FROM NORTHERN VIRGINIA TO COACHING STARS
Harvard men’s basketball head coach Tommy Amaker has
been a head coach in both the Big East and the Big Ten.
He had an outstanding playing career at Duke, followed
by a nine-year stint as a Duke assistant. Amaker
participated in the NCAA tourney four times as a player,
and won two national championships as an assistant
coach. A four year starter at Duke, Amaker earned
All-America honors in 1987, and was enshrined into the
Duke Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001.
First year Cornell head coach Bill Courtney also
possesses an impressive resume. Known as an outstanding
recruiter, Courtney was instrumental in George Mason’s
Final Four run in 2006. Courtney spent eight years as an
assistant at Mason under Coach Jim Larranaga and was
largely credited for recruiting the players that
eventually led the Patriots to the national semifinals.
Following his successful tenure in Fairfax, Courtney
spent time at Providence, Virginia, Virginia
Commonwealth, and Virginia Tech before being named head
coach at Cornell in April, 2010. Courtney also had an
outstanding playing career, twice earning All-Patriot
League honors at Bucknell, where he still ranks among
the top ten all-time leading scorers. He was selected to
the Bucknell Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007.
These two Ivy League mentors, who have seen basketball
take them all over the world, got their starts playing
high school basketball approximately ten miles apart in
Northern Virginia. Amaker played for legendary W.T.
Woodson High School coach Red Jenkins, graduating in
1983, while Courtney played for another legend of
Northern Virginia hoops, Charlie Thompson, graduating
from Robert E. Lee High School in 1988.
Because of their five year age difference, the two never
played against each other, but they have certainly
followed each other’s careers.
“I always looked up to Tommy as a Northern Virginia
point guard, and then he went to Duke and played with
Johnny Dawkins, another DC area guy, so I was a big fan
of his and of Duke back then,” said Courtney. “What he
is doing at Harvard is tremendous. The level of talent
he is bringing in at one of the best institutions in the
world is impressive.”
Amaker has good things to say about Courtney as well.
“I don’t know Bill too well, but everyone who knows him,
including my assistant Kenny Blakeney, who is a DC guy,
all speak very highly of him,” commented Amaker.
Both Amaker and Courtney look back on their high school
experiences as key to their development.
“One of the highlights of my career was being mentored
by Red Jenkins. It was a blessing to play for him. All
of the things he did really helped to prepare me to play
at a high level in the ACC,” said Amaker.
“I think one of the things I really learned from Coach
Jenkins is to be a teacher of the game,” continued
Amaker. “With my mom being a teacher and with Coach
Jenkins being a teacher of the game, that is something
that I have always tried to be. He was really a great
teacher of the little things and a great tactician.”
Amaker remembers the area being very competitive during
his high school days.
“I really remember rivalries with T.C. Williams High
School during that time in the old Potomac District,”
recalled Amaker. “I played varsity for four years, and
there were always good players in Northern Virginia and
the DC area.”
After thirty-nine years as a head coach in Northern
Virginia, including thirty-five at W.T. Woodson, Red
Jenkins has many memories of Amaker’s high school years,
to go along with a lifelong friendship.
“When Tommy got to us, he was 5’7 and 108 lbs., and his
jersey came out the bottom of his shorts. He was small
and he shot a knuckle ball. We had him on varsity as a
freshman, and we weren’t planning to start him, but then
our starting point guard got hurt,” recalled Jenkins, as
if Amaker played for him last year.
“Tommy got better and better. You could show him a move
one day and he would go work on it for three or four
hours that night and perfect it by the next day,” said
Jenkins. “He was the hardest working kid both on the
court and in the classroom.”
Jenkins and Amaker maintain a strong bond to this day.
“I’m going to see him this fall at his clinic. He always
brings me up-- he never forgets where he came from. He
is more like a son than a former player. Tommy is very
well suited for Harvard. He is a really classy,
intelligent guy,” said Jenkins with pride.
Cornell’s Courtney played during a great era for
Northern Virginia high school basketball.
