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Higher standards for men’s basketball

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

As Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team hurtles toward its worst record in 14 mostly mediocre seasons in the Big East, it is appropriate to ask when we all knew for the first time that the current coach might not be the right man for the job. For me, it was during the Sweet 16 matchup with the University of Arizona in March 2003, when he chose the highly irrational and sublime strategy of trying to “outscore” the top-seeded, NBA-talent laden Wildcats, only to be (surprise!) blown out by halftime. As I sat just one seat behind the athletic director, Kevin White, I said to myself, I wonder if he is as perplexed by this strategy as I am? For some, it may have been in March of 2004 when, in response to learning that his team was not selected for the NCAA tournament, he suggested that missing the NCAA tournament was something that had to be expected periodically at Notre Dame. For many more, it was evident in March of 2005 after he wasted two consecutive seasons of Notre Dame basketball for the sake of appeasing the interests of a malcontented prima donna, rather than putting the team’s goals first. And now, for just about everyone, it became shockingly transparent on Feb. 25, as Marquette marched into South Bend and turned the JACC into their home court and the Irish into their personal Washington Generals (see history of the Harlem Globetrotters).

Since I am not a professional basketball coach or player, I do not suggest that my two varsity letters in high school basketball qualify me to pass judgments on the coaching acumen of Notre Dame’s exceedingly well-compensated and well-connected head coach. For example, I am willing to admit that what appears to me to be a highly unconventional strategy of complete abandonment of a low post game, coupled with an alternative strategy of “have two guards dribble it around with no other motion or off-the-ball screening and then chuck up a three-ball from 35-feet with one second left on the shot clock and two hands in your face,” is a potentially more cutting-edge, sophisticated, winning strategy than the tried-and-true approach of feeding the low post for two to four-foot buckets or a foul shot every other time down the floor. I will also admit that it may be incredibly innovative to take the rarely pursued approach of recruiting only two college-caliber big men during six years as coach and combine that with a complete lack of attention to teaching those players how to play the low post so as to ensure no semblance of an inside game as an option for your offense for three straight seasons. Lastly, it may be the veritable future of the sport to state as your goal “if they shoot 48 percent, we’re gonna try to shoot 55 percent because that is who we are,” and combine that with the rarely-employed defensive philosophy that consists of “stand flat-footed, keep your hands at your side, play as passively as possible, never jump out on high screens even when we are ahead by three points with two seconds left in the game and never, ever, box out as if you intend to actually obtain the rebound.” These may be the mandates of a true visionary, and it is not for me to suggest that other programs, for example, Indiana and Duke, which have combined for seven national championships via total commitment to defense and fundamentals, know any better than the current Notre Dame coaches as to how to achieve success on the court.

However, I do feel qualified to state that at Notre Dame, where excellence in men’s basketball was once a staple (see long-forgotten era from 1973-1981), mediocre-to-awful basketball as displayed in such historically astounding fashion the past three years, should never be accepted. The question is: why has Notre Dame, which is arguably the national benchmark of combined academic and athletic excellence, tolerated essentially two decades of non-existent men’s basketball? At a school that annually competes for national honors in women’s soccer, women’s basketball, fencing, cross country, baseball, women’s tennis and lacrosse, why has the administration treated the men’s basketball program like the infirmed little sibling, as if unable to meet the standards to which everyone else in the family is held? This is particularly galling and ironic given that the legacy of success in men’s basketball at Notre Dame needs to take a back seat to no other program on campus, save to that of the football program.

