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Men’s Basketball

Fr. Pete adds unique dynamic to basketball program

| Thursday, September 13, 2018

For Fr. Pete McCormick, it doesn’t even seem like work. Serving as chaplain of the men’s basketball team for the past six seasons in addition to fulfilling his duties as director of campus ministry and priest-in-residence at Stanford Hall, one might get burnt out easily. But not for McCormick. He seems to thrive off the constant activity.

Before I had even stepped on campus as a student I knew of Fr. Pete’s influence across campus. It’s hard to make it a week here on campus without hearing of some event he’s hosting or receiving one of his big grins as he bikes by to one of his many commitments. It seems silly but there’s really no way to describe the effect his positive energy has. Needless to say, he’s a fan favorite.

That said, nothing could’ve prepared me for his passion for the community when I initially spoke with him, profiling his experience with Mike Brey’s program. He’s no doubt a sports lover, but more importantly; he recognizes sports as an opportunity for good life skills and lessons. This identification, paired with his likable personality led him on the path that’s taken him to Maui, Hawaii, given him two Elite Eight appearances and an ACC championship ring that he jokes “you could land a small helicopter on.” 

Observer File Photo

Fr. Peter McCormick dribbles a basketball before Notre Dame’s contest against North Carolina in the Elite Eight of the 2016 NCAA Championships at The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Penn. The Irish lost the contest 88-74, and North Carolina went on to lose in the National Championship.

However, he wasn’t always the guy. Seven years ago, in his sixth year as a Holy Cross priest, the Grand Rapids, Michigan, native joined a fraternity of priests who all served the team on rotation throughout the season.

“The way we worked the chaplaincy model … was to have a series of priests basically take whatever games they could,” McCormick said. “You may have 20 priests and the schedule is say 35 to 40 games long, you obviously divvy that up and everyone takes one or two game and it’s over.”

But McCormick felt there was so much untapped potential for this position to have an impact on the team.

“At first it was great, loved that, but what I found as I got a little big more into that was the guys didn’t necessarily know who the priests were,” he said. “You know, just another Roman collar coming in to celebrate Mass and they appreciated it and they were very polite … there’s a need here.”

McCormick said he felt if they were really going to commit to this role they needed to reduce the size of the rotation.

“One, maybe two guys, and that’s it,” he said.

But, like any established system, things don’t change that easily. McCormick said he originally proposed that idea and struggled to get much of a response. 

“It was like we’ve got a system that’s working, there’s no need to disrupt that,” he said. “So that idea largely went no where.”

At this point in our conversation, there was a shift. Much like the year that followed the initial rejection, McCormick seemed so eager to share the moment when everything changed.

“[Fr. Joe Carey] was the director of Campus Ministry at the time and I had pitched this idea past him so he said ‘OK, thanks. [I] appreciate this suggestion.’ About a year later, I get a phone call from him.

“I’m the rector of Keough hall. I’m watching SportsCenter,” he said, acting out the process of receiving the phone call. “I’ll never forget exactly where I was and it’s about 10 in the morning and I’m just kinda catching up on the news — sports, rather — and all of a sudden my phone rings and it’s Fr. Joe and he says ‘I’ve thought about your proposal, now for over a year, and I think it’s a good idea and I’d like for you to do it.’”

McCormick said Carey, a well-known figure on campus for many decades, offered him time to think over the decision, but he immediately accepted. 

“I don’t need to discern this at all. Yes. Done,” he recalled. 

That conversation has propelled McCormick to moderate fame, frequently landed him on national television at the end of the bench or celebrating the team’s first conference title two years into joining the ACC by hanging on the rim. Despite the attention he sometimes attracts, McCormick’s priority is always on being a resource to the players. 

“Dealing with all the complexities that come with being an undergraduate, throwing an entire basketball season … in addition to all the critique of these seemingly wise people in the audience .. it’s a lot of pressure,” he said.

Although he has a unique vantage point from the bench, McCormick said there are countless actors behind the scenes who are essential to the performance of the team. True to Notre Dame’s mission of holistic growth, he specifically mentioned Tony Rolinski, the head strength and conditioning coach, and Pat Holmes, the director of academic services for student-athletes as being crucial to the team’s success.

“There’s this amazing picture from last year with the entire group of seniors all standing there with their hat and their stoles, standing there having graduated,” McCormick said. “Pat’s nowhere in that picture but he’s one of those guys who’s absolutely made this happen. My role is to be present like those guys are and to be a resource to the student athletes in whatever they need.”

McCormick noted the unique culture Notre Dame has built over the last 18 years under Brey. The program boasts a strong four-year graduation rate, something uncommon to similarly competitive programs. He said this environment allows the support staff to really invest in the players as individuals. 

“There’s all this transformation occurring,” McCormick said of players’ adjustment into college level of competition. “There’s not a single one of them that weren’t the best or second best player on their team and all of a sudden [they have] to completely relearn roles and understand how you’re going to relate to this team differently and the sacrifices that are going to be made to get even marginal success.”

McCormick said that’s what he looks forward to the most — witnessing the maturation of players, on and off the court. 

“At Notre Dame, I have the added benefit of doing just that,” he said.

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