Everything about the gig was great for former Notre Dame point guard Eric Atkins.
He worked at his alma mater, a place where he went from a boy to a man on and off the basketball court. He worked for a coach in Mike Brey who saw enough of his leadership qualities to make him a rare three-time team captain. He had become a father since being back, had moved into new office space at the just-opened Rolfs Hall, a basketball-only facility with state-of-the-art everything. He had a front-row seat every night for some of the best basketball in the country in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He had ultimate job security. Atkins could work for Brey as long as Brey was at Notre Dame. Pretty good, right?
For many, yes. For Atkins, something was missing as he served three years as video coordinator for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team. For everything that Atkins could do, he couldn’t do something in that role he really wanted to do — coach.
Atkins’ job could take him only so far into the coaching inner circle. He could participate in staff meetings, arrange video clips for the staff and players to study, share his thoughts in scouting sessions and have conversations with players. He was a big part of the program. In other ways, he felt like he wasn’t. Especially when 3:30 rolled around every afternoon and the Irish stepped on the practice floor. That’s when Atkins stayed stuck on the sideline. Watching. Waiting. Wondering.
It ate him up.
“That was killing me, feeling like I had more to offer,” Atkins said late last week by phone. “I’d offered as much as I could advice-wise in my role, but actually being out there and showing them, I missed that. That’s really what I wanted to do — teach.”
It wasn’t going to happen anytime soon at Notre Dame. Not as video coordinator, a non-coaching position. Atkins knew that Brey’s staff, which included three fellow Notre Dame graduates and former players, was firmly entrenched. Nobody was going anywhere. From a want-to-coach standpoint, Atkins had hit the ceiling in terms of advancement.
Stay and suck it up, or go find out if he could coach? If he chose Door No. 2, he’d have to do it elsewhere. Somewhere other than the place he’d spent seven important years of his life. He loved Notre Dame, but he knew he had to leave it. Brey knew it too. Atkins had to go coach, get some experience, and maybe, if it all worked out, return one day to Notre Dame.
“It was time,” Atkins said of leaving. “Working with that staff, I loved and enjoyed my time (but) I felt like it was time for something new for me and for me to tackle a new challenge.”
Atkins received an assist last spring from his college coach. New Howard University coach Kenny Blakeney, like Brey and like Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis, is a graduate of DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. Brey recruited Blakeney to Duke and coached him in college. Blakeney later coached with Brey at Delaware during the Blue Hens’ best days.
When Blakeney started assembling his first staff for his first head coaching job, Brey pitched Atkins for a coaching spot.
“Both these guys are like sons to me,” Brey said.
In late May, Blakeney hired the 27-year-old Atkins as one of his assistant coaches. On Tuesday, Atkins returns to town as Howard (0-2) faces Notre Dame (1-1). It’s a game he knew was on the schedule long before he left. Knowing he’d return doesn’t make it any less awkward.
“I’m nervous about it, honestly,” said Atkins, who hasn’t been back to South Bend since he packed up his apartment and left in June for Washington D.C. “A big part of me is back there. It was really tough to leave. That’s why returning is going to be so weird.
“I feel like an outsider.”
Hardly. Do what Atkins did as a player and he’ll never be more of an insider. A three-year starter, Atkins played in 133 career games, still second in program history. He started 105 games, including 97 straight. He’s one of five Irish with at least 1,000 points (1,421) and 500 assists (589). He’s still the only Irish to earn consecutive ACC player of the week honors. The Irish won 89 games over his four years. Atkins played in big games. He made big shots. He had a hand in big wins. That’s some serious select company.
“Eric Atkins was rock solid,” Brey said. “He never wowed anybody, but you look at productivity numbers, what he was part of as far as winning, he had a heck of a college career here.”
A coaching life
One of the first lessons Atkins learned as a coach was to embrace the grind of recruiting. He’d heard stories from Irish assistants Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey, but how much of that really was true? Turns out all of it.
Recruiting in July for Howard, Atkins lived the life of spending literally all day in a gym. Sitting on uncomfortable bleachers, watching games until you can’t see straight, eating meals late at night, getting little sleep, then doing it again the next day in another city and the next in another city.
“I didn’t know how long the days really were until you actually get there,” he said. “You don’t know how tiring that gets. It’s different.”
As is basically everything about going from Notre Dame to Howard. The Bison traveling party flew commercial Monday, which required a connection nightmare that is the Charlotte airport. They’ll fly commercial home. A good portion of their road trips will bring bus rides up and down Interstate 95.
“But I did the G League,” joked Atkins said of his days as a pro. “I’ve done the whole nine so it shouldn’t be that bad.”
Returning to the Washington area — he grew up in nearby Columbia, Md. — Atkins moved back in with his mother to help save money. Maybe next year, he’ll buy his own place. Where he lives now doesn’t much matter. Assistant coaches, especially new assistant coaches, spend ridiculously long hours in the gym/office/film room. If they’re not watching film, they’re in meetings. Or conducting practice.
Ah … practice.
Atkins works with the Bison big men. He takes his coaching style from the assistants he worked with at Notre Dame. Guys like Ayers and Balanis and Humphrey. Like former Irish point guard Martin Ingelsby, now the head coach at Delaware. Atkins also channels his inner Anthony Solomon, the former Irish assistant now at Dayton.
“I draw from him the way he talks to guys, pulls them aside and really gets to know them,” Atkins said. “I feel like I’m a little bit of everybody.”
It didn’t take long for Atkins to learn about life as an assistant after a gut-punch defeat. Howard opened last week with a loss to Washington Adventist, an NAIA school. After that one, Atkins tossed and turned for much of a short and sleepless night, then was in the office just after 7 a.m. It didn’t matter that the staff meeting wasn’t until 11. He wanted to watch the film, then watch it again and see what he could do to help the Bison be better.
“When you’re on the assistant’s side, it feels a lot different,” he said. “It hits closer to home. You want to be the first one in the office.”
As busy as he is, Atkins still keeps tabs on Notre Dame. He talked last week hours before the opener at No. 9 North Carolina of the Irish having a real chance in Chapel Hill. How their age and experience was bound to pay off. Maybe it would that night with a win. It didn’t, but Atkins believes better days are ahead for the program. He’ll see it up close Tuesday. That is, if he can find his way to the floor. And then push past the weirdness.
“I’ve never sat on that other bench; I’ve never been in that other locker room,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of stuff that’s probably not that serious, but I’m already thinking about it all.”