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  • Celebrating Our Own Success

    by Mike Coffey

    It doesn’t feel like 40 years since Dwight Clay’s shot ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak and propelled Notre Dame basketball to the #1 ranking. But the calendar says it’s so, and Sunday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion, then Irish head coach Richard “Digger” Phelps was inducted into Notre Dame basketball’s Ring of Honor as the current squad took down Virginia Tech.

    I, however, was not there.

    Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t any kind of protest against Digger or ND or anything like that. The annual AFC/NFC fundraiser for our parish men’s club was also Sunday afternoon. Since it’s our only fundraiser of the year, I’m the president of the club, and I was unsuccessful in getting the NFL to adjust their calendar, I stayed in Chicago and missed the festivities live. I did get to see the 88-1 documentary, and I’m very impressed with the job the FIDM folks did on it. That group has become one of the top-quality producers of video content in college sports, and if you’re not subscribing to their media channels, you should.

    But to be honest, the whole “nobody leaves Notre Dame #1” thing has always left me rather cold. Because “nobody”, if you look at ND basketball history, includes Notre Dame.

    Making a big deal about defeating a #1 team is celebrating your ability to prevent someone else from doing something special, not doing something special yourself. It’s a lot less Notre Dame and a lot more Boston College. The effort to win the game is something to be commended. But when you’re better known for beating #1 than for being #1, it’s kind of hard to generate pride and energy in the fanbase, which gives you the kind of crowds we’ve seen in the Joyce Center this year — including last night.

    I know ND men’s basketball has been ranked #1 in the past … the 71-70 win over UCLA in 1974 put them in that very spot … but damned if I can find any statistics on it. The Media Guide doesn’t say a thing about it that I can see, and Google’s not much help either.

    Our willingness to settle for taking someone else down rather than building ourselves up bothers me a lot, and always has. As of the end of the 2012 season, Notre Dame was #13 in all-time win percentage (up from #15 earlier in the century). Of the teams ahead of them, only St. John’s and Illinois have never won an NCAA tournament. I wish Notre Dame would put as much effort into improving that record as they do celebrating the events of a half-century ago. While it’s fine to remember past successes, if you don’t have current ones to build on, they quickly lose their luster.


    13 Responses to “Celebrating Our Own Success”

    1. martinjordan says:

      1. I watched that game with my father (ND ’51) and brothers and we had practically given up but …
      2. My oldest brother had been accepted to ND in the fall of 74.
      3. My father told him that he could go anywhere but my father would pay for ND.
      4. In the fall of 74 my father took him on the 12 hour drive to the campus to show him around.
      5. While in the bookstore they found the book which Digger had written about that season.
      6. It was called “A Coach’s World” and they thought I would like to have it.
      7. They heard that Digger was autographing copies so they went by the basketball offices.
      8. Digger wasn’t in at the time so they left the book and Digger autographed it to me personally and mailed it to my father in time for Christmas.
      9. I still have it. Thank you Digger!
      10. In the fall of 75 my father took out entire family out to the campus to drop off my oldest brother.
      It was his last visit.

    2. “I wish Notre Dame would put as much effort into improving that record as they do celebrating the events of a half-century ago.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This will not happen as long as Brey is the coach.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        And what coach out there is going to take the job given the support the program is given? Do you think ND can just snap their fingers and get any coach they want? Do you believe any coach with cachet and marketability is going to look at the ND job versus other jobs that would or could be available and think, “Yes, this is where I want to go”?

        Mike Brey has shortcomings, no doubt about it. But expectations that a coach with fewer shortcomings is going to jump at the chance to coach at a school with outdated facilities and difficult admissions and marginal support are, frankly, unrealistic.

    3. The Irish in those days were perennial contenders, athough they never were able to pull a NC. “Nobody leaves ND #1” fit the pride in a program that was seen to be as strong as the football program, back then in the 70s. That was before basketball at ND devolved into a sick joke. Like it or not, we are BC in hoops now, and as you say, the Nobody leaves thing has a hollowness to it. So we beat Duke – then lose to the next three conference opponents. sigh.