When asked if he was the Northern Region Player of the
Year, Courtney responded, “No, there was a guy named
Hubert Davis that year. The all-region team was Davis,
Jerome Scott from South Lakes who went to play at Miami,
Crawford Palmer from W&L, who went to Duke, Grant Hill,
“As a senior we lost in the regional championship game
and then in the state championship game to Patrick
Henry. That was the first year of the three point shot
in high school, and we shot a lot of them,” recalled
Courtney. “If you go back and look at tape of the state
championship game, we hit three threes that they counted
as two’s. We should have won that game.”
Like Amaker, Courtney also played for a long time
Northern Virginia coach.
In his career, Charlie Thompson led Lee, Robinson,
Oakton, and Hayfield High Schools to state tournaments,
while winning seven district titles and five regional
championships. Thompson was Bill Courtney’s coach on one
of those state tourney teams at Lee in 1988.
Of Thompson, Courtney said, “He always pushed guys to
maximize their potential and ability. He taught me a
lot—to never lose sight the value of hard work and ‘kyp’--
know your personnel. I’ll always hold that near and dear
to my heart.”
Possibly the two most successful basketball coaches in
Northern Virginia history, Red Jenkins and Charlie
Thompson were also two of the characters on the
sidelines in those days. Courtney knows both.
“Both are legends and tremendous coaches, but they were
different in their approaches,” said Courtney. “Red was
more like Dale Brown-very affable, and a motivator.
Charlie was more like Bobby Knight.”
Thompson could tell early on that he might have a future
coach on his hands.
“Billy was a great point guard. We got into the state
championship game in 1988 by beating John Marshall in
five overtimes. In four of the five overtimes, we won
the tap, Billy held the ball and we took the last shot.
At the end of regulation, we had the ball with five
seconds to go, down two. We called time out to set up a
play for Billy to go the length of the floor and shoot
or dish. As he was walking off the floor when we called
timeout, Billy heard the officials say that they were
not going to blow their whistles, because they did not
want to decide the outcome of the game. Billy told me,
so I told the guys that if we missed, they should do
whatever they had to do to get the rebound and score.
Sure enough, Billy missed the shot, and a John Marshall
player got the rebound. Billy completely raked the
Marshall player across the arms on the rebound, grabbed
the ball and scored to force overtime. It was such a
smart play,” said Thompson.
“He was also a true gym rat,” continued Thompson. “He
was in the gym every single day. He always wanted to
know why we did things. We ran multiple defenses, and he
called them all out.”
Amaker and Courtney are well respected throughout
Northern Region circles. Former South Lakes High School
head coach Wendell Byrd remembers both well.
“I remember going against Bill. He handled himself well.
You could tell that both he and Tommy were going to set
the world on fire—not just on the court, but also as
students,” said Byrd. “They both had great insight. You
could talk to them about strategy. They both directed
their teams and were great quarterbacks.”
Amaker has taken Harvard basketball to new heights after
leading programs at Seton Hall and Michigan. He is no
stranger to being a head coach.
Courtney, on the other hand is new to running the show,
and he is eager to get started.
“It has been a hectic few months, but the people at
Cornell have been tremendous,” said Courtney. “When you
first get into coaching, you expect to move a lot, but
I’ve done the opposite. I spent nine years with Jim (Larranaga),
including eight at GMU without moving. Since then, I did
a year at Providence, two years at Virginia, two months
at VCU, and eight months at Virginia Tech, but I am
excited to be here moving forward.”
Courtney knows he has a tough act to follow, after
Cornell’s 29-5 record, culminating with a visit to the
“Their success last year has certainly helped with
recruiting and galvanizing the alumni base. We lost
seven guys, however, including three of the best in
school history, so in some ways we are starting over,”
Starting over or not, on January 29, 2011, Cornell will
visit Harvard and two Northern Virginia high school
legends will face off. Hopefully Charlie Thompson and
Red Jenkins can make the trip.
Brian Doyle is an Assistant Principal and Associate Head
Coach at Centreville High School in Clifton, Virginia.
Prior to becoming Assistant Principal, Doyle was a high
school head coach for thirteen years. Brian also serves
as member of the voting panel for the prestigious Hugh
Durham National Coach of the Year Award.