by Mike Coffey
I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area for most of my life, and the lessons of my sports formative years not imparted by Notre Dame came from there. Growing up, I watched Walter Payton run for the Bears, Carlton Fisk catch for the Sox, and Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick skate for the Hawks. I’m led to understand some baseball was played north of Roosevelt Road, but I have no personal confirmation of that.
And in 1989, I watched Doug Collins get fired as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
When Collins took the Bulls job, it was not one a good coach might want to take. Stan Albeck was 30-52 the previous season, and Kevin Lougherty had been just as awful the previous two seasons. But Collins got the Bulls’ feet under them, and in three years, had them up to 50 wins and solid conference finishes.
By the same token, though, the post-season was predictable. Every year, the Bad Boys from Detroit would come calling. Every year, the Bulls would go home empty handed. So after those three years, Jerry Reinsdorf decided it was time for a change, canning Collins and elevating assistant Phil Jackson to the head job.
I’ve never been one to make an emotional investment in the attrition or lack thereof of coaches in the professional ranks, because business is business. But I do remember the Collins-to-Jackson transition because of the consistent theme of those writing about it. Collins, the pundits said, was the Point-A-to-Point-B guy. The Bulls, with young Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the roster, needed someone to take them to Point C. Reinsdorf took the risk that Jackson was that Point C guy, and two years later, the Bulls were hoisting the first of their six championship trophies.
I couldn’t help but think of Doug Collins as I sat in a neighborhood watering hole and watched Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish get absolutely dismantled by Iowa State. An also-ran in an average conference, the Cyclones took ND to school, wiping them out by 18 points in a game that wasn’t that close, continuing a string of under-performance in the NCAA tournament by Brey’s teams. I thought about what Notre Dame was when Mike Brey took the job. I reflected on what has and hasn’t changed in the years since. And I wondered whether or not Jack Swarbrick should take a page out of Reinsdorf’s book.
After some prayerful meditation, I concluded he should not. But we’re closer to that point than we’ve been in the 13 seasons since Brey arrived in South Bend, and its time for both sides of the equation to prepare themselves to fish or cut bait.
The conditions of the Notre Dame job and the circumstances under which Brey accepted it back in 2000 are known to all, and it’s obvious much has changed for the better since then. Big East performance, both in the regular season and tournament, has outpaced all but the elite programs in the conference. Recruiting is on an uptick, especially recently. Home crowds have watched more wins than any time in the program’s history in an arena that actually looks like a Division 1 program and not a YMCA. And NCAA bids once again are de rigueur after a decade of going without them.
The Fighting Irish have arrived at Point B and unpacked their things, to the credit of everyone who worked hard to get them there.
But as that strong foundation sets, the irritation of the apparent ceiling grows. Once again, Notre Dame was bounced from the postseason by a team not as highly regarded, at least as determined by seeding. Mike Brey’s 13 seasons have seen only one game in the second weekend of the tournament, and if Dylan Page had made a layup, that number would be zero. As strong as the recruiting uptick has been the last couple of seasons, it has been matched by a performance trough. The last couple teams, while made up of outstanding young men, have been frustrating as hell to watch as they crater at the most inopportune of times.
I would love to live in a world where a coach was judged on the entirety of the season. But in the desert of the real, that’s just not an option. Like it or not, people judge college basketball coaches on how they perform in the NCAA tournament. And the tournament performance since ND’s last Sweet 16 appearance has been mediocre at best. Complaints about the lack of student support have been strong the last couple of years, but rightly or wrongly, such support is earned in games like last night’s, and time and time again, the opportunity is squandered. There’s a lack of excitement in Purcell Pavilion. People want to emotionally invest in this program, but even with the wins, they see listless teams and results like last night, and they turn away.
We seem to be stuck. And assuming everyone associated with the program is dissatisfied with that state of affairs, unless all of them decide to do something different, we’re going to stay stuck.
The players need to invest in their own success. So many times this season, I saw five guys on the court seemingly waiting for someone to take control of the game. Instead of someone grabbing the reins, they were left to drag on the ground, and the wagon ended up in the ditch. I would rather see five guys trying to take that control than none. They need to find their emotional fulcrum. If the upperclassmen still aren’t willing, I hold out hope the talented underclassmen, including a very highly-regarded freshman class, isn’t afraid to do so.
Mike Brey and his staff need to shore up the program’s shortcomings on the court. Just like in football, a one-dimensional team will get beat by an opponent who can stop what they can do well. We saw an example in Wisconsin’s loss to Ole Miss. As good as the Badgers’ defense can be, the Rebels’ offense could overcome it, and Wisconsin’s stagnant offense wasn’t up to the task. This team needs balance. 13 years in, a philosophy of outscoring the opponent isn’t acceptable, and if it’s a function of what he can do with “the guys he can get into the program”, that has to change too, both in the people making the admission decisions and the coaches trying to attract those players. Two good recruiting classes must be followed up by a third to create the strong nucleus.
Jack Swarbrick and his folks need to take the hurdles down. As someone said on the Pit, a new practice facility isn’t going to make Mike Brey a better coach, but it sure will make Notre Dame a more attractive program. That applies not only to the players we need to succeed, but if Jack finds MB not to be the Point C guy, we’re going to need to attract him. The lack of said facility grows more embarrassing by the year, as program after program invests financially in their own success. Meanwhile, an arena clean-up a decade late is followed up by rumors of a Rolfs Center re-purposing, creating a “we don’t want to but we’re being forced to” atmosphere. Being one of the lowest investors in men’s basketball barely got by in the Big East. In the ACC, it’ll be a millstone several orders of magnitude larger. If Notre Dame has decided it’s not worth it to them to invest in men’s basketball, they should be honest about it and let the people who spend hundreds of hours and dollars every season supporting the program factor that decision into their own plans.
Enroljas said it best: It is time for us all to decide who we are. We’ve got excellent underclassman talent on next year’s team. Mike Brey needs to show us he can be a Point C guy. Jack Swarbrick needs to prepare Notre Dame for the possibility he is not. If we want packed houses in Purcell Pavilion and reasonably frequent games in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, it’s the only way to go.