Notes from the Geetar: Hope in the Shrewd Berry

On March 28, 2000, Notre Dame took down Penn State at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, and a nondescript web site called spun up for the first time. Just under four months later, Irish head coach Matt Doherty unceremoniously bolted for North Carolina, NDHoops sagged under the weight of 150k visitors in a single day, and things were really off and running.

el kabong with geetar

Over the years, the site grew into the we all know and … well, know. Coaches came and went during that time, including five … er, four changes on the gridiron. But as Mike Brey’s tenure enveloped all but those initial four months of the site’s life, those upheavals passed the denizens of the Pit by. Although not everyone wished it to, Brey’s two decades in South Bend made him Notre Dame’s winningest coach.

Then that envelope closed in January. Besieged by what would become a 3-17 ACC campaign, Brey announced his retirement, and Jack Swarbrick became the first Fighting Irish Athletic Director to search for a head men’s basketball coach since Kevin White.

Wednesday, that search ended. And almost 23 years to the day, Notre Dame took something else from Penn State basketball besides a victory, as the Fighting Irish have hired Micah Shrewsberry as head coach.

What Hath Jack Wrought?

The 46-year-old Shrewsberry, a native of Indianapolis (where his family had connections to Swarbrick) and head coach in Happy Valley for the last two years, reportedly will become the 18th head coach of the Fighting Irish — and (pretty much) only the third in the last 53 years. Terms are unknown as of this writing, but reports indicate it will be a seven-year deal.

Shrewsberry drew national attention as he awakened the moribund Nittany Lion program and led it to its first NCAA tournament victory since 2001 with an upset win over seventh-seeded Texas A&M before bowing out in a close loss to second-seeded Texas. That success bore fruit, as PSU recently signed its highest-rated recruiting class ever.

He also brings some local experience to bear besides growing up in Indy. He played at Hanover, assisted at Wabash, DePauw, Purdue & Butler — where Brad Stevens thought enough of his abilities to bring him to the Celtics with him — and was the head coach for two seasons at IUSB.

Grading on the Curve

Notre Dame now has its coach, so now I finally can respond to the queries on the Pit and on my phone about who I wanted and what I think of Swarbrick’s efforts.

It’s no surprise to anyone who reads NDN even semi-regularly that I’m no fan of Swarbrick. I find his arrogance grating, I think his glad-handing in the good times while vanishing in the bad to be cowardly, and frankly, I await his upcoming retirement with bated breath.

That said, credit must be given where it’s due, so I do so here. Thanks to the progress his PSU team showed the last two seasons, Shrewsberry was among the highest-profile targets for the various high-profile jobs that came available. Public dilly-dallying notwithstanding, Swarbrick apparently didn’t allow multiple counter-offers to pull Shrewsberry away. Compared to the recent efforts to replace Tommy Rees on the football side, Swarbrick’s efforts stayed mostly under the radar until recently, and at the end of the day, he got his man. Certainly a win for him.

But for now, my grade for his endeavor must remain as “Incomplete”. We can’t evaluate the two most important things for the future of Notre Dame basketball at the moment. Until we understand and factor in those things, I must withhold my final grade.

From Shrewsberry: Dynamism

This, admittedly, is my shortcoming, because I don’t know Shrewsberry very well. But outside of game management and recruiting and the normal rigmarole of coaching a basketball team, the most important thing the head coach at Notre Dame must bring to the table is salesmanship.

Unlike its counterpart in the Stadium, Notre Dame basketball relies significantly more on the basketball fans of the greater South Bend metropolitan area. Some of those fans are students, most of those fans are non-alumni, but all of them are looking to be inspired to take Notre Dame basketball seriously again.

In the wake of the Elite Eight seasons of the mid 2010’s, as the on-court results suffered, so did the attendance numbers. The Marquette game this past December was, at best, half full, with a lot of those in the building wearing Warrior colors. Notre Dame managed a decent crowd for Brey’s sendoff win over Pittsburgh, but on the whole, the outlook towards the program by the fans lately has been, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic.

These are the attitudes Shrewsberry must turn around if he is to be successful. As much as he needs to recruit the student-athletes Notre Dame needs, he also must recruit the students and fans to create the atmosphere of a winning program. Creating a championship-level program is more difficult in the face of seas of empty seats in Purcell Pavilion.

When Brey arrived on campus, he toured the dorms, bought pizza for the students waiting in line for tickets, hit the alumni events far and wide, and successfully sold his vision for the program to a fanbase dulled by 10 years of mediocrity in the wake of Digger’s departure. The hole facing Shrewsberry isn’t as deep, but he would ignore it at his peril.

From Notre Dame: Support

While salesmanship is in Shrewsberry’s court, giving him the ammunition to succeed is in Notre Dame’s. And while past performance is no guarantee of future results, the school’s efforts in this regard have been lacking to say the least.

I think the Rolfs Athletics Hall is one of the better practice facilities in college basketball. At 77,000 square feet, it certainly is among the largest. While it’s not attached to the Joyce Center building, it is at least proximate, and boasts plenty of training and player-centric space. As such, it no longer was a detriment to attracting a head coach.

If only it hadn’t taken 19 years to get the thing built in the first place.

The tardiness of the facility is only the tip of the what’s-basketball iceberg at Notre Dame. Transfer restrictions (critical this upcoming season due to graduation and other roster losses), academic requirements, coaching and recruiting budgets, staff augmentations … it always has seemed Notre Dame was behind the curve dealing with such things.

Tom Noie talked about these limitations last week, believing ND would have to find a coach who “won’t be put off by asking the administration for this and this and this but is allowed/offered only that”. While it’s unclear how much Brey fought for such things, a look at Notre Dame’s staff page indicates he certainly didn’t get it. The program even has to share a head trainer with another sport that is in season at the same time.

If Notre Dame withholds the tools to get the job done, it doesn’t matter who they hire. And unless Swarbrick is going to take time out from the inevitable press conference gloating to suddenly hand Shrewsberry an oversize check, it’s going to be a while before we know how much things really have changed.

The Best of Things

But even though we don’t have all the answers today, there is reason for hope.

As Bruno pointed out on the Pit, this isn’t a desperation hire. Shrewsberry certainly didn’t need this job. He easily could have remained in Happy Valley, where Athletic Director Patrick Kraft (allegedly) was set to offer Shrewsberry a significant increase in salary and support for the program in many areas, including NIL. Shrewsberry certainly isn’t taking this job for the South Bend weather, so it stands to reason Swarbrick is at least matching, if not exceeding, what Kraft was willing to do for him. This would represent a sea change from previous (lack of) efforts on Notre Dame’s part, and is in itself grounds for enthusiasm. At a minimum, they’re covering a four million dollar buyout in addition to whatever salary Shrewsberry will be paid, so you can’t say the money isn’t flowing, at least initially.

Coming from Penn State, Shrewsberry also has experienced coaching at a school where men’s basketball tends to take a back seat attention-wise to football. He’s never going to be the first choice of the alumni clubs for their events (although, as I said above, it would behoove him to try). If he’s walking the campus with Marcus Freeman, his won’t be the first autograph sought. But this may bother him less than it would other candidates because he’s been living it already, and one certainly can argue Notre Dame basketball has a significantly stronger tradition than what he had previously.

So Where Are We?

Coaching acumen aside, Shrewsberry seems like a sharp guy who knows what he wants in his career and isn’t going to settle. He wouldn’t have considered, let alone taken, this job if he didn’t see a path to the high level of success he wants. The Notre Dame of the past certainly wouldn’t have offered that.

My position, therefore, is one of optimism tinged with a splash of wait-and-see. I have no doubt Shrewsberry knows what he’s getting into, and seems to be smart and driven enough to demand the things he’ll need. If he can recruit into a program like PSU, he certainly should be able to at Notre Dame. And I think a fanbase that was ready for change is going to come out and see what’s in store, because the coming months will be interesting indeed.

