Emptying the notebook ahead of the (hopeful) start of the college and high school football seasons…
Consider every option, regardless of ridiculousness.
A couple fit that classification.
That’s the mindset as the Notre Dame men’s basketball program moves toward the 2020-21 season. The players all will be back on campus this week for the first time since March. For some, it’s their first time. The Irish might even do something involving a basketball and a court if all goes well with coronavirus pandemic protocols. Nobody knows what it means in terms of starting the season on time, having a full season or even finishing one.
That great hoops unknown has Irish coach Mike Brey and his staff running through every conceivable scenario for the season, for the roster, for the future. What if the Irish play only home games the first two months? What if the season only consists of 20 Atlantic Coast Conference contests and doesn’t start until January? What if games are played in empty arenas?
It’s led to some spit-ball scenarios that border on silly for Brey, including this one. Say the regular season is a go, but with a limited number of games. Like every team plays only 15. There’s some semblance of a league tournament but no guarantee of the NCAA tournament. What if the Irish took their core — the junior class of guards Dane Goodwin and Prentiss Hubb and forward Nate Laszewski, all expected starters — and just sat them this season? Redshirt them with an eye to the future and a two-year run that begins in 2021-22?
Too crazy to consider? Just like Notre Dame joining the ACC in football to help salvage a season. No one saw that coming. So here we are.
Parking that trio now would leave the Irish with seven available scholarship players. Left-handed graduate guard Nik Djogo would get so many shot attempts that he’d be shooting right-handed at season’s end. True freshmen Tony Sanders, Elijah Taylor and Matt Zona would have to grow up fast. Walk-on guard Elijah Morgan would play scholarship minutes. Junior class-wise but freshman eligibility-wise, guard Robby Carmody would get more run this season than his first two combined. Another walk-on or two would need to be added.
It would make for some weird rotations. It also would be a tough sell for the current juniors.
“Those guys would all want to play, but maybe we just redshirt them,” said Brey, half-joking, half-serious. “We’ll just play it out and come back next year. Hey, that could be the reality.
“It makes you think.”
Here’s another out-of-left field option — say a high-level team in Europe inquires in December about adding fifth-year senior power forward Juwan Durham. Like the juniors, he’s expected to start and play a big role this season. Durham’s experienced his share of injuries during his college career. Would he be better served taking a big-money guarantee in Europe or playing a partial college season?
“Do I owe it to him to get him out of here?” Brey wondered. “You know what, we probably owe it to him. Like, you’ve got to go.”
Strange times. Stranger scenarios.
• • •
Nearly 21 years later, former Irish coach Matt Doherty can laugh about that Friday afternoon. So might his former players, who were put through a crushing conditioning session like no other on what was supposed to be the day off.
Back up to 1999 when Notre Dame lost a home exhibition by 24 points to some outfit called Marathon Oil. Afterward, Irish All-American Troy Murphy terms the effort “lackadaisical.” The Tribune used the word in a headline the next day. That didn’t sit well with Doherty.
Instead of a Friday off day, players were told to report to The Pit, the team’s basement practice facility. There were no basketballs on the court, just garbage cans strategically placed in the four corners. And one chair.
Doherty sat in it. He instructed his players to get on the baseline. Every time he blew his whistle, the Irish would sprint to the opposite end of the court and back. No team he’d ever coached had been called lackadaisical, he told them, and this one certainly wouldn’t be the first.
Down and back.
Down and back.
The Irish ran 304 sprints in just over 90 minutes. Some players puked along the way. Others had to be carried a few times across the line. Doherty got up and left. Point made.
Four days later, with the run as a rallying point — former Irish guard Matt Carroll had scrawled 304 on one of his sneakers — Notre Dame upset then-No. 4 Ohio State in Doherty’s first game as coach. Even now, two decades later, everyone around that team knows what 304 means.
“Never did it again,” Doherty said of the wind-sprint session. “Coaches might be fired if they did that today.”
True. The players would definitely push back. But back then, they just followed orders. They had to run, so they did.
Years later, while watching the moving “Miracle,” former Irish assistant Bob MacKinnon called Doherty. That one scene — “Again!” — where coach Herb Brooks demands that his hockey players get on the goal line for extended skate/sprints back and forth and over and over? That reminded him of the 304 afternoon.
“We still joke about it when the players see me,” said Doherty, who stayed one season at Notre Dame before leaving for North Carolina. “We had to change the culture. Notre Dame embraced change; North Carolina didn’t embrace change.”
• • •
Midwest League president Dick Nussbaum and the late Joe Kernan shared many common interests.
The two loved baseball. Kernan helped save South Bend’s Class A franchise and Nussbaum now oversees the league it plays in. The two played the game at Notre Dame. They loved the Irish. They also shared a love for dinner. Specifically, finding places around the area to enjoy a good meal and good conversation.
One night, they’d go to Mishawaka. The next, out to Granger. Then maybe the following week up to Niles. Most recently, their dinner plans often kept them close to downtown South Bend, to a place that was within walking distance from Kernan’s condominium.
Burgers at CJ’s Pub was their spot. Each time the two visited, patrons would call out to Kernan. Wish him well. Everyone knew his name, and it seemed he knew everybody.
“He’d sit down and they’d have a Diet Coke ready for him,” Nussbaum recalled. “That was kind of our place.”
The 74-year-old Kernan died Wednesday after an extended illness.
Kernan and Nussbaum were close friends for decades, even after Nussbaum learned that Kernan had no use for lawyers. Didn’t like them. Couldn’t trust them. But there was something about Nussbaum that he did like. Something he did trust.
Nussbaum came to consider Kernan the older brother he never had. There was a mutual respect between the lawyer and the politician.
“He was the kind of person that inspired everybody to give their best effort,” Nussbaum said. “You’d want to do it, not because it was the right thing to do, but you didn’t want to let him down.”
Remembering Kernan hours after he’d died was tough for Nussbaum. He paused several times. He sighed. He started and stopped on his answers. But he knew he had to get through it. For him. For his friend.
“It’s just hard,” Nussbaum said. “I’m happy to talk about Joe. He deserves it.”