Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton developed unbreakable will early on
CLEVELAND—Since 1955, the Fidelity House recreation center in Arlington, Mass., has served the area’s youth with various sports and arts activities, currently offering everything from basketball to a Lego Club. As a child, Pat Connaughton spent a considerable amount of time at Fidelity House and its hoops program. His father, Len, loved the way the people there taught the game; defense was a focus, not an afterthought. No coast-to-coast layups, either. Players always had to pass at least once before shooting.
The Fidelity House travel teams comprised mostly suburban kids, and they often competed against city outfits from Roxbury or Mattapan. They were tough and aggressive. In the face of that, some of the Fidelity House players naturally shied away. Len Connaughton recognized this dynamic. He tried to preempt it with his son, a promising athlete who could make shots on a regulation basket with a mini-ball at age 3 and who hit a wiffle ball into a storm window and cracked it a year later.
Len wanted his son to stand in and up to rugged competition, and he had advice for that. In everything in life, Len told Pat, whether it’s a business negotiation or tests at school or a baseball or basketball game, someone always quits. That’s how it works. Someone always does it a little better, someone always has a little more determination. And someone always gives in.
You just can’t be that guy, Len said.
As he walked onto the Quicken Loans Arena floor for an open practice Wednesday, Pat Connaughton was a man of many parts. He was a senior captain and the propulsive force of personality for a Notre Dame basketball team that reached its first Sweet 16 since 2003. He was also a professional baseball player, drafted by the Orioles last spring and given a $400,000 signing bonus on the projection that his 96 mph fastball would eventually bring him to a big-league pitching mound. And, finally, he was the owner of a signature coveted perhaps more than any other by a dozen fans lining the tunnel.
“Great shirt,” Connaughton told the beaming teenage girl wearing a replica of his Notre Dame No. 24 jersey.
He has, by now, left his imprint just about everywhere. The Irish were a disjointed, 15-17 disaster a year ago. They would not have 31 wins, an ACC tournament title and would not be in Thursday night's Midwest regional semifinal against Wichita State without Connaughton’s razor-wire competitiveness establishing an uncompromising tenor this season. His presence helped a program essentially unburden itself.
Before that, though, he had to bear a burden of his own: informing major league franchises that he was going to pursue basketball even if they drafted him, consciously undermining his own stock and surrendering hundreds of thousands of dollars in draft position. Connaughton had to reject everyone else’s idea of what was best for him. It seemed like an uncommon decision.
To the great relief and benefit of Notre Dame, it was the same decision Connaughton has made, time and again. He is not the guy who gives in.
“I’ve always enjoyed the fact that a lot of people didn’t have that much confidence in what I could do because I enjoy proving people wrong,” Connaughton said. “I was texting with someone the other day and they asked me a question, 'What would do you if you didn’t play basketball, or if you didn’t play baseball? What would you want to do as a job?’ My answer was, ‘I’ve never even thought about it.’”
He always carried the confidence that one or the other, or both, would come through. The baseball part did, certainly; he was Baseball America’s No. 128 overall prospect by the end of his junior season and went to the Orioles in the fourth round. And when he talks about why it was important to return to Notre Dame, Connaughton cites the degree he now has and his basic love for basketball. It is perhaps most accurate to pin it on the hatred he had for his basketball experience last winter and why he subsequently asserted himself as a leader that Irish coach Mike Brey describes as “maybe the best I’ve ever had.”
Connaughton’s comprehensive production—12.5 points, 7.3 rebounds per game, 42.7% three-point shooting—is one thing. Plays like the block on the potential game-winning three-pointer from Butler’s Kellen Dunham in the round of 32, or the huge overtime three from the corner that night, are another. The physical imposition of his will is significant. It is borderline ancillary when compared to every other way Connaughton imposes it.
Last summer, Connaughton began his professional baseball career with the Class A Abderdeen Ironbirds. On an interminable bus ride between outposts he can’t recall, he checked on a group text between Notre Dame basketball players. Jerian Grant, the Irish’s other senior captain, set a time for summertime pickup games. Various objections arose. Someone had to eat. Someone had plans. Someone wanted to go to bed.
