketball, but they represented the Crimson’s ability to succeed on a regional stage. Yet, during that time period, the team did not win a single Ivy League title.
When former Harvard forward Vince Lackner ’72 played, his teammates largely came from the Northeast. In Lackner’s junior year, 40 percent of the team came from either New York, Connecticut, or Washington, D.C.
Lackner partially credited this to the academic institutions in the region, noting that for his Rhode Island high school, the Ivy League was a common destination. Lackner, who transferred to Harvard after initially attending Williams, said that his indirect route was unusual among his classmates.
“In general, my experience was that boarding schools like Portsmouth served as a pipeline to Harvard,” Lackner said. "In my graduating class, [seven] were admitted, and I was the only one who didn’t go.”
By comparison, Amaker has taken a more national view of recruiting. Over the last seven years, he has taken a combined three players from New York, Connecticut, and Maryland, which is just one more than he has taken from Ontario, according to the Crimson’s data set.
The team has been notably stronger recruiting during the Amaker era in the South, from where much of the nation’s best talent hails. Lewis, if his commitment holds up, would be the fourth Georgia product to come to Harvard since Amaker took the helm of the program, but only the fifth since 1970.
Amaker has pitched Harvard as a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision, recruits have said, noting that Amaker has sold them on the ability to do something at Harvard that has never been done before—not the easiest of feats at the College.
“[Amaker said to me, ‘Harvard’s] the most famous school in the world,’” McNally told The Crimson in 2012. “In every field, athletically and academically, things have been done. Football’s won, soccer’s won, but basketball never had. You can make history. People will remember you and the team you played on as doing something Harvard had never done before, and you can’t really do that in a lot of other fields here.’”
On the gridiron, Murphy has had a similar impact in his 21 years at the helm of the program. Since taking over in 1994, Murphy has had twice as many athletes from Texas on his rosters than did coaches over the previous 24-year span. He has found fertile recruiting grounds in Michigan (20 players) and Georgia (34 players), states that were scarcely tapped before, taking an aggressive recruiting track that has had the department sending letters to top recruits across the country—including eventual 2014 No. 1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Murphy says that the program—which sends a letter to every high school football program in North America—is comprehensive in its reach to account for a small pool of candidates.
“We have arguably the smallest pool of Division I players on the planet to choose from,” Murphy said. “[To play at Harvard], you have to be a great kid, a great student, and a great athlete.”
The team subscribes to a number of regional recruiting databases to help separate the diamonds from the rough. Sifting through the 10,000 initial “suspects” Murphy says are brought to the table every March is a long and arduous process; the coach admits that the program checks every single one when cutting down the suspect pool to what he calls real prospects. Eventually, that gets whittled down until the group of 30 admits that make up a class remain.
“We don’t know until we go through the information, but most guys aren’t Division I football players,” Murphy said. “Most guys aren’t Harvard students, not all of them are great kids, so once you put it all together in that labor intensive process, you end up rejecting, just as Harvard Admissions does, about 95 percent of them.”
“We aren’t necessarily doing [recruiting] 365 days a year, but we are doing it 300 days a year,” he continued.
The forays into different parts of the country have helped Murphy build a talented and versatile roster. Hodges, from Atlanta by way of North Carolina, led the Ivy League with 8.5 sacks this past year. Senior starting quarterback Conner Hempel, a Kentucky native, finished his career as Harvard’s all-time leader in completion percentage. Senior linebacker Connor Sheehan—whose interception of Yale quarterback Morgan Roberts clinched Harvard’s championship-sealing victory in The Game—is one of three current players on the roster from Austin, Texas. Yet from 1970 to 1993, the team did not have a single player from Austin.
Ultimately, Murphy says that recruiting is at the top of the team’s priority list. The coach says there is little else more important than making sure his team constantly brings in good, fresh talent.
“There are a ton of variables that go into the success of any company, any program, and for us the key one is absolutely recruiting,” Murphy said. “It’s not the only variable, but at the end of the day, it’s the most important variable.”
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @CrimsonDPFreed.
Athlete hometown data for this story were taken directly from GoCrimson rosters. The data include only men’s varsity basketball and football athletes who were listed on a roster from 1970-1971 to 2014-2015. Athletes who were erroneously left off the roster on the website were not included in the sample, and the sample was not limited to recruited athletes. The data were refined to include only athletes with complete data—athletes missing data were removed from the data set for consistency.
Using a Google-based geocoder, each athlete’s hometown was given a set of coordinates that were mapped onto a topographical map created using D3. All filtering and analysis was done in Python.