CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – When Harvard basketball coach Tommy Amaker would meet with recruits, he talked to them about the doors they could open with a degree from the nation's most prestigious university: Nobel Prize winner, president of the United States, and even NBA star.
It was a tough sell.
"It's always been somewhat of a barrier in the Ivy League: Can they see themselves becoming a professional player," Amaker said this month before watching New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, Harvard class of 2010, visit Boston to play the Celtics. "There's not a bigger example of that now, in the country and in the world, than seeing what this kid is doing on the grand stage of professional basketball.
"And it couldn't be better for us."
Boston College gave birth to the Flutie Effect in the 1980s, when applications for the freshman class jumped 30 percent in the two years after Doug Flutie threw a Hail Mary to beat Miami, the defending national champion, and win the 1984 Heisman Trophy. The theory: A school's athletic success could create positive publicity that lifts the academic side as well.
But now it's that brainy school across the river that's spilled onto the sports pages, led by last month's Linsanity and followed by an Ivy League title that gave Harvard its first NCAA tournament berth since 1946.
Could there be a Lin Effect for Harvard, which according to the popular U.S. News and World Report rankings is already the No. 1 university in the nation and never in its 375-year history a victim of insufficient attention?
"We anticipate that the prominence of Jeremy all over the world is certainly going to have an effect," said Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, who also attended the Knicks game at the TD Garden. "We like to underscore that excellence comes from high aspiration and talent and commitment, and we like to support that across the board. And we're delighted to see it happen in athletics."
In a 2008 paper examining the Flutie Effect by BYU economics professor Jaren Pope and his brother Devin, a professor at the University of Chicago business school, success in football or men's basketball was shown to increase applications anywhere from 1 percent for reaching the NCAA tournament field to an average of 8 percent for winning it all.
Other research has shown similar bumps: One at George Mason showed that the SAT scores of incoming freshman there went up 25 points, applications increased 22 percent and fundraising and attendance received a boost in the years after the school's 2006 run to the Final Four. Butler reported a 41 percent increase in applications after reaching the national basketball championship game in 2010; it made it back last year, losing both times.
"Harvard is different than Butler, certainly," Jaren Pope said in a telephone interview. "It's well-renowned for its academic prowess. That's probably their advantage: touting their academics rather than their athletics. Nonetheless, sports can provide publicity that academics can't.
"Football and basketball act like the front porch of the university. Students like to have sports as the basis of conversation. I think that would be attractive even to students who want to go to Harvard."
The oldest and richest university in the United States, Harvard boasts 44 Nobel Laureates on the faculty, an endowment of around $32 billion and five U.S. presidents among its undergraduate alumni; George W. Bush, who went to the business school, and Barack Obama, who went to Harvard Law, make it seven.
And while more than a few Harvard athletes have made it big — including current Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a handful of NHL players and a dozen or so Olympic gold medalists — success in basketball has been rare. Harvard's last NCAA tournament berth was during the Truman administration; the Crimson went almost 50 years without an Ivy League basketball title, and it's never had an NBA star.
Lin, who was not offered a scholarship out of high school and was not drafted out of college, seemed to be the latest in the ignominious line of Harvard hoopsters when he was cut by the Golden State Warriors, cut by the Houston Rockets and nearly cut again by the Knicks before he scored 25 points in a Feb. 4 game against the New Jersey Nets.
He was inserted into the starting lineup and the Knicks won their next six games as well, giving rise to the Linsanity phenomenon that was fueled by the odd mix of Harvard credentials, Taiwanese-American heritage, an unheralded pedigree and a downtrodden team in the biggest media market in the country.
"This is an amazing situation that we have, and it's just a wonderful story, and he personifies in many ways what we look for when we're looking for applicants," said Bill Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions and financial aid. "Sometimes Harvard and institutions like it can be stereotyped a bit as perhaps looking at only academic credentials. I think there's a new Harvard that's emerged over the past five or 10 years, one many people in the United States and many people around the world don't know about.
"Jeremy Lin, maybe, has enabled us to make a big jump in something that might have taken us five or 10 years in recruiting (talking) about how this place has changed."
Applications for the class of 2016 were already in by the time of Lin's emergence, and when Harvard clinched its first outright Ivy League title Fitzsimmons and the rest of the admissions committee were huddling to winnow the 34,285 applicants down to about 2,000 acceptance letters for their goal of 1,662 incoming freshmen.
But even if it's too late to see a Lin Effect in applications this year, Fitzsimmons hopes that in the future it will help Harvard spread the word that it is interested in more than just SAT scores and grades.
"This story has just broken down a whole set of stereotypes because he has been able to personify so much of what we try to do," Fitzsimmons said, noting that Lin is also a talented musician. "It isn't really about the number of applications we get next year or the year after; it's about the quality. He has helped us make the case that we are looking for many different kinds of talents."
Speaking on the telephone between meetings to decide who gets into the class of 2016, Fitzsimmons said he hoped Lin's prominence would help Harvard attract students who might not otherwise have applied: those who thought they couldn't afford it, singers whose grades might not match their musical skills and, yes, athletes. The school has also spent most of the last decade loosening financial aid, so that families with less than $65,000 in earnings pay nothing in tuition.
"Harvard is changing. It's much more socioeconomically diverse than it was even 10 years ago. It's open to people all over the country and all over the world," he said. "Right now, across the United States, high school juniors are reading about this and might be more likely to consider Harvard. So the effect that he could have over the next generation or two could be quite profound."
The excitement over Lin's emergence has cooled in New York. The Knicks lost six games in a row and coach Mike D'Antoni stepped down on Wednesday amid reports that star Carmelo Anthony wanted to be traded.
But Linsanity is still thriving back at Harvard. And when the Crimson open the NCAA tournament against Vanderbilt in Albuquerque, N.M., they'll be watching back in Cambridge in the sports bars, the dorm rooms and the university offices.
"What we like to think about Harvard is it's a pathway to greatness, a pathway to anything that your heart desires. And when you show passion and commitment and courage — and this kid has shown that and then some — why not?" Amaker said. "Jeremy Lin has done that in so many ways, and now he's showing that in that he can be a professional basketball player from Harvard."