From the bus, Connaughton threw some heat. Jerian is in charge, he wrote to his teammates. He is the one that will set the time. Everyone else will be there. Find a different time to do the other things you have to do. That’s how we’re going to do it this year. The voice of the Irish had been established.
“On the court,” forward Austin Burgett said of Connaughton’s approach, “it’s really serious and we need to get [stuff] done.”
With Notre Dame down nine points to North Carolina in the ACC tournament championship, Brey left a timeout huddle and Connaughton took over, demanding the Irish dig in and get “kills,” or three defensive stops in a row. The Irish immediately went on a 27-8 run, capped by a Connaughton three-pointer, and eventually won by eight. Last weekend, Butler forward Roosevelt Jones was dissecting the Irish defense, piling up 19 points in the first 30 minutes. In the game plan, Connaughton wasn’t a candidate to guard Jones. But Connaughton demanded the assignment during a timeout.
Martin Ingelsby, the assistant who compiled the scouting report, waved him off.
“Coach,” Connaughton said, “I [bleeping] got him.”
Jones scored four points over the last 14:37 of regulation and overtime.
“And then Pat has told me that every day since,” Ingelsby said.
The presence and All-America level production of Grant, who missed the second half of last season because of an academic suspension, and the growth of starters like Zach Auguste or Demetrius Jackson, helps explain how Notre Dame extricated itself from the mire of 2013-14. But the significance of Connaughton rewiring the team’s personality cannot be overstated.
Among the many reasons for the program’s continued postseason failings—the Irish had just two NCAA tournament wins since 2008, before this run—was a mental pliability. In anxious moments, Notre Dame faltered. It gave in.
Connaughton hesitated to assert himself last year because he was unsure how people would take it. He felt that was his failing and he refused to repeat the mistake. He made himself heard so everyone understood they had a voice. Criticism wasn’t personal. It was, in fact, an adhesive; it was meant to make you better because you had something to contribute.
“Everyone has something to offer to this team,” Connaughton said. “Everyone has the ability to call someone out or get on someone’s back when they don’t feel like they’re performing. That’s what makes this team better, day in and day out.”
So on Wednesday, he signed autographs as the Sweet 16 awaited. It was an effective retort for those wondering about the sense in Connaughton returning to Notre Dame. Of course, they’ll get another chance to wonder, given what comes next.
“I said to my wife, I think the kid is going to die tonight,” Len Connaughton said.
But Pat Connaughton survived and advanced just like he's always done, which is what makes this March so curious. His Notre Dame basketball experience will end within two weeks. His pursuit of a career in the game will not. Connaughton will not relinquish the idea that everything is possible for him. He will not submit to a narrative. He did not in high school, he did not in college and he will not now.
“I’ve always said I’m going to play two sports as long as possible,” Connaughton said. “I’d be doing myself a disservice to burn a bridge before I saw what was across it.”
It is important to note what he is sidetracking here. When Pat was a high school senior, Len Connaughton received second-hand word that the Yankees were willing to draft his son in the first round and make him a millionaire—but only if he gave up hoops and college. The Orioles, at present, see much of the same potential.
“He’s an easy guy to like because you have such a big, strong athlete,” said Brian Graham, Baltimore's director of player development. “You look at the plus fastball and you look at his athleticism and then you graduate to the aptitude and the leadership and the competitiveness and his character, how he performs under pressure. You’re looking at a pretty special athlete.”
Graham has been in touch with Connaughton over the past few weeks. He’s wished him luck in NCAA tournament games. The Orioles are willing to be patient. They understand he loves basketball. They also believe that Connaughton, in the end, is a baseball player. They saw how only a few weeks of professional drill work on Connaughton’s release point and stride direction last summer allowed him to deliver pitches with more effectiveness, velocity and ease all at once; to “get up and get out with his fastball,” as Graham put it. Connaughton felt it, too, after posting a 2.45 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings during six games with Aberdeen.
“I realized if and when I ever put my mind strictly to baseball,” he said, “I can do some things very few people in this world can.”
