Old days at ND were good days for Stan Wilcox

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Return visits to campus always include several must-sees for former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Stan Wilcox.

Going to the Grotto is a given. So is a lap or two around the perimeter of Notre Dame Stadium, though the Campus Crossroads construction might make that a bit impossible these days. Dropping a few dollars at the bookstore is a certainty.

But no trip is complete for Wilcox without seeing one specific place. The name of the arena changed a few years back when renovations were complete, but the rest of it has remained pretty much the same since Wilcox first set foot inside the Joyce Center almost four decades ago.

“That’s where I spent a lot of my time as an undergrad, where I spent a lot of my time as an employee,” said Wilcox, who was a freshman on the 1978 Notre Dame team that advanced to its lone Final Four, then later worked on the building’s second floor for three years as deputy director of athletics. “You walk into that building and feel like its home.”

Wilcox will be back amongst familiar faces and friends Saturday, but this time, as an outsider of sorts. Now in his second year as director of athletics at Florida State, Wilcox will be ready with the famed “Tomahawk Chop” if needed for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday (8 p.m., ESPN2) against No. 25 Notre Dame.

The matchup might force Wilcox to wonder about his loyalties – are they with the alma mater or with the school playing his alma mater? He worked through a similar scenario earlier this fall when Notre Dame arrived in Tallahassee an undefeated and confident football bunch to face defending national champion Florida State.

He was asked often about his rooting interests in the days and weeks and months leading into the Oct. 18 encounter. He never wavered in his response, even when the game came down to the frantic few final seconds.

“It’s pretty easy,” Wilcox said. “You know where your loyalties lie when you realize who you work for.”

Wilcox works for a school that hasn’t lost a football game since he arrived. He learned long ago that there are two types of fans when it comes to Notre Dame – those that love the Irish, and those that love to hate the Irish. Same seemingly holds true for Florida State, especially with all of the off-field issues of quarterback Jameis Winston.

“They’re going to root for you or against you,” Wilcox said. “That’s just part of the territory.”

These are busy times for the 55-year-old Wilcox, who followed former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White to Duke and spent five years as senior deputy director of athletics before taking over in Tallahassee in August 2013. Florida State won the women’s soccer national championship last weekend. The football team won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, where former Irish guard Tracy Jackson took in the game from Wilcox’s luxury box. The undefeated Seminoles are one of four teams invited to the first-ever college football playoff.

Wilcox spent much of this week in New York on business. There was a dinner and national honor for White. There was the National Football Foundation gathering. He spent part of Thursday meeting with ESPN executives about the upcoming football playoff and planned to fly Friday to South Bend. In addition to hitting his usual campus spots, Wilcox also hoped to catch up with one of his college classmate’s sons, who is now an undergraduate.

When Wilcox took a look at Florida State’s basketball schedule, and saw that the league opener fell Saturday against Notre Dame, well, a trip back home for some fresh clothes and some rest could wait.

“It’s a good time for me to catch up with them,” Wilcox said of the Seminole basketball team.

And with members of the Irish basketball family. After the teams met for the first time as conference colleagues last January in Tallahassee, Wilcox and his wife, Ramona, spent time catching up with members of the Notre Dame traveling party outside the Irish locker room. Handed a last-second loss that night, coach Mike Brey still made it a point to get a few minutes with Wilcox. Their relationship dates back to 2000 when Brey arrived in South Bend and Wilcox was an associate commissioner in the Big East.

They still stay in touch. Wilcox recently reached out to Brey following Notre Dame’s overtime victory over Michigan State.

“He loves this place,” Brey said. “I’m really proud of him. It was only a matter of time until he became an AD.

“He’s the kind of guy, if you’re a coach, you’d love to work for.”

Wilcox may walk into the Joyce Center as the boss of the Florida State athletic department, but part of him will feel like he’s a teenager again, running through the building’s halls and sharing laughs with Jackson and fellow teammates Marc Kelly and Mike Mitchell.

He’ll remember a few of the 92 games the Irish won and the four trips to the NCAA tournament during his career. He’ll remember those days when they seemingly had not a care in the world.

Old days sure, but great days for Wilcox. Still.

“Those are the memories that come flooding back,” he said. “I love it.”

Soft schedule?

Needing to boost the collective confidence of a group whose psyche was shaken following last season’s 15-17 struggle, Brey knew that Notre Dame’s strength of schedule numbers would take a hit the first month of the regular season while playing a weak non-conference schedule.

They have.

Of 351 Division I schools, Notre Dame currently carries a strength of schedule (SOS) of 344 and a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 169 according to the latest numbers at Hint – the lower the number, the better a team’s resume looks come NCAA tournament selection time. Want to be one of the 68 teams selected? Better have both numbers under 100.

Has Notre Dame’s non-league schedule been too easy?

“Nope,” Brey said. “I wouldn’t do anything different. A lot of it was very strategic – we need to get some guys confident; we need to get a group confident. I think we’ve achieved that.”

Notre Dame has also avoided the upset bug that has recently whacked power-conference teams. Brey breathed another big sigh of relief late Wednesday when he learned that Nebraska, considered by many a top-tier team in the Big Ten, lost to Incarnate World on a last-second shot.

“Those are bad PR (losses) for your program,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful about that, man.”

