Given that history, it was more than a bit shocking when guard Pe'Shon Howard from Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, recently told SI: "If the admission office clears me, I'm going to Harvard."
With scholarship offers from Arkansas, Cal, Maryland, USC, Virginia and a half dozen other big conference schools, Howard is a bona fide blue-chip recruit, a 6-foot-2 point guard ranked the 87th best player in the country by one scouting service. He is the kind of prospect who never used to consider Harvard, and, amazingly, he is not the only one from the Class of 2010.
Keala King, a 6-6 guard at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei ranked even higher than Howard, said, "I am thinking about Harvard big time." A friend of Howard's from when the two were growing up in Southern California, King says he hopes to visit the school with Howard in September and make a decision after that. "It's one of the great academic schools, so when they called my mom was really excited," King said. "You hear that name and it really opens up your eyes."
Rod Odom, a 6-8 forward at the Middlesex School in Long Island, N.Y., and another top 100 prospect, is said to be eyeing the Crimson as well. He told Howard last month that the school was "in his top three."
How did Harvard suddenly get on the radar of some of the nation's best high school players?
The hiring of Tommy Amaker before the 2007-08 season has played a big part. The former Michigan and Seton Hall coach is a dogged recruiter, and he targeted kids with higher profiles than his predecessor. The school's admissions office might also deserve an assist. The New York Times reported last year that Harvard had lowered its admission standards to aid Amaker's efforts, which the school denied.
Amaker's first recruiting class included two players -- Max Kenyi and Hugh Martin -- who were more touted than the usual Harvard recruits, but they were not elite prospects like Howard, King and Odom. Amaker also received a verbal commitment from 6-10 Frank Ben-Eze from the Class of 2008, and he would have been the school's biggest ever, but Ben-Eze decommitted in the wake of the Times' report and ended up at Davidson.
Harvard doesn't award athletic scholarships, and that has long been a sticking point with top recruits. Coaches have had to explain how a mix of grants and financial aid will cover the cost of attending the school. Set next to the full rides being offered by other programs, it was a tough sell. But in 2007 Harvard announced that any incoming student whose family earns less than $60,000 a year would pay no tuition. That simplified the sales pitch.
That change resonated with Howard and his father, Bill, but it was mostly Harvard's reputation that sold them. "I was all set to go to Stanford. I went to their elite camp and one day Condoleezza Rice was there," Howard says. "I thought, if you are going to go somewhere to make connections this is the place. But then when Harvard started calling me, I looked into all the people who graduated from there. It's amazing."
There remains one significant hurdle for Howard (and any recruit eyeing Harvard): the admissions office, loosened admission standards or not. Howard has a 3.6 GPA, and at the request of the school's coaches will take the ACT in the next few months. "I don't want to jinx it. I know it isn't easy, but I believe I can get the score they say I need," he says. "And if I get the score, the coaches say they are 90 percent certain I will be accepted."
People have told Howard that playing in the Ivy League will lessen his chances of making the NBA, and he accepts that as fact. "But I still feel like if you are good enough to play in the NBA you will get your chance," he says. "And a friend of mine noted how [President] Obama went to Harvard [Law School] and she wrote on my Facebook page: 'You can go to the NBA or you can go to the White House.' When you have a degree from Harvard, anything is possible."