March 22, 2014 at 2:15 am

Michigan State vs. Harvard: 8:40 p.m., TNT/WJR

Tommy Amaker discovers he's not a Michigan man, but a Harvard man

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Spokane, Wash. — They were friends before they were rivals, bonded by a shared enemy.

And now that they’ve run into each other again, Tom Izzo and Tommy Amaker, one entrenched and the other perhaps on the move again, paused to reminisce Friday.

About the different paths college coaches take, and the obstacles they face along the way. But mostly about solidarity.

They first met on the recruiting trail, Izzo in green and Amaker in blue, both of them chasing their tail, as it turned out. Chris Webber was headed to Michigan, not Michigan State or Duke, and there wasn’t much either assistant coach could do about it.

“We went through some interesting things back in the late ‘80s and early 90s together,” Izzo said, smiling at what was left unsaid as he stood in a hallway inside Spokane Arena.

Tonight, they’ll meet again on the sidelines, as Izzo’s Michigan State team faces Amaker’s upset-minded Harvard squad with a Sweet 16 berth at stake, not long after Steve Fisher’s San Diego State team plays on the same court.

“It is unique how the world works,” Izzo chuckled, “and what goes around comes around.”

Ironically, the fallout from Webber’s time in Ann Arbor — NCAA violations stemming from the Ed Martin scandal on Fisher’s watch — would come down on Amaker a year after he arrived on Michigan’s campus as their new head coach. A couple months after that, Amaker led the Wolverines to an emotional win over Michigan State, prompting premature declarations from media and fans alike about a rivalry renewed.

Taking the high road

Alas, it was one of only a few wins over Izzo for Amaker, who, despite all the talk about closing the gap on Michigan State, never managed to cut a path to where he is now with Harvard, in the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season.

Amaker took the high road when he left Ann Arbor in 2007, fired after a six-year stint at Michigan that ended without a single NCAA berth. Izzo, as he is prone to do, took a few shots at the administration that let him go, questioning the decision to dismiss a coach after consecutive 20-win seasons at a school where, as he put it then, “I don’t think they’ve stressed basketball.”

“He’s loyal, he’s an ambassador, he stands up for what he thinks is right,” Amaker told me Friday, when I asked him about Izzo and that stand he took. “And he’s not afraid to say what he thinks is right. He stands up for his friends. And that happens even with guys he’s competing against, like me, beating my brains in.

“But to hear him do what he did, the most important thing for me was just the fact I knew how much he cared about me and was checking on me. And he has always done that. I mean, that didn’t just stop when I got fired at Michigan. We’ve stayed in touch.”

Izzo reiterated all that again Friday, pointing to what Amaker has built at Harvard and what was left unfinished in Ann Arbor.

“He was getting that done at Michigan,” Izzo said. “He just went there during a tough time … He was just in a tough situation.”

He made it tougher on himself, no doubt.

The promised facility upgrades didn’t arrive until after he left, but Amaker, who once paid out of his own pocket for new office carpet, didn’t do enough to sell himself and his program, either. The recruiting improved, but the player development was lacking.

Michigan is paying market rate for its basketball coach these days, but the program is providing a better return on the school’s investment, too.

“I said when I was fired, ‘I understand, but I disagree,’ ” Amaker said. “But we’ve been in it long enough to know how it works. It’s not easy. …

“Bottom line is we didn’t win enough to go to the tournament. That’s the way it works,” Amaker said. “That’s the nature of our business. I wish we could’ve done that. But, you know, sometimes you get taken a different route to maybe find something different.”

Connected to Harvard

He found it at Harvard, where he has built an Ivy League powerhouse in a gym that seats fewer than 2,500 fans, creating a buzz on a campus where Nobel Prize winners are a dime-a-dozen.

“How much we’ve been a part of connecting Harvard — that blows me away,” said Amaker, whose wife, Stephanie, a clinical psychologist, also is on the Harvard Medical School faculty. “It’s been so cool.”

Aside from basketball, one of the coolest parts, he says, has been the monthly breakfast group he started with Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, who once taught a fellow hoops junkie named Barack Obama. (Michelle, too.) It has grown to a group of 8-12 prominent African-American scholars and business leaders that meets regularly in Cambridge to, as Amaker jokes, “sit around and solve all the world’s problems.”

Problem is, he may not be there much longer, though if he decides to jump at the vacancy across town at Boston College, as many expect he will, the 48-year-old Amaker can probably keep his breakfast club. He wouldn’t even have to pack to move back into the ACC.

But for now, he’s a Harvard man. And as he comes full circle here in Spokane, of all places, it’s easy to see where he’s been.

“We have all been a part of things in the past — at least I have — where I look back and wish I had been able to see something before everyone else saw it or before it actually happened,” Amaker said. “It’s right there in front of me.”

A friend, and a foe, same as it ever was.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Harvard coach Tommy Amaker faces Tom Izzo and MSU on Saturday night with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News