John Jordan, Notre Dame's basketball coach, normally is a peaceable blue-eyed Irishman with a ready smile and a gregarious way. At 50 he displays the pear-shaped paunch and philosophical passivity of an aging plainclothes detective, which he might well have become. At the Hoosier Classic tournament in Indianapolis recently he seemed to be sitting with characteristic quietness, watching his listless team being pummeled by Purdue. But a close observer could see that Jordan's complexion, which is normally a sort of peach pink, was changing to, literally, apple red and plum purple.
When his team fled to the dressing room at half time Coach Jordan was in hot pursuit, followed briskly by a priest. ("Last rites," said an irreverent fan.) In Jordan's 10 years of frequent ups and occasional downs at Notre Dame this was clearly a down, and just when it would have been so nice to show up the football team, which this season was Notre Dame's worst ever.
John Jordan's basketball teams, always playing in the shadow of Notre Dame football, consistently face the best teams in the country. Adolph Rupp's fearsome Kentucky is always on the schedule. This year so are North Carolina, St. John's and UCLA, all ranked among the top 10.
The reason for such a rigorous schedule is not so much to establish a good record as to put Notre Dame on display in many different cities before avid coteries of Kellys and O'Rourkes. "In a sense, we are a national school, like Army and Navy," Jordan explains, "so we try to play a national schedule." This coast-to-coast consciousness has the disadvantage of putting Notre Dame on the road a lot, where basketball teams tend to get beaten. It has one advantage, however. "I can go recruiting, say, in Louisville, and Adolph Rupp can't ask me, 'What are you doing down here?' " says Jordan, trying hard to hide his obvious amusement. "Rupp knows I'm just looking for nice Catholic boys who want to go to Notre Dame."
January 16, 1961
This year Jordan's nice Catholic boys come from such diverse locales as Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and—yes, Adolph—Louisville.
Jordan believes in rugged defensive basketball, and the size of his team reflects this. Football coaches have cast covetous looks at more than one of his big, tough players. "When they start banging under the backboards," Jordan says, "it stands to reason the meaty man will eventually beat the bony one." Rough as a cut corn field on defense, and brutal as an off-tackle smash on offense, Jordan's Notre Dame teams have had many fine seasons. They won the Sugar Bowl tournament twice in succession (1954 and 1955), have been invited to the NCAA championship tournament five times and have produced a handful of All-Americas. In 10 years under Jordan they have won 173 and lost 98—which, incidentally, is better than the football team has done.
Football is still king
Not that Notre Dame will ever become a basketball school. The field house is a South Bend reconstruction of a Roman ruin: an ill-stacked pile of yellow brick, vintage 1898. It seats only 4,000, with the fans and school band so close to the floor that the slide trombone player could block a shot on a low note. All but 500 of the seats are free to students, who in return raise a din that can only be described, even at Notre Dame, as unholy. The concentrated male screaming has led some rival coaches to refuse to play at South Bend. After Rupp saw two of his best Kentucky teams lose there he swore he'd never come back again. "Not only did the student body roar at us," he complained, "but that group in black in the corner [priests and seminarians] must have been praying against us." Notre Dame now plays Kentucky on a neutral floor.
Jordan's office is no better than his basketball court. He and Assistant Coach Jim Gibbons share a tiny room in a freshman dormitory where the architecture and décor are early scholastic. "We face it—and it's only right," says Jordan. "At Notre Dame football is it."
It was football, as a matter of fact, that brought Jordan to Notre Dame. One of the seven children of an Irish policeman, he was raised in the aromatic "back of the yards" section of Chicago. His ability at touch football so impressed a Notre Dame All-America football player that he recommended Jordan to Knute Rockne, who offered him a scholarship.
"It was the Depression," Jordan recalls. "I had taken the Chicago police examination, but so had 75,000 other unemployed men that year. School looked like a good place to be." At Notre Dame a twisted ankle caused him to give up football—with no regrets, since he was an unhappy third-string halfback. He turned to basketball, and has been in it ever since. Each year at Notre Dame he has successfully passed his own first test of coaching ability: "Win more than your share."
When Jordan's latent Irish temper exploded at the recent Hoosier Classic, it was the first outright eruption in two years of relative quiet. (The previous one was on New Year's Eve 1958, the evening his first child, a daughter, was born. On the way to the Northwestern game that night he had implored his team in the very best Rockne fashion to "win this one for Bridget." It lost 102-67, the worst defeat in Jordan's Notre Dame career). At the Hoosier Classic, he had ordered his team to "mop up the boards" against Purdue, but his players acted as if they were still full of Christmas plum pudding. As Jordan silently turned his various shades of red, they violated every principle of defensive basketball for which he stands, trailed Purdue 38-24.
Jordan trapped the team in the dressing room. For 15 minutes he upbraided his players with shouts that threatened permanent damage to his fine Irish tenor. "You couldn't beat the Little Sisters of the Poor," he began. "You couldn't throw the ball in the ocean," he continued. "You are a bunch of quitters," he concluded.
The oration didn't work. Purdue won the game 78-58, and Notre Dame lost its fourth in a row, its longest losing streak ever under Jordan.
A new approach
The next day he told an Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce luncheon: "When the football team lost seven games they said football was back in its proper perspective at Notre Dame. We are trying to put basketball in the proper perspective, too. Or maybe," he continued, "my team saw Joe Kuharich get a five-year contract after the football season he had [2-8] and is trying to get me a long-term contract, too." Later he confided to an alumnus, "We've got to beat Illinois tonight or this team is done for the season. I got on them last night to make them mad. They got tense instead. So now I'll go easy on them."
He passed up his usual "go get 'em" speech before the game that night. Instead he told his boys: "Yesterday is all over. Now let's get back in business."
Notre Dame did. It controlled both backboards viciously, sticking to an offense designed to keep three men in position for rebounds. It crumbled Illinois with a brilliant weak-side play that let the brawny Notre Dame forwards bull their way in for lay-ups repeatedly. The Irish took an early lead and held it for a 69-66 win.
Last week, the season's toughest road trips behind him, Jordan was smiling and apparently passive again. His Notre Dame team still had a chance to please the alumni, to make the NCAA tournament and, not so incidentally, to stick an elbow into the eye of the football squad. If it succeeds, likable John Jordan will once again have won more than his share.