Friday, August 03, 2007

What if: The Doctor was Out

The boys at Blue-Gray Sky had a little fun last week playing the what-if game, reviewing various binary events in ND football history and hypothesizing as to the effect if they'd gone the other way.

At the end, they mentioned a couple of hoops-related possibilities. Since I'm not as encumbered at the start of football season as they are, I decided to take on a couple of them, and will be doing so over the course of the next couple of days.

I decided to start with a variation on the first one they suggested:

What if George Keogan had retired after his first heart attack?

George Keogan is the greatest basketball coach in Notre Dame history, and it's a shame more people don't know about him and what he was able to do. He was hired by Knute Rockne in 1923 after coming to Rock's attention as Valparaiso University's football coach. His teams won the only two National Championships in ND hoops history in 1927 and 1936. He was known as "The Doctor" by his peers, and some of his innovations like his switching man-to-man defense and low-post techniques used by Moose Krause changed the game -- the latter leading to the creation of the three-second violation.

But those honors were coming at a price. Keogan was a hopeless workaholic, sometimes laying awake for hours scheming and gameplanning. He took losses very very hard, and any hint of failure chewed at the man's insides.

By the time the 1940-41 season dawned, Keogan's doctors were trying to put the brakes on him. His blood pressure was sky-high and the physicians worried what would happen if he didn't slow down the pace.

Keogan, as was his wont, told them to go scratch. But he did agree to depart from his usual routine and hire an assistant coach, a first for the ND program. He didn't have to go far to find one, bringing in 1938 ND alumnus Ray Meyer out of Chicago.

Meyer had dabbled in coaching -- he even took over a game as a player after Keogan stormed off the bench in disgust at halftime, leading the Fighting Irish to the win. So even though it meant a bit of a pay cut, he and his wife packed their things and travelled 90 miles east to campus.

Turns out the hire was a good thing. After a loss in overtime to Illinois that season, Keogan's health finally began to crack under the strain, and he suffered a heart attack. Meyer took over the day-to-day management of the team while Keogan recovered, and coached ND for the rest of that season.

Keogan's future as coach was in serious doubt. The doctors continued to warn him of grave results (literally) should he not take their advice and ratchet back his activities. Meyer had coached the team well and was the obvious heir apparent. Elmer Layden had just resigned as football coach and athletic director, so the conventional wisdom was the new hotshot football coach, Frank Leahy, would not assume the A.D. chair and the position would be given to Keogan, who would turn his hoops squad over to Meyer.

But it didn't happen.

Keogan decided to remain as head coach, and Leahy took the A.D. position in addition to his football coaching responsibilities, just as his predecessors had done.

At the end of the 1941-42 season, Ray Meyer, seeing no end in sight for the Keogan regime, took advantage of an opportunity with DePaul. He coached the Blue Demons until 1984, making 21 postseason appearances and reaching the Final Four twice.

And on February 17th, 1943, while sitting in his easy chair at home following a practice, George Keogan died of a sudden, massive coronary.

A quick aside: for those of you who have watched "Wake Up the Echoes" and remember Johnny Lujack's story about Frank Leahy telling his players to "visit that man during the basketball season", he's talking about Keogan. I've never looked around Rock's grave to see if Keogan's is there. Next time you're there, check it out.

So what if it had happened?

Given it was so long ago, it's hard to speak definitively. But that's never stopped me before.

If Keogan had retired, Ray Meyer definitely would have been Notre Dame's coach. However, I'm not certain he would have remained at Notre Dame for the 42 years he was at DePaul.

While Meyer had the two Final Fours, one was at the beginning of his career (1943) and one at the end (1979). There were a number of years in between when the Blue Demons did not have spectacular finishes, including many strings of consecutive seasons near or below .500.

DePaul in those days, by Meyer's own admission, wasn't putting a lot of emphasis on basketball during those times. In fact, he tells a story of Fr. Joyce having to write a letter to DePaul's president to keep him from cutting Meyer's budget in the early 1970s. DePaul was content to keep Meyer as a known commodity rather than have to search for a coach for a deemphasized sport. Notre Dame would not have done that.

On the other hand, it's also very probable Meyer would have recruited much better at Notre Dame than he did at DePaul. Notre Dame was a much better-known name during his time, even in basketball. Some of the blue-chippers he couldn't convince to play on Chicago's north side might well have come to South Bend. Moose Krause, John Jordan and Johnny Dee certainly had no trouble getting talent to Notre Dame, and with all due respect to all three of them, none of the them was as accomplished or talented a coach as Meyer. Meyer's accomplishments might well have been higher at Notre Dame than he achieved at DePaul on that basis.

Still, there's no denying the ND basketball job was a lot more pressure-packed than DePaul's during that period. Would that pressure have gotten to Meyer and driven him into retirement long prior to 1984?

All evidence considered, I believe it would have. I think Notre Dame would have two or three more Final Fours (and possibly an NCAA title) to their credit, but I also think Meyer would have left Notre Dame within 25 years. And since Johnny Dee wouldn't have attended ND as a transfer, he probably would not have ended up coaching there, meaning the D.C. Pipeline would not have happened and Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, and all that crowd probably would have ended up wearing Carolina Blue rather than the Blue and Gold.

Would we still have seen Digger Phelps? Probably, since Digger grew up an ND fan independent of who was coaching the hoops program. But would he have had the cachet to create recruiting momentum instead of continuing it, and would he have had a UCLA series to work to his advantage? Might have turned out a lot differently if he didn't.

With regard to Keogan as A.D., I don't think he would have taken the job. The football coach ruled the roost at ND, and it was pointless to put a basketball guy in the slot. When they eventually split the position, it's telling Moose Krause, an ex-footballer (and hoopster, to be sure) was given the position. It's much more likely Keogan would have retired in fact as well as name, possibly going on to work with one of the nascent conferences as a commissioner or some other leadership position.

Keogan's decision, therefore, was a major tipping point in Notre Dame basketball history. Meyer in place of Moose would have set the Fighting Irish on a much different path. Whether or not that path would be better is a matter of conjecture.



Blogger TimNeely said...

Several things that are worth mentioning. In the 1940s, treatment of non-fatal heart attacks was very different than it is today. Not as much was known then about the heart and its ability to handle stress after an attack, nor were there such things as open-heart surgery or bypass surgery, nor was there a lot of emphasis on early detection. It's almost a cliche today to hear about people who survive heart attacks and live for decades thereafter, often vigorously, usually with a lifestyle change that involves exercise and nutrition. Whether Keogan would have fared any better with a more modern post-attack regimen than "bed rest and more bed rest" is a good question, because from all accounts Keogan was what we'd call today a "Type A" personality.

In keeping with Keogan's "doctor's orders" in the 1941-42 season, he traveled to very few road games that year; Meyer was the bench coach for almost all the away games (except for a game or two in Chicago).

Another important thing: If Ray Meyer had become Notre Dame's head coach, George Mikan would have ended up in a Fighting Irish uniform. Meyer recruited Mikan for Notre Dame when he was an assistant, but Keogan thought Mikan was too gawky and clumsy and decided he wasn't worth taking a chance on, despite his 6-foot-11 height.

8/04/2007 01:43:00 PM  

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