Noie: How assistant coach Anthony Solomon wound up at Notre Dame for third hoops tour
Three words offered over a cell phone this spring may change the direction of a Notre Dame men’s basketball program in need of a fresh one this winter.
What about me?
Looking to retool his support staff after the Irish went 11-15 overall and 7-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference but really couldn’t – or wouldn’t – consistently defend, head coach Mike Brey reached out to former assistant coach Anthony Solomon.
The two had twice worked together at Notre Dame, with Solomon on staff for the program’s first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons in 2003. He also was a key piece to consecutive Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016. Solomon set out on a different coaching course following that second postseason run, but the head coach and former assistant remained in touch before and during and after subsequent basketball seasons.
Brey sought Solomon’s opinion on a few names of possible hires. Tell me about this guy. How about that guy? Would he be a good fit for Notre Dame? Would that one? Just before their conversation ended, with Brey having gathered the necessary intel to move forward, Solomon lobbed a question to his former boss that took him back to the past.
What about me?
Brey was intrigued by the idea of Solomon returning a third time. Brey told the Tribune last week that he hoped the conversation might go that direction, but it would have to get there organically. It did. When Solomon was part of Brey’s previous staffs, those Irish teams were really good. The chemistry was connective. The relationship Solomon built between staff member and player was pure. He often tapped into a player’s potential and coached them to levels not previously reached.
Solomon is demanding, but he often reaches guys with good results.
After the last four years and zero NCAA tournament appearances, Notre Dame needs exactly that.
Brey didn’t want to come right out and ask Solomon to step back into a spot on his staff – this time with the title of associate head coach – but if Solomon was open to returning, Brey wouldn’t rule it out. He did the opposite.
Once Solomon’s interest piqued, so did Brey’s. He was ready to point his Buick Enclave toward southwest Ohio, where Solomon had spent the previous four seasons as an associate head coach at the University of Dayton.
When Solomon asked his question, Brey’s answer said everything.
I’m coming to Dayton, he told Solomon.
I’ll meet you in Fort Wayne, Solomon responded.
The coaches connected at an Applebee’s — or maybe it was a Chili’s — where they settled on a back table and got to talking basketball. Notre Dame basketball. An hour passed. Then two. Then three. There Brey and Solomon sat, drawing up potential defensive drills and schemes and looks that the Irish so needed. They talked philosophy. They talked personnel. The talked of the past. They talked of the future.
By the time they were done talking, six hours had elapsed.
Solomon was coming back to Notre Dame for a third and final time. It was, Brey told the Tribune, like putting the band back together.
Perfect time to make another run up the charts.
Been there, done that
Notre Dame basketball will look different when players return this month for summer school. The Irish add to a veteran mix former Yale power forward Paul Atkinson as a graduate transfer. At one point, Atkinson was considered the most important transfer in the since-expanded/exploded portal. He’ll step into a starting/main role and be the consistent interior anchor the Irish have lacked since John Mooney. Also coming aboard will be a pair of former area high school standouts – J.R. Konieczny (South Bend Saint Joseph) and Blake Wesley (South Bend Riley).
But there’s no more important offseason addition than the 56-year-old Solomon, who will be in charge of the defense. He should get these guys to dig in and defend better than last season, when Notre Dame finished near the bottom of nearly every critical statistical defensive category, including 14th in scoring defense (74.3 ppg). He should get the Irish to care more on being better on ball screens and on the backboard.
He should help reestablish a standard that those 2015-16 teams chased and carried and caressed, but has since slipped. This program has just been kind of there since the 2017-18 slid sideways with injuries to Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. They’ve seemingly been OK with being OK.
Average no longer can be excused. Or accepted. Slo doesn't do average.
The soon-to-be senior class, touted among the nation’s Top 15 when it signed, hasn’t developed or delivered for myriad reasons. One offseason with Solomon should change that.
“The immediate focus is to grow our habits and establish an identity where needed that will position us for consistent success collectively and individually,” Solomon said in last week’s press release from Notre Dame.
Solomon had the ultimate job security at Dayton working for Anthony Grant, a UD alum. In some ways, Dayton is a better job than Notre Dame. The fan support the Flyers receive is ridiculous. It’s the most important sport on campus. The arena is first class and forever full. Flyer faithful live and breathe basketball. Too many fans of Irish hoops climb aboard only after college football ends.
But Solomon’s an ACC guy. He was born in Virginia. He went school at Virginia. At the end of the basketball day, the Atlantic 10 just isn’t the ACC. Solomon likely missed the big games, missed the big opponents, missed the bright lights that the A-10 just doesn’t have.
Notre Dame basketball today is in a spot similar to the 2014 offseason. The Irish were 11-15 and 7-11 in their first ACC season. There were too many games that year when the Irish simply had no chance. We’ve seen too much of that in recent seasons, be it the 28 consecutive losses to ranked teams (snapped with the regular-season finale win over then-No. 11 Florida State) or last year’s finale against North Carolina when Notre Dame trailed at one point by 50.
The spring and summer of 2014 were program turning points. Under Solomon, who oversaw workouts, the Irish digested heavy helpings of three-on-three defensive drills. Guard your guy, then guard him again. Day after day it went.
Nine months later, the Irish were ACC tournament champions en route to a 32-6 season. Solomon wasn’t the only reason, but he was a key one.
► More:Notre Dame hoops chat - May
In officially announcing Solomon’s hiring last week, Notre Dame included quotes from several former Irish. Pat Connaughton talked of work ethic and mental toughness. Jerian Grant considers Solomon like a second father. Demetrius Jackson said Solomon saw greatness in guys before they saw it in themselves.
All that played well in the release, but Solomon’s third tour will matter only if guys like Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin and Trey Wertz share similar sentiments when their careers conclude.
Solomon reached those previous guys and often made it look easy. The hard part now is to reach the current ones.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI