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Turning the (Crimson) tide

Scarsdale grad Yanni Hufnagel is part of historic run at Harvard


Scarsdale graduate and recruiting coordinator, Yanni Hufnagel is part of historic run at Harvard.


Yanni Hufnagel’s cell phone is always ringing. And on the rare occasions it’s not ringing, he’s the one making calls.

Such is the round-the-clock life of a men’s college basketball recruiter, one who is helping defy the odds at Harvard. While many things in Harvard’s aggressive plan to become one of the best teams in the country originated with the hiring of Tommy Amaker as head coach five years ago, the addition of Hufnagel, a 2001 Scarsdale High School graduate, to the staff three years ago as the recruiting coordinator and defensive coach has helped Harvard up the ante.

“I loved Yanni’s enthusiasm and ‘passion for people,’” Coach Amaker said. “He’s organized and an incredibly hard worker. Also, with his Ivy League background, he would bring a valuable perspective to our program and staff.”

On Dec. 5, 2011, another part of the dream became all too real. On that historic day, the Ivy League underdog made its first appearance ever in the national rankings, debuting at No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and No. 25 in the Association Press national poll. Harvard, now 20-2 with losses only to then-No. 9 UConn and unranked Fordham, has stayed on the map all season  — currently ranked No. 21/25 — and is looking forward to this year’s March Madness.

“I still think were just scratching the surface of where we can go, which is fun to think about, too,” Hufnagel said. “I think we can have real staying power. I think we can continue to dominate the Ivy League, play a national schedule, play on TV and become a basketball brand. We’ve got the right guy running the ship, that’s for sure.”

During Hufnagel’s first year with the program, the team was 21-8, then a school record for wins. The team was 10-4 in the Ivy League and played in the Tournament. Last winter Harvard took another step with a 23-7 season, a 12-2 Ivy League record, a share of the Ivy title and a trip to the NIT tournament. Hufnagel’s first recruiting class 2011 turned some heads in the college basketball world.

Again, just scratching the surface.

Hufnagel, only 29 years old, has made a name for himself already and while he’s enjoying the ride at Harvard and having completed his second recruiting class for next winter, he’s already predicted to become a star in the not-so-distant future. A poll of over 100 high-major DI coaches chose Hufnagel as the top answer to the question “Which mid-major assistant will make it big-time due to his recruiting ability?”

The freedom Amaker has given and the trust he has shown in Hufnagel has in the end allowed Hufnagel to be more productive.

“It’s humbling, but it’s also a testament to Coach Amaker, our staff and our players,” Hufnagel said. “When we bring them to our campus we turn it over to our guys. Now they have to welcome them into our family. If we didn’t have the kind of kids that we have right now, it would be very hard to do my job. It’s also a testament to the kids we’re recruiting.”

As much as anyone, Hufnagel understands the irony of his career path. If you know Hufnagel from his days growing up in Scarsdale and heard that he was “coaching,” you’d assume it was lacrosse. After all, he was cut from the basketball program at Scarsdale, but excelled on the lacrosse field along with his younger brother, Alec, on defense and offense, respectively. And both went on to play in college, Alec at Dartmouth, Yanni at Penn State for a year before transferring to Cornell, where he fully expected to play ball. Instead, Hufnagel wound up as the manager of the Cornell basketball team and the rest is history.

Follow the leader

Hiring Amaker was a coup d’état for the Crimson. That was the first statement that the school was becoming serious about basketball. Still young, but extremely experienced and having studied under some of the best coaches in the country, he has brought Harvard to the forefront and even developed the team’s first NBA draft pick since 1954, Jeremy Lin, who is now tearing things up for the New York Knicks. That and the team’s ranking goes a long way in the recruiting process.

Still, there was an uphill battle to climb, a perception that the leftover smart guys who valued education and didn’t need athletic scholarships (they are not allowed in the Ivy League, among other conferences) were the only ones the school could recruit, and not likely to be among the best players in the country.