Perhaps the “soft bigotry of low expectations” surrounding men’s basketball has come directly from the head coach alone. We certainly have all grown weary of his pathetic six-year running refrain of “we are just trying to steal enough wins to make it on to the tournament bubble.” As likely, I suspect it is the combined failing of the head coach’s vision and that of the athletic director, who hailing from Arizona State, may have no working knowledge of Notre Dame’s once-high standards of excellence in men’s basketball; after all, this is the same athletic director who tolerated the Davie era far too long, panicked in hastily selecting two consecutive unworthy coaches for the football program (as if he never considered that Davie would ever leave as head coach), had to be ordered to fire the last football coach when it was obvious that success would never be in the offing and then, again, having not learned his previous lesson, pathetically pandered to the wrong coaching target again (in Utah) in a very public and embarrassing manner. Regardless of where this tolerance of mediocrity originated, the current problem at Notre Dame is not that “the landscape of college basketball has changed since Digger was the coach” or that “the JACC needs to be renovated and new practice facilities are necessary” or “the academic standards impede recruiting the best players.” The current problem is that the Notre Dame leadership needs to assign the same high standard to men’s basketball as it does to football and every other sport at the school. When University President Father John Jenkins overhauled the football program 14 months ago, he stated that, in order for Notre Dame to be successful in football, they needed to succeed “ethically, academically and with wins on the field.” Out of simple respect for the current players on the basketball roster, that same mandate needs to be applied immediately to the men’s basketball program. Thanks to a lack of accountability and high standards for the basketball team, Chris Quinn, a splendid basketball player who might otherwise be this generation’s John Paxson, has gone to the NCAA tournament once in his four years of labor at Notre Dame. For the administration to allow the men’s basketball program to continue to languish in its current vegetative state does a disservice to all the younger players on the team, the incoming recruits, the student body who support the team and those who built this once-storied program.

As a final point, I would remind the administration that, the last time I checked, the men’s basketball coaching position at Notre Dame was indeed a “job,” not a volunteer camp counselor position. In fact, I suspect it ranks as one of the most highly-compensated positions at the University. As such, there should be fundamental standards and milestones which are required to be met. As an ordinary example, in my job as a new faculty member at a university medical center, I was given three years of financial support up front, with the stipulation that I would achieve external (National Institutes of Health) grant funding to pay the entirety of my salary and research budget by the end of that time frame. If I failed in those goals, I would be at imminent risk of losing my university support and position. By virtually any other professional standard, six years is plenty of time to objectively assess the milestones achieved by this basketball program. Short of simply existing, it is not clear what goals are being met, other than the most dubious ones of failing to qualify for the 12-team Big East tournament and having the worst conference record in Notre Dame’s history. I would submit to the administration that simply holding the men’s basketball coach to standards that are appropriate for Notre Dame would be a good place to start. For example, 1) annually compete for the Big East conference title. 2) Annually finish in the top 10 of the national rankings. 3) Annually compete for one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament bracket. If these goals seem outrageous, consider that from 1970-1981, Notre Dame finished in the top ten final national rankings seven times and garnered several number one to four seedings in the NCAA tournament! Consider also that Notre Dame is the 11th winningest men’s basketball program in NCAA history (behind Indiana and ahead of UCLA) and has the second-most 2,000-point scorers in NCAA history. Digger Phelps obviously understood Emerson’s fundamental tenet of human competition: “You have to aim above the target to hit the target!”

The history of college athletics has shown, more than at any other level, the impact that the right coach can have at the right institution. The basketball programs at UCLA and Indiana come to mind as good examples. I work at an institution, Duke University, which, in 1982, had a comparable, if not inferior, history of achievement in men’s basketball compared to Notre Dame’s to that point. In that year, a single individual, a new head coach, came to that university, which had an antiquated arena and mediocre practice facilities, and through his sheer, unrelenting commitment to excellence, they have become what they like to be considered, “the Notre Dame of college basketball.” Notre Dame needs a basketball coach and athletic director who, recognizing Notre Dame’s own legacy in men’s basketball, will commit to bring the Irish back to the top of the rankings, not to a seat on the annual bubble. And anyone who doubts the impact that hiring the right coach can make for an institution should ask the men who hired Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.

John P. ChutealumnusClass of 1986Feb. 27