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Harvard Basketball’s Whiz Kid

Yanni Hufnagel, the Crimson’s assistant coach, is one of the most promising recruiters in the sport

Ben Z. Cohen
January 17, 2013
Yanni Hufnagel at Penn on Feb. 10, 2012; Harvard won 56-50.(Drew Hallowell)
Yanni Hufnagel at Penn on Feb. 10, 2012; Harvard won 56-50.(Drew Hallowell)

In most ways, 30-year-old Yanni Hufnagel is the paradigmatic nice Jewish boy. He grew up in Scarsdale, for starters. He was cut from the varsity basketball team in high school. He graduated from Cornell. And now he’s living in Boston with a job that is very likely to make him quite rich before long.

But Hufnagel isn’t a doctor or lawyer or a banker. He’s an assistant basketball coach at Harvard. And the Crimson’s wild success in Hufnagel’s four seasons on the bench—Harvard won the Ivy League last year for the first time ever and produced a couch-surfing basketball phenom named Jeremy Lin—has turned Hufnagel into one of the hottest young coaches in the country.

In the NBA, the closest thing to a Jewish-American player these days is Amar’e Stoudemire. But you don’t need to be tall or all that athletic to coach college basketball, which explains how the Jewish Coaches Association counts about 30 Division-I coaches among its ranks. Few are as promising as Hufnagel and University of Memphis Coach Josh Pastner, another curly-haired member of the tribe, and the two will meet Saturday in one of the most fascinating (and only) Jewish coaching showdowns since the days of Red Auerbach and Red Holzman. In a 2011 CBS Sports survey of more than 100 coaches, Hufnagel was voted the the assistant coach from a mid-major school who “will make it big-time due to his recruiting ability” and Pastner the “most relentless recruiter in college basketball.” So, maybe the highest praise for Hufnagel comes from Pastner himself: “Yanni’s a better recruiter than I am,” Pastner told me.

One night last week, Hufnagel and I met for dinner in Boston so he could explain how he ended up wearing sweatpants to work most days. As a kid, he said after ordering mushroom-and-lobster pizza, Hufnagel fiddled with figurines of basketball players under his comforter and read coaching books until the pages were frayed. Hufnagel’s best sport was lacrosse—he played for a season at Penn State before quitting and transferring—but he wasn’t good enough as a basketball player to make Scarsdale’s high-school team. “I can make a shot,” he said to describe his game, “like all Jewish guys.”

So, he did what other Jewish guys do: He called games for his town’s public-access television station. Hufnagel even pretended he was the commentator Bill Raftery by shouting “onions!” after Scarsdale’s big shots. “He was so far ahead for someone our age in terms of analyzing basketball,” said his broadcast partner Ed Cohen, now the radio voice for the Rutgers women’s basketball team. “You knew he’d be either doing this for a living or he’d be a coach one day.”

In his first year at Cornell, Hufnagel spent one season as a basketball manager, and he scored a summer and fall internship with the New Jersey Nets, where his duties included laundry pickup. But his big break came right after graduation when his Nets colleague Ryan Krueger, now an assistant coach at Lehigh, connected him with his old boss, Oklahoma basketball Coach Jeff Capel, who was looking for a graduate assistant. Capel flew Hufnagel out for an interview and offered him the position while driving him back to the airport. “He was just a ball of energy,” Capel said. Hufnagel’s time in Norman, Okla., overlapped with the two years of Oklahoma star Blake Griffin, the future No. 1 NBA draft pick, and the aspiring coach made himself invaluable to Griffin by opening the gym in the morning and rebounding late at night. “He’s probably the most genuine, hardworking guy I’ve ever been around in basketball,” said Taylor Griffin, Blake’s brother and Oklahoma teammate. “Anything we needed, he was there to provide that.”

Hufnagel moved again in 2009 when Capel recommended him to Harvard head Coach Tommy Amaker. This time, the job was as a volunteer assistant coach. His official starting salary was the same as an unpaid intern’s, and Harvard has graduated more U.S. presidents than NBA players. But Hufnagel was so nervous during his interview that he sweated through his suit. “People looked at me like I had four eyes when I said I wanted to go to Harvard,” he said. He got the job and hit the road recruiting as soon as possible.

To be an assistant coach in college basketball is to be a recruiter, someone who can schmooze with coaches, is fluent in high-school text messaging, and doesn’t mind spending entire summer days in a sticky gym. All it took was one meal with Hufnagel to figure out why he’s such a good one. If the check had come with a Harvard application, I would’ve committed at the table, assuming in this alternate world I also had a higher SAT score, a 10-inch growth spurt, and the ability to play pickup basketball without needing a day spa to recover. Capel, now an assistant coach at Duke, said there are two things about Hufnagel that make him one of the best recruiters in the game. The first is his chutzpah. “There are sometimes kids you don’t recruit because you automatically assume they won’t have any interest,” Capel said. “Yanni doesn’t think that way. He’s not afraid to hear no.” The second, is that “he’s a great salesman,” Capel said. ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg put it this way: “It’s hard not to like Yanni Hufnagel.”

Hufnagel does have Harvard to sell, but that’s not always a slam dunk with blue-chip recruits. As a member of the Ivy League, Harvard doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, and its stringent admissions requirements add a degree of difficulty to any recruiting coup. Meanwhile, Hufnagel says his goal is to chase high-schoolers who want to be first-round NBA draft picks, most of whom would’ve never considered a four-year detour through Cambridge. And yet he recently helped Harvard sign Zena Edosomwan, a 6-foot-9 recruit ranked as a top-100 player in his class by, which is like Yale snagging a Kennedy.

If he wants, Hufnagel soon will have his choice of jobs, either as a head coach or an assistant at a traditional powerhouse with boatloads of basketball resources. His experience under Amaker, plus Harvard’s 79-24 record in his four seasons there, beef up his credentials. He’s just the right age, too. Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart were hired at 30 and 31, respectively, and both have coached in the NCAA tournament’s Final Four. Pastner, who got his job at 31, also considered Hufnagel when he was hiring an assistant coach last year. “He could coach anywhere,” Greenberg said.

Where Hufnagel will coach this summer is Israel. For two weeks in July, the busiest month on college basketball’s recruiting calendar, Hufnagel will lead Maccabi USA’s youth team during the Maccabiah Games. It will be his first time as a head coach at any level of basketball. His group of players is definitely not a Dream Team, but last week, still six months out, Hufnagel was already pitching it hard. “I think I’ve got the best Jewish kids in the country who are under the age of 18,” he said.

At that point, as the restaurant was clearing out, Hufnagel checked his iPhone. I had never before seen someone’s jaw drop, but his jaw dropped. “Oh, wow,” he said. Hufnagel had just received a text message from Lin, now the Houston Rockets guard. Lin was in town for a matchup with the Boston Celtics the next night and actually had visited Harvard’s practice that day. Now one of the most marketable basketball players on the planet—or, as Hufnagel calls him, “J”—wanted to know if Hufnagel would like tickets to that game. By the time he told me all this, Hufnagel was already done typing back. “Absolutely,” he said.


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Ben Z. Cohen writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. He has also written for Deadspin, Grantland, and the Awl.

Ben Z. Cohen writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal. He has also written for Deadspin, Grantland, and the Awl.