Instead, Harvard began looking at the Top 100 list as its starting point — as opposed to skipping over it — identifying the kids who could academically qualify to get in using the Ivy League’s standard academic index, and then taking it from there with what Hufnagel calls “being creative” with financial aid to either cut down on the bills or cut them out. And that’s only part of how you compete with the high-majors.

“Harvard has been very aggressive with financial aid packages, which has helped not only Harvard, but the rest of the Ivy League become competitive with scholarship programs,” Hufnagel said. “Our aid packages are, in a lot of cases, on par with what a scholarship school can offer. So that’s leveled the playing field a lot.

“There are cases where a family will have to pay vs. a scholarship situation, but we hope they understand that the power of the brand and the uniqueness of the opportunity will ultimately lead to it becoming the best investment they could ever make. The truth is, if you come to Harvard no one is saying you can’t make it to the NBA.”

Another way to compete with the other Top 25 schools is the fact that it’s a Harvard education — you certainly can’t beat that.

Harvard is certainly leading the way, which means that the other Ivy League schools are forced to follow (and why wouldn’t they?). The challenge now is to keep ahead of the pack. And the better Harvard becomes, the better the rest of the Ancient Eight will have to become and the better the competition within the league will be, which again makes for a better product on the court.

“Again, the pool is so small of the kids that would qualify to be admitted to an Ivy League school, so the competition is going to be fierce,” Hufnagel said. “I think we’re out ahead a little bit right now and the question is, how do we stay out ahead? I think the answer is to continue to never be outworked and to continue to do what we’re doing on the court right now. We’ve got to stay sharp and tight every day and continue to be relentless.

“Our league is going to continue to get better and better as we continue to upgrade our talent. Other schools have got to react and they absolutely are. Ivy League recruiting is at an all-time high in terms of the level of talent and who is chasing whom. It’s fun to be a part of it. I think the Ivy League can become what the Atlantic-10 or the ACC is, where you have a lot of good teams, but at the top you have elite level teams that have a chance to be perennial Top 25-type teams, to go to Sweet 16s and have a chance to go to the Final Four. You think about Xavier, Gonzaga, Memphis, Butler — that’s the circle we want to be thought about in in terms of the basketball piece of it. Certainly our academics are in a category by itself.”

When Hufnagel recruits players, he’s offering not just quality basketball, but the highest level of academics for life after basketball. He can’t promise championships or draft selections, but now he can offer the dream.

“We’re recruiting the most elite level kids that also have the layers and the pieces that would be fits here at Harvard — academics, personal qualities,” Hufnagel said. “We’re recruiting, we think, the most interesting, unique and talented kids that there are.”

Yes, recruiting for a school in a league that does not permit athletic scholarships is a challenge, as is having academic standards far above and beyond the rest of the NCAA Division I schools — those standards are almost laughable — but in a way it makes recruiting easier. While the top basketball schools are all scrambling for the same massive pool of players, Harvard’s list is already narrowed down for the coaches. They aren’t wasting time with players who can’t get into the school.

“Everyone tells me recruiting is so hard,” Hufnagel said. “I’ll flip that because our pool is smaller, so I know exactly who we can target and then we go and we’re very aggressive recruiting those kids in that pool. If you look at the rankings of the top 100 kids in the class, we’re going to start at No. 1 and work our way down and that has turned the Ivy League upside down a little bit in terms of what we’re doing. We’re not fighting as much anymore with Princeton and Yale. Now we’re fighting with Arizona, UCLA, Texas. Are we still going to be in Ivy League battles for kids? Absolutely, but we’ve gone out and done some really compelling things on the recruiting trail.”

The group that came in for 2011 was Hufnagel’s first-ever recruiting class. He fed off the buzz from the previous coaches under Amaker and added his own spin on things. The six players Hufnagel brought in were among the best non-BCS classes around.

“Yanni has performed very well, and I’m very pleased with his growth as a coach and recruiter,” Amaker said. He added, “Yanni’s future in this business is as high as he wants. He builds relationships, he is passionate, and he is smart.”