And yet he cannot let go of the sport that tugs at his heartstrings, even as it is less likely to fill his bank account.
He is not the first Notre Dame athlete to endure this push-and-pull. It was only a few years ago that Jeff Samardzija was a prolific wide receiver in the fall and promising pitcher in the spring. Samardzija had such an over-packed schedule with football that he could not meet with individual major league scouts during the fall, as is customary for prospects. Instead, during baseball season, he met with 15 at a time, across two sessions. All of them wondered about his attachment to the gridiron.
“A big part of these meetings was these guys saying, 'do you really think you can go play professional football and still pitch?'” Samardzija told SI.com in a telephone interview from White Sox spring training camp in Arizona, where he was just named the opening-day starter. “I go, 'listen, if you guys don’t think I can do it, then why are you here?'”
Ultimately, Samardzija took the uncertainty out of the process; he abdicated his football pursuit before so much as heading to the NFL combine, beginning his career in the Cubs organization in 2008. He knows well the unusual toll the twin pursuits can exact.
“There has to be a drive to see the big picture,” Samardzija said. “You’re always really busy, you’re always pulled in a lot of different directions. Every individual moment is probably too much for you and probably a little overwhelming. But when you’re looking ahead on where you want to be 10 years down the road, that puts everything into perspective and makes you realize why you’re sacrificing so much now. You need to be driven.”
This is the best explanation for why Connaughton showed up at a recent Notre Dame practice with a sore right arm, thanks to the off-season Orioles throwing program he’s following while also pursuing a national basketball title. It explains why he and his father would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to drive to an AAU baseball doubleheader in Connecticut, then receive a call from another parent that it was rained out, and then turn the car back up I-95 to make a midday AAU basketball game in Boston. He does this because he wants to—and because he can.
Connaughton’s outlook is not basketball without borders. He will not entertain a stint in Europe. It is a professional roster in the NBA or it is a trip to a minor-league affiliate. The Orioles are fine with this because they believe they know how the story will unfold.
“It’s O.K. because we do believe at the end of the day,” Graham said, “he’s going to be a baseball player.”
The guy with the pen in his right hand? He’s happy to not be as sure.
“It’s very cool,” Connaughton said, “to be in a position where it’s not known what I’m going to do after this season is over.”
Jack Swarbrick has come to know Connaughton perhaps as well as any athletic director knows an athlete at his school. This is due to Connaughton being an affable, jovial kid, unafraid to bust chops or have them busted. Once at a soccer match, Swarbrick noted Connaughton’s footwear of choice: a pair of red Nike sneakers (Notre Dame is sponsored by Under Armour).
Connaughton explained that he had nothing else to wear. The athletic director wondered why one of his athletes didn’t make the eight-minute walk to the basketball locker room to retrieve a pair of school-issued kicks. Connaughton sheepishly conceded the point.
“The next day I show up, and the red Nike shoes are in my office,” Swarbrick said. “He delivered them to me.”
It is with this knowledge of who Connaughton is and what he has accomplished that Notre Dame’s athletic director, once an undergraduate student there himself, tries to resist hyperbole when he contextualizes the senior’s achievements. Connaughton helped a basketball team to a postseason breakthrough it craved for more than a decade. He became a prized pitching prospect with no limits on the horizon. He earned a degree from one of the top business schools in the country. It is with all this high-level competence and achievement in mind, plus an eye to the increasing creep of specialization in sports, that Swarbrick wonders if he’ll ever see another Pat Connaughton again.
“I’m not a Notre Dame historian like some of our fans,” Swarbrick said, “but there can’t be a lot that compare to him.”
Always with Connaughton, it is a curiosity about what comes next. He matriculated at an all-boys high school with elite athletics … and made the varsity basketball and baseball teams as a freshman. He signed with an academically rigorous, high-profile university … and thrived in two sports without any publicly known blips in academic performance or conduct.
Now he is here in the Sweet 16, two wins away from college basketball nirvana.
“To be honest with you,” Connaughton said, “it’s been everything I would have liked to accomplish, and a little more.”
What comes next?
It's usually a matter of what comes first.