by Mike Coffey
When I started putting together Echoes on the Hardwood, my first interviewees told a wide range of stories covering a couple decades of Notre Dame basketball. But at some point in the interview, they all asked me the same question:
“You’re going to talk to Eddie O’Rourke, right?”
Of course, I said yes. I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of these guys who were sharing their hoops stories with a complete stranger. But I had pored over Tim Neely’s ND basketball book prepping for these discussions, and I had absolutely no idea who they were talking about.
Obviously I was missing something, and with all my interviewees bringing it up, I was missing something important. So with necessity being the conqueror of embarrassment in addition to the mother of invention, I asked ND’s SID, Bernie Cafarelli, about him.
Bernie wasted no time extolling Ed’s virtues. He was a south-sider from Chicago (excellent) who had gone to Mt. Carmel High School (no one’s perfect), had graduated from ND in 1949 (even better), and had been coached by and was a good friend of former Irish coach John Jordan. He was an accomplished lawyer who had supported the ND basketball program since well before I was born. He had represented a number of ND alums in the NBA, and was a mainstay in the stands and the Fighting Irish locker room both at home and on the road.
My interviewees were right — I had to include this guy. Bernie gave me his contact info, and I got on the phone. Ed, as was his wont, was extremely gracious and agreed to meet me for lunch. As was my standard for my hoops interviews, I offered to take him anywhere he wanted to go. He, in turn, offered to host me at his place — Olympia Fields Country Club.
Ed had the coolest living arrangement I’d ever heard of. A life-long bachelor, he had no need for a lot of square footage. But OFCC had been looking to renovate the old living quarters at its facility. Ed agreed to finance the renovations, and in return, he lived there.
I arrived as scheduled, and Ed was waiting for me at the table. To say that the next two hours were a delight would be an understatement. Ed had great story after great story after great story. He talked about the players who had done well and the players who had not, but always with the same tone of interest and respect. He had opinions good and bad just like everyone, but you never got the impression he was headhunting on anyone. He talked about driving John & Emmett McCarthy’s mom over to games because their dad couldn’t always make it. He talked about being dropped off on the Chicago Skyway after the Final Four appearance and hitching a ride home on a street sweeper. Every story had another story following it up, and there I was with my tape recorder getting it all down for posterity. And when I tried to pick the check up at the end of the meal, he refused to let me.
I drove out of OFCC a very happy young man. This stuff, as Banya would say, was gold. In fact, it was so golden, I wanted to listen to it again on the way home and figure where it was going to fit in the emerging chapters. So I pulled the recorder out, put it on the console next to the driver’s seat, and hit play.
Nothing. Hiss. Dead air.
The recorder I was using at the time was multi-purpose. It had a standard microphone that I used when I was covering ND basketball games. It also had a built-in phone jack so I could record the remote interviews I was doing for the book. Which input was used depended on how a switch on the recorder was set — one way for mic, the other for phone.
Guess what I’d forgotten to check before sitting down?
Driving north on the Tri-State, pounding the steering wheel and filling the atmosphere of my car with f-bombs, I realized I had a capital-P Problem. Here’s a guy who doesn’t know me from Adam who has just spent two hours of his time sharing stories with me for this book. I can’t just not include any of it, and I’m not about to try to make it all up from memory. I have to call this guy and pretty much confess to him that I’m a grade-A goof and we need to do it again.
I figured time wasn’t going to make the call any easier, so no sooner did I walk in the door than I got on the phone and confessed my sins. And Ed couldn’t have been nicer about it. We got together again two weeks later and went over the same ground. It didn’t have the magic of the first time, and I know some of the stories got lost. But that was my fault, not his.
I would see Ed at ND basketball games over the years. When I was still covering the team and was in the locker room with my recorder, he’d nudge me sometimes and ask me if it was working. He was joking, but I’d always check because one time it turned out he was right to ask.
But as I got to know him better, I realized that what he’d done for me was par for the Ed O’Rourke course. It was never about what you could do for him, it was about what he could do for you. He had a warm heart and a generous spirit, and whether he’d met you 10 years ago or 10 minutes ago, always treated you like you were the most important person to him. Even if there were times he wasn’t happy with you, you never felt like you didn’t matter, and you never felt like you couldn’t talk to him about something. He wasn’t like your father, but he was like your uncle … in fact, he described himself as the uncle of ND basketball.
After I interviewed Ed, I altered my standard script with the former players and got their opinions on him. Former Irish assistant Frank McLaughlin said it best:
Eddie O’Rourke is a tremendous human being. Here’s a guy who really asks nothing of Notre Dame, but who has been a friend of Notre Dame basketball for generations. Nothing illegal or anything, but he was always around for the student athletes and the coaches, no matter who the coach was. He’s a very humble, unassuming guy. But he’s influenced hundreds of lives and families. He’s the godfather of our oldest daughter. Eddie O’Rourke has played an important part of my family’s life, and if you talked to the players, they’d tell you the same.
Ed passed away last week at the age of 84. I was only able to stop in at the wake briefly, but he was already surrounded by his nieces and nephews, both of his actual and ND families, which I’m sure is just as he’d want it. His name never appeared on any stat sheets, but Ed was one of the most important things about ND basketball, and the program won’t be the same without him.
Safe home, Ed. And thanks again.