While Hufnagel joined the festivities in the middle, his impact will continue to grow as Harvard proves to the world what they already know — you ain’t seem nothin’ yet!

“I came into a situation at Harvard that was already starting to swirl,” Hufnagel said. “I wasn’t here on Day 1. A lot of the heavy lifting was already done by Coach Amaker and the previous assistants. It was a situation where I was able to come in with a little bit of momentum. Those guys set this thing up and I’ve come in and hope to turn it up. It was certainly big shoes to fill when Coach [Will] Wade left. We’re getting more aggressive and trying to get the elite of the elite.”

While the 2012 class is set — with the exception of the possibility of adding “game-changer” Zena Edosomwan, who has yet to make his decision between Harvard, Cal, USC, Wake Forest, Texas, Washington and UCLA, according to — Hufnagel is setting his sights higher each year and in constant contact with recruits. His dream is to have a Top 10 class nationally, to recruit a McDonald’s All-American, to have a player leave early to go into the NBA. As he is working on the class of 2013, “These are all things that are always on my mind,” he said.

In a way, Hufnagel is a salesman. He’s selling a vision. He’s selling a product. He’s selling potential players the opportunity to be part of something special, not just for their four years of college, but for the next 40 years of their lives as they become part of the family. In reality, he’s selling himself. How does he do this? The same way he’s approached everything he’s done all of his life — with sincerity, enthusiasm and passion.

“We’re involved with a couple of kids now that I think if they came to Harvard they have a chance to make a global impact, to change not only the landscape of college basketball, but of sports in general,” Hufnagel said. “If you can come to Harvard and do it, it will become a fascinating story that people will start to gravitate towards. We’re already starting to see it.

“We’re trying to present a vision to a group of kids that we think can become maybe the most compelling story that college basketball has ever seen. Imagine this and look what’s happening already. Imagine if Harvard goes to a Final Four….” He’s calling it Stephen Curry at Davidson times a hundred; Butler times a billion.

While the rest of the country is still catching on that Harvard is the uninvited guest that isn’t going away, the student body and alumni have truly embraced the success of the program. Games are sold out and since the program is building each year, they know this isn’t a flash-in-the-pan, a sideshow or a fluke. This was a carefully planned and executed makeover.

“Coach Amaker always talks about, that at Harvard basketball is the one sport that can connect every different group and community,” Hufnagel said. “That’s fascinating to think about. It’s a sport that can connect different people, different races, different student groups all together for a night to cheer for the same thing.”

Court appeal

In front of a loud, large Fordham crowd on Tuesday, Jan. 3, it was a homecoming of sorts for Hufnagel, as close to his former hometown as Harvard plays this winter. (The Crimson will head to New York City to play Columbia on March 2.) At Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym, Hufnagel had family members and friends in the stands there rooting for him.

While Harvard had the momentum early in the game, and after coming back from a big Fordham run in the second half, Harvard was unable to hold on, falling 60-54. To understand just how big the game was, all you had to do was look at the raucous celebration as Fordham celebrated beating an A.P. ranked team on their home court for the first time since 1978.

Harvard was No. 24 in the country at the time in NCAA Division I men’s basketball. Coming into the game 12-1, the lone team Harvard had lost to was UConn. Since that bitter loss, Harvard has won eight straight games, including the team’s first six Ivy League contests.

The team’s remaining regular season schedule consists of eight more games against the Ivy League continuing this weekend.

Compared to the recruiting aspect of his position, being a coach on the court is an entirely different story. As a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, since Hufnagel was not officially on the coaching staff, there were some limitations as to what he was allowed to do, but coach Jeff Capel had him involved in practice on the floor every day. “As a G.A. you’re not allowed to coach, but you can observe everything and be very active,” Hufnagel said.

So it wasn’t until he got to Harvard that he really had a chance to work with players on his own. He works with the team’s perimeter players on defense. He’ll never forget that first day of practice: “A lot of nervous energy because you get thrown into the fire a little bit and after you do it for the first time it becomes second nature. You just continue to try to expand your knowledge base every day as much as you can. It’s an area where I’m really focused in on right now because, ultimately, I want to be in a position, when my name is called to be a head coach, I’m ready. Obviously I’m hopeful that that time is coming.”

