Lucky Irish

Notre Dame bungled its search for a basketball coach but still wound up with a winner in John MacLeod
May 12, 1991

Come, lads and lassies, and listen to how perfect John MacLeod is for Notre Dame basketball. Did you hear about his days as a student at I Holy Trinity Elementary in New Albany, Ind., where every Friday in the fall the nuns instructed the children to pray for the Notre Dame football team to beat that weekend's opponent? Did you know he was a good, tough Catholic kid, handy enough with his fists that he once served as a sparring partner for former heavyweight Jimmy Ellis? And did you know that coaching Notre Dame has been in the back of MacLeod's mind for years, even while he was coaching the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks of the NBA?

So raise a glass to Johnny Mac. Surely there could be no finer fit for Notre Dame than he.

That was the general tone last week in South Bend when MacLeod agreed to a five-year deal to coach the Irish, a day before he quit the woebegone Knicks, thus saving New York the trouble of firing him, which it almost certainly would have done in the next week or two. Notre Dame officials stressed how much MacLeod fit into the family, not how awkward and embarrassing their search had been for someone to replace Digger Phelps, who had coached the Irish for 20 years. The Irish found out that the marketplace for top college coaches has changed and that the prestige of coaching basketball at Notre Dame isn't what it used to be. After Phelps resigned on April 15, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, Pete Gillen of Xavier and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke were among the coaches Notre Dame pursued. All four decided they could live without the glory of coaching under the Golden Dome.

So what has happened to take some of the luster off the Dome? For one thing, some coaches were turned off by the school's treatment of Phelps, which was clumsy at best, hypocritical and callous at worst. During his tenure in South Bend, Phelps took the Irish to 14 NCAA tournaments, and all 54 players who completed their eligibility under him graduated. However, Notre Dame's record had started to slip—all the way to 12-20 last season—and attendance had too. The administration knew that firing a coach with Phelps's graduation record and length of service would be a bad public-relations move, but athletic director Richard Rosenthal and the Reverend E. William Beauchamp, the executive vice-president who oversees athletic affairs, had given indications that they wouldn't be crushed if Phelps moved on. By midseason, whenever they were asked whether Phelps, who had worked without a contract for 15 years, would be back next season, Rosenthal, in particular, was evasive.

Phelps took the hint and announced his retirement, and both Rosenthal and Beauchamp were conveniently out of town when Phelps held his press conference. Clearly he was forced out, even though neither he nor the university will admit as much. Phelps, who will turn 50 in July, said he wants to pursue his interest in painting and in writing fiction.

Rosenthal tried to put his own spin on the lengthy search for a coach, and he insisted that MacLeod is the only person who was offered the position. That would probably come as a surprise to, among others, Gillen, who was a Phelps assistant from 1980 to '85 and was known to have wanted the Notre Dame job. Gillen indicated that the way the school behaved toward Phelps entered into his decision not to pursue the opening. "That wasn't the main reason, but it was a contributing one," he said. "I feel bad about a friend, whom I consider a good coach, being so uncomfortable he chooses to leave."

But it wasn't just principle that made Gillen and the others reject the Irish. There was also the not-inconsequential matter of money. The unwritten rule at Notre Dame is that no coach will earn more in base salary than the highest-paid professor, which would be in the $100,000 range. While the opportunities for outside income are extensive, what with sneaker and equipment endorsements, TV and radio shows and summer camps, Notre Dame still would have been hard-pressed to match the reported $400,000 package that, for instance, Cremins has at Georgia Tech.

"There was a time when Notre Dame could just point a finger, and any coach would say, 'Yeah, I Ml come coach them,' " says Cotton Fitzsimmons, who is the coach of the Suns. "But that was before many of the college jobs around the country became so lucrative. A lot of guys don't want to give that up just for the prestige of coaching at Notre Dame. John, though, I think, had become disillusioned with the professional game. And he likes what Notre Dame stands for."

MacLeod wouldn't go so far as to say he was fed up with the NBA, but he did acknowledge last Saturday at Notre Dame that "it will he fun to work with players who are trying to get somewhere, as opposed to players who are already there." However, one of the reservations about the 53-year-old MacLeod is that he hasn't coached a college game since John Wooden was at UCLA and dunking was illegal. He was the head man at Oklahoma from 1967 to '73, during which time the Sooners had two 19-win seasons.

Nonetheless, many basketball observers think MacLeod will be more in step with the times than Phelps, whose teams were often criticized for playing a plodding, half-court style. "I prefer up-tempo," MacLeod said. "I want to recruit the type of player to Notre Dame who can play that style."

First he'll have to concentrate on keeping one such player, 6'9" junior forward LaPhonso Ellis, who missed the final 17 games of last season because of academic difficulties. Even as Ellis was praising the selection of MacLeod, he admitted that he's considering skipping his senior year to enter the NBA draft. The deadline for declaring is this Sunday.

"I want to discuss it with Coach MacLeod," said Ellis. "He knows something after being a pro coach for 18 years. He just has a different perspective about the NBA than Coach Phelps."

MacLeod hopes that knowledge of the pro game will give him an advantage in recruiting. "We're going to recruit players who aspire to the NBA," said MacLeod. "There are some things I'll be able to tell them and show them to help them get there. That's something I have to sell that other coaches don't."

MacLeod might also try and sell the Notre Dame administration on the need to join a conference. The Irish's status as one of the few remaining Division I basketball independents means they have to fashion their schedule around opponents' often scarce nonconference dates. The upshot is that 16 of Notre Dame's 28 games next season will be on the road. Yet even though MacLeod may get off to a rough start, he could turn out to be a wise choice. He's an excellent teacher, he has something to offer as a recruiter, and he has the reverence for Notre Dame that its alumni and fans expect.

Notre Dame botched Phelps's departure and the search for his successor, but it may have found the right man anyway. Could be there really is such a thing as the luck of the Irish?

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNThe Irish players MacLeod inherits aren't accustomed to the up-tempo game he teaches. PHOTOCARL IWASAKIMacLeod's last college job was with the Sooners in '72-73. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOPhelps's men graduated, but Notre Dame flunked the handling of his departure.

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