    4. Notre Dame has flashes of brilliance, if not championships and very consistent winning tradition, in other sports: Women’s basketball, Men’s & Women’s Soccer, Hockey, Lacrosse, Football to the title game in 2012, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving a deserving sport or two out, but the points are these: a) Men’s Basketball has been sooooo MEDIOCRE for such an extended period of time that it’s mind-boggling, and b) isn’t 13+ years long enough for a coach to “prove” he cannot get it done??? I’m not quite sure of the exact number, but hasn’t Mike Brey’s ND squad won only about 4 NCAA tournament games in his 13+ years?? Seems to be a consistent pattern of: play poorly enough that you don’t get invited to the NCAA tournament 1/3 of the time, lose your first tournament game another 1/3 of the time, and win just one game the remaining 1/3. With everything else on campus being gold-plated these days and standards set SO HIGH for students and educators, why are we willing to accept consistent mediocrity in Men’s Basketball, arguably the second most high profile sport we have??? Or is Mike Brey doing just fine based on the AD’s criteria, which must then be pretty ground floor LOW?

    5. I don’t want to agree with you about Mike Brey and the ND coaching job, Mr. Coffey, but I’m afraid I have to, which makes me very sad. Growing up in the 70’s, it was nice to hear ND’s name come up in the national championship discussion year after year. The Irish aren’t even in the discussion now. Digger broke our hearts many times, but at least we were at the doorstep. I don’t know where we are now and if we’ll ever get near the doorstep again.

    6. Frank Johnson says:

      It’s obvious that you didn’t attend Digger’s honor ceremony. The theme was about belief. And I was there at the 1974 game. The vibe was so positive then as well.

      It doesn’t surprise me though that you’ve twisted the ceremony to fit your cynical mindset. That’s what you NDNation people do.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        I know what the theme was. I watched the videos. As I said, they were very nice.

        If you watched the 88-1 video (also well done), Trgovich talks about “the ND guys didn’t have any championships so they did this instead”.

        That’s the kind of mindset I rail against. I want ND to win championships, not take pride in preventing others from doing so.

    7. Last irish hoops player I remember being pretty good was Laphonso Ellis. Pretty much lost interest over the years, but will flip them on if they are on TV. I think BC is a fair comparison. The schedule guarantees about 15- 17 wins and a one and done in the NCAA or NIT, guess it could be worse.

    8. ShermanOaksND says:

      To answer your question, Mike, ND has spent exactly 5 weeks at No. 1 in the AP poll. The first was the poll right after the 1974 win over UCLA, and the other were in consecutive polls from January 16 to February 6, 1979. In both instances, losses to UCLA knocked ND out of the top spot. ND was in the top 10 in every poll from March 1977 (two polls after the upset of San Francisco) to February 1980, and never lower than 14th in any poll from March 1977 through the final poll of 1980-1981.

    9. The show was very well done and made a number of points about the significance of the game. The point that we were like BC and simply kept UCLA from winning the title is wrong. NC State did that. ND was on the rise in basketball back then. ND did not settle for mediocrity until the top people changed. Once the new President took over, the decline began. And that decline included the football program. Football is not back to its level in the 60s and 70s. Is it no wonder that basketball has fallen so far off the sports radar? Now we are partnered with Under Armour and our AD talks about needing the edge new technology gives to teams competing for titles. Baloney. Get better athletes and coaches and you can win in street clothes. Ara and Digger got great talent and knew how to coach. Now we just want to win at the cash register. I knew we would change vendors the day Adidas gave Michigan a bigger contract than us. I liked it better when we beat our rivals on the playing field instead of on a balance sheet.

    10. Geoffrey '73 says:

      Digger had a huge mountain to climb. After Austin Carr, Collis Jones and Sid Catlett graduated, the cupboard was bare. When Digger came, he only had Gary Novak, and he kept spirits up in a very difficult season. Dwight Clay and John Shumate couldn’t play because they were freshmen. The home game against UCLA that season was specially difficult to watch. Digger almost got us to the top, and he started from very, very far down.