While he couldn’t really put his coaching skills to the test until he got to Harvard for the 2009-10 season, he was around so many brilliant coaches between Cornell and Oklahoma that he was, in his mind, developing his own philosophies when it came to Xs and Os.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be around very smart basketball minds — Coach [Steve] Donahue, Coach Capel — that have really helped me develop my on-court coaching,” Hufnagel said. And now Amaker.

While Hufnagel’s experience at Oklahoma going to the NCAA Elite Eight was incredible, it was expected — Oklahoma was supposed to be there.

“In a lot of ways at the beginning of the year we were among a group of teams that were expected to make that kind of run,” Hufnagel said of Oklahoma. “If you do it at Harvard, no one expects us to make that kind of run. No one except for the people in our locker room expects us to make that kind of run. Not to take away from what we did at Oklahoma, but to do something that nobody thinks is possible is too exciting and absolutely inspiring and in a way changing the landscape of college basketball. If we do make a deep run in March, I think everything changes for a long time.”

As a coach, Hufnagel sees two major things that have helped him connect with his players, and neither has anything to do with basketball: “Get your guys to believe in you and get your guys to have fun. If you can do those two things you’re going to win a lot of games.”

Of course, you have to get the players first, which Hufnagel does with great results.

“At the end of the day it’s about the power of the relationship that you build and I take pride in that,” Hufnagel said. “And also having a relentless work ethic. If you can do those two things, you’re going to be a very effective recruiter.”

From here to Harvard

Hufnagel was cut from the varsity basketball team as a junior after playing junior varsity as a sophomore. (No, this isn’t one of those Michael Jordan stories or comparisons.) While friends like Peter Stern, Mike Detmer and Marc Weil went on to play for coach Barry Bergen, Hufnagel took a different route, calling games for the school’s cable station under the direction of Dave Berry. Perhaps that was the first time he had a chance to look back and watch and analyze how a basketball coach coaches.

While everything Hufnagel does now is highly calculated, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, two “rash decisions,” as he calls them, that he made as a college student took him from the lacrosse field to the basketball court. Even Hufnagel knows that if he ever saw himself coaching it would have been lacrosse.

After graduating from Scarsdale, Hufnagel headed to Penn State, where he was recruited for lacrosse. He played as a freshman, the team was 8-5 and ranking No. 13 in the country. He called it a “great experience.”

In February before freshman season was about to begin, Hufnagel remembers it was snowing during a practice for a game the following weekend. He didn’t have a good practice and at that moment he wanted out of Penn State. That night he started applying to other schools, including Cornell, where he had some friends. “It was a spur of the moment type of decision, but one that changed my life,” he said.

The next day and for the next two months Hufnagel’s life went on as usual in the classroom and on the field. Then he started getting replies back from schools and had to make a decision. After some thought he was going to bring his talents to the Ivy League, where his brother was about to start playing after taking a prep year at Deerfield Academy.

While working out in preparation for the upcoming season, Hufnagel ran into basketball coach Mike Burden, then one of Steve Donahue’s assistants. (Donahue is now the head coach at Boston College.)

“He said, ‘I love your energy, your enthusiasm, you should come work for us,’” Hufnagel said. “Part of me always wanted to go into coaching. I just thought I was going to be a lacrosse coach. The next day I was mopping sweat up off the floor for Cornell basketball. Just like that.”

Serving as manager was in no way a glorious position — he was doing the “grunt work” — but it gave Hufnagel a bird’s-eye view of the building of a successful program that went on to win three Ivy League titles after Hufnagel left.

“Coach Donahue is an incredible tactician, so to be able to watch him work was terrific,” Hufnagel said. “I think Cornell did it differently than we’re trying to do it. I think they, in a way, hit lightning in a bottle with a group of kids that ended up, by the time they were juniors and seniors, becoming a very special story in itself and he really coached them up.”

