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FROM NORTHERN VIRGINIA TO COACHING STARS


Oct. 27
, 2010


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, and me.”

“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 Sweet Sixteen.

“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,” said Courtney.

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.

 

 

 
 
 

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