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Oliver McNally a consistent leader in Harvard’s rise

March 16, 2012 Columns No Comments

Will Wade remembers the first time he saw Oliver McNally play. In particular, he remembers the impression the young guard left on him as he drove and dunked on a defender, and as the defender hit the floor McNally looked right down at him before getting back on defense. Wade, who is now an assistant at VCU, knew Harvard needed a guy like him in the program, and as McNally’s career comes to a close, that first impression wasn’t a false one. That’s fitting, because McNally has been nothing if not consistent as a winner.

McNally was the first recruit for Tommy Amaker after he took the job at Harvard. Amaker had coached at great academic schools before, having played and been an assistant at Duke and more recently at Michigan before coming to Cambridge, so he wasn’t in unfamiliar territory. But this was a little different job for him, as Seton Hall and Michigan had been to the NCAA Tournament before – indeed, each had been to Final Fours, with Michigan winning a national championship. Harvard, on the other hand, had never been to the NCAA Tournament since it was the major postseason tournament. The last time Harvard made it was 1946, back when the NIT was the postseason tournament teams wanted to be in. And as academics go, no school stands above Harvard.

The first person who believed in the vision Amaker and his staff was selling was McNally, who comes from an athletic family and one that has had a couple of Harvard alumni. His great, great grandfather graduated from there in 1891 and received a medical degree in 1894, and his great grandfather graduated in 1922. His other great grandfather played football at Navy and was captain in 1913, and his grandfather graduated from West Point in 1943 and was captain of the polo team there. For good measure, his younger brother Xander is a junior on the basketball team at the Dominican University in California.

As Harvard has risen during Amaker’s tenure, McNally has been no small part of it. He doesn’t wow you with athleticism or any particular skill, although he does a lot of things well. Simply put, McNally does winning things, and for that reason he has been a two-time captain of the Crimson and their unquestioned leader for so much of his career. He showed that from the outset, making key plays in early games as a freshman, and time and time again over his career coming up with a big game when they team needed it.

When he arrived, the Crimson were not an Ivy League contender, and injuries hit them hard. They were 14-14 his freshman year. But the senior guard is fine with that, because he remembers that there was a reason he believed in what Amaker had in mind for the program.

“Looking back, I enjoy the fact that we struggled when I got here, that it wasn’t great,” said McNally. “How much different, how much progress we’ve made up to now makes it even more special.”

McNally said Amaker sold him on a vision of winning championships if he believed in the coach’s vision. McNally got it all started as the first to believe in the vision. The Crimson then brought in more good players with him and behind him in the next couple of years, and that set the stage for being a contender the past two seasons. One could be forgiven if it seemed like they might have recruited over him, but McNally had a continual knack for being a key player for this team no matter who they had. His toughness and leadership have been unmatched on this team.

While McNally doesn’t register at the top of the list from a talent standpoint or post eye-popping numbers in any category, he’s nonetheless a key. A big part of that is being a clutch performer, whether it was coming up with a big game when a lot is on the line, or icing a game at the foul line. He said he wasn’t always a good free throw shooter, but he became one to the point where there’s no one on the staff who doesn’t believe his free throws are going in late in the game.

More than that, he has been a leader. He’s been that locker room guy that you always hear about teams having, the one who, like another coach, will be frank and tell his teammates they’re not playing well while still believing they have what it takes to win the game. He’s vocal in practice, and he leads by example, as if he has a sense of when it’s time to make a play.

“He’s been our vocal leader, he’s been our quarterback, he rallies our team, he’s the most prominent voice on our team, the most respected on our team,” said Amaker.

Adds junior Kyle Casey: “Oliver is just a great leader for our team, a vocal, emotional leader for us, and he always comes through for us. Off the court, he keeps us together and in line.”

McNally, who was also a four-year starter on the soccer team at The Branson School in San Francisco before coming to Cambridge, has always been frank and thoughtful with the media. He’s been willing to talk and share what’s on his mind, whether the team won or lost, and he’s done so without giving the slightest sense that he disliked it. He wasn’t a quote machine in the sense that you would get sound bytes from him; rather, you knew you would get some good thoughts from him on the team’s play in that game and some of what was behind it leading up to the game. You would get a sense of the team that only the locker room guy would give you.

His feel for the game and natural leadership abilities lead one to believe he could be a coach one day. Whether or not that is in his future is unknown, and there may be chances to play professionally overseas first. McNally has helped lead the Crimson to an increase in wins every year he has been at the school, capped off by this season’s 26-win team that lost to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. When the book is written on the surge the program made in this time, McNally should occupy a prominent place as far as individuals go.

McNally, who worked in New Orleans for Habitat for Humanity in 2007, is concentrating in government, and the Harvard education is surely going to open many more doors for him. One has every reason to believe that success awaits him later on, which would fit with the consistency he has shown throughout his college career.

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