Fr. Pete reflects on creating memories and building fellowship with basketball team
Charlotte Edmonds | Friday, September 14, 2018
In the second half of The Observer’s feature with Fr. Pete McCormick, the Holy Cross priest discussed some of the more memorable moments of his past six season’s as men’s basketball team chaplain. As McCormick recalled various stories from his experience with the team, one common theme constantly resurfaced — the team has fun, and a lot of it.
At a time when college athletics are looking more and more like sophisticated Fortune 500 companies, the Irish have built themselves a reputation of breaking from the norm, more closely resembling a group that planned to meet up for a game of pickup at the Rockne Memorial gym, but just so happened to stumble into Purcell Pavilion.
This is by no means a statement on their ability. Their two Elite Eight appearances and an ACC Championship in the past four years, along with their top-15 recruiting class they’ve just welcomed in, speak for themselves. Rather, head coach Mike Brey has found his recipe for success in recruiting sometimes overlooked athletes with standout basketball IQs.
McCormick said one of his favorite memories was winning the ACC Championship in 2015 when, much like a kid in a candy shop, it seemed surreal that the Irish were the one’s that would be cutting down the nets.
“The first year [in the ACC} we got destroyed … The second year guard J[erian] Grant and guard Pat Connaughton … those were the two real leaders of the team,” McCormick said. “They both kind of unite and lead us to that magical moment. I remember thinking as I’m walking out and the confetti’s falling and I’ve seen this … so many championships ceremonies and I’m like ‘this is ours.’ I’m not watching it like it’s someone else.”
Over the years, the combination of unselfish play and a never-say-die attitude has produced a team that’s fun to watch — never counting themselves out or taking their opportunities for granted.
“[Brey’s] philosphy is so important here,” McCormick said. “That’s all intentional on his part … he said ‘It’s my job to make sure that these individuals —these guys — play loose. If they didn’t have the skill they wouldn’t be here. My job is to help them work through all the stuff that we tend to allow us to stop performing at our highest level.’”
McCormick said even through Brey is intense in his own way, throughout practice he’s always thinking about how can he give confidence to other people so that they, when the time comes, feel ready to step up.
That relentless attitude was famously on display back on February 9, 2013 when Notre Dame took on the then-No. 11 Louisville Cardinals. Down eight with 45 seconds remaining, sophomore guard Jerian Grant took control of the game, scoring 12 points to force overtime. That was just the beginning. After five overtime periods and having four players fouled out, the Irish escaped with a win in what became the longest game in Big-East regular season history.
“It’s one of my favorite games,” McCormick exclaimed. “It was just so much fun. Five overtimes!”
Much like everything he has a hand in, McCormick makes an intentional effort to be present and available to the team. In addition to celebrating mass before every game, McCormick is at many of the practices, and said players frequently stop by his office in Coleman-Morse.
He continually rejected the notion of what he does as work, rather calling his service to the basketball team a “passion project”.
“I love students … to me, it’s not work. it’s about just managing your time,” McCormick said. “I love being in residence at Stanford, I love serving with campus ministry. The problem is as a director, if you’re not careful you can spend all your time doing administrative stuff and actually not spend any time with students … a director of campus ministry that has no access to students isn’t a very good director.”
McCormick is in a unique position to see his many different passions intersect; most recently, through the development of “fellowship,” a designated time during away game for team discussions.
“The guys of their own volition started this group … Basically when you’re on the road there’s not that much to do,” he said. “You go to practice, then team meal, then it’s eight o’clock and we’re just gonna hang around.”
McCormick said they started sitting down after dinner and would throw out a topic of discussion.
“Big chunks of the team were there and then support staff and we’d get in on these wide ranging conversations that would be all over the place and we did it for every single away game,” he said.
McCormick particularly pointed to former Irish forward Bonzie Colson and junior guard T.J. Gibbs as leading the charge in gathering support amongst the team for fellowship. He also said those experiences are the reason he continues to be a chaplain.
“To be able to be apart of that and to hear what they were thinking … I’ve seen plenty of basketball,” McCormick said. “I can watch Notre Dame on TV. But to get to know the players and to understand how they see things, and what perspectives they hold, and what they’re passionate about, that for me is far more interesting.”
Going forward, McCormick said he’s looking forward to seeing how the players take the lessons from last season — a year riddled with injury and close losses — and use them to improve.
“Last year [Gibb’s] got thrown into that position because Matt Farrell got injured so now, T.J. has a sense as the point guard, this is my team,” McCormick said. “[Senior guard] Rex Pflueger, this is his senior year. Obviously, there’s a sense of ownership that these guys previously we’re under the wings of other guys but they both have incredible leadership capacities.”
In addition to the core leaders, Notre Dame is also adding arguably their best recruiting class with five freshman, four of which are four-star commits.
“To see what five freshman can do and how that changes the dynamic and how some of them are going to be forced almost immediately to enter into roles that are pressure packed and challenging, that to me is what’s so interesting,” McCormick said. “Then you throw in we’re playing in the ACC … it’s exciting.”
True to the team’s laid back approach, McCormick is just enjoying staying in the moment and developing relationships.
“For me, it’s an honor to play some small role in that.”