Welcome aboard, Coach Shrewsberry, we’re glad to have you.

What do you think of the hire? Let us know in the Comments section.

11 thoughts on “Notes from the Geetar: Hope in the Shrewd Berry

  1. Nice review. Didn’t know much so what I read from your assessment this hire seems good. I appreciated everything about Mike Brey even though his sendoff season wasn’t the best but neither was the last season of our previous basketball coach who had 2 National Championship and was a HOF coach. That hire seemed very good by Jack and this one seems the same. Its never bad to have some one with Indiana ties as he has who knows what he’s getting into to. LIke Niele he will improve on the previous coaches last act which is always a good place to start. Hopefully he brings us to back to back sweet 16s like Niele has by his 2nd year as well. That would be nice!

    Welcome Coach Shrewsberry.

  2. If Shrewsberry is smart he will look at what Niele Ivey has done. She too inherited a deleted roster from a successful coach, and in 3 years she has resurrected the program with an ACC championship and a sweet sixteen tournament run. She came in with patience and a plan, which she implemented with methodical efficiency. She managed her roster (with transfers out, transfers in, and new recruits) in such a way that she now has a core of 7 players who are perfect for her “defense first; score quickly in transition” strategic approach. Next year I would be very surprised if the ND women are not a top 5 team. There is no reason, based on what Shrewsberry has done at PSU, that he can’t accomplish the same success here as Coach Ivey. Where I think he will be superior to Brey is in the area of recruiting both high school seniors and college level transfers. The truth is Brey was not an enthusiastic and energetic recruiter, and quite simply that was the reason for his demise.

  3. Seems like the right guy, but if they don’t give him some room to bring in some transfers we’re in for a couple tough years. The cupboard, right now, is bare. Still mystified we have settled for mediocrity for so long. When a small arena is only half full on the better nights you know the leadership has been neglectful for some time. Welcome and best of luck, Micah. Go Irish!

  4. John Amberg says:

    I think it will be an uphill battle especially given the recent portal departures. The basketball program has always struggled with the powers that be to upgrade their facilities. Having said that there is no reason not to be, if not optimistic, then at least very excited and hopeful. I look forward to this new era.

  5. I’m optimistic with this hire. He was a guy I really hoped they would get. That said…..if he can’t consistently get players (either due to ND Admin or his own recruiting) it won’t really matter.

    Players make a program and the guys that ND had lately (who seemed like good “kids”), weren’t nearly good enough to win regularly in the ACC.

  6. ND Harvey,
    I love the hire, excellent game coach, makes adjustments, I hope he hires a good staff. Being from
    Philly, saw him coach @ the Palestra this year against Purdue…Anytime you take something from
    Perv State (PSU) you gotta love it….Go IRISH!!!!

  7. Mike Mc Fadden says:

    Micah sure has an extensive coaching background with much success. I am very old fashion and think these numbers in $$$M’s are ridiculous. My annual donation as strictly only a fan to Sorin Society does not even put a small dent in these coaches salary, I question how a payback is possible. Regardless, I think this is a pretty good hire but thought 5 yrs contract was more than enough for ND and Micah. Good luck Mr. Micah !!! Recruit, recruit, recruit.

  8. What I have seen in print is why Shrewsberry left PSU for ND. This is no question in my mind, he wanted to come back home to Indiana. ND and other strong academic schools are going to have a bumpy road, navigating NIL.

  9. Past performance of the Notre Dame Basketball Program Is not Indicative of future results. But it probably is.

  10. One nit: Swarbrick IS the first athletic director since Kevin White.

    As to the hire, I’m feeling more optimistic today about the basketball program today than at anytime during the past season. Hopefully, that’s a good sign.

    Welcome, Coach Shrewsberry.

    • Mike Coffey says:

      Yeah, that occurred to me this morning, but I figured I’d leave it. Hiring Brey pretty much was the first thing Kevin White did, and hiring Micah Shrewsberry pretty much will be the last thing Jack Swarbrick does, so there’s poetry there. Or maybe prose.