Watching Donahue and his assistants was an invaluable experience, which helped lead to Hufnagel’s next challenge during his senior year, an internship in the basketball operations department for the New Jersey Nets in 2005-06.

“I applied for the Nets internship program like anyone else,” Hufnagel said. “I had the basketball layers and pieces from my Cornell experience, but I could have been placed in any division of the team — ticket sales, marketing, media relations — but I got placed in basketball operations. From that I said, ‘Here we are, let’s work as hard as I can and see how this thing ends up.’”

Hufnagel assisted with draft preparation and was a special assistant to Lawrence Frank, now the Detroit Pistons head coach. Hufnagel took extension classes at Cornell’s New York City campus to complete his degree in industrial and labor relations while working for the Nets.

The next stop for Hufnagel was another great opportunity, a graduate assistant position at the University Oklahoma. Then-Nets video coordinator Ryan Krueger, who became a coach with the Nets and is now an assistant with Lehigh, was the grad assistant under Capel when he was at Virginia Commonwealth University, so he hooked Hufnagel up with a call to then-Oklahoma coach Capel, who offered Hufnagel the position on first sight.

“Having never played, this was what I thought was an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down, a chance to get my foot in the door and see what I can make of it,” Hufnagel said. “They had just gotten a commitment from Blake Griffin and there was some real momentum in that program at the time.”

For $12,000 a year and a paid-for master’s degree in education with an emphasis in intercollegiate athletic administration, Hufnagel was on his way. In two years at Oklahoma, the Sooners advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and the Elite Eight in 2008-09, winning a total of 53 games. This was Hufnagel’s first real experience in the arena of recruiting and helping with workouts.

“I really started to get a feel for recruiting when I was at Oklahoma when I oversaw all of our recruiting mailouts, our recruiting database, got to work with a staff that I thought were creative recruiters,” Hufnagel said. “That gave me ideas on how to build relationships. Ultimately recruiting comes down to the strength of your relationship. I would say 9 out of 10 recruiting calls I don’t even talk about ‘recruiting’ — it’s about life, it’s about school, it’s about how they’re playing, girls, their family. And that’s what I love about it. Those relationships, if you are ever fortunate enough to carry those over and coach them, it becomes a lifelong relationship.

“I’ll tell you right now I would be shocked if I didn’t go to every single wedding of the kids on the team right now and if they didn’t come to mine. That to me is sometimes more thrilling, more satisfying than winning games on the floor. It’s the idea of hopefully having a small impact on changing the direction of these kids’ lives. That’s a lot of fun to think about, too.”

Griffin was taken No. 1 by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009 and was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Hufnagel worked with him and his brother Taylor, the No. 48 pick by Phoenix Suns.

With his commitment fulfilled, Hufnagel was back to looking for work.

“I was searching,” Hufnagel said. “It’s hard to find jobs and opportunities in the business. There’s only a finite number of DI assistant coaching jobs, only 344 schools and three assistants each. I felt like I was ready to have a chance to be on the floor and to get out on the road and recruit.”

Capel called Hufnagel about a potential opening at Harvard, which meant a return to the Ivy League if Coach Amaker liked what he saw. He did, and Hufnagel couldn’t have found a better match.

“When I took the job at Harvard I had no idea that it could become what it is today,” Hufnagel said. “I had a belief in Coach Amaker and I had a belief in the brand, but growing up you hear about Ivy League basketball and you don’t think of it in the same world or realm as the ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten. But you put your feet down, you start to get to work, you spend time with Coach and you start to really understand the power of the brand and understand there has been an incredible shift in the way information travels now as opposed to 10, 15, 20 years ago with all the social media avenues. If you can play, everyone is going to know who you are. The college basketball world has become flat in a way, especially because you can schedule against high-major teams and put yourself on that kind of stage.”

The days of rash decision-making are over for Hufnagel; things are much more calculated these days.

“Now everything is more thought out and thought through,” Hufnagel said. “I think when you’re young you rush to make choices and decisions. For me fortunately, they ended up working out. I think things are very different now.”

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February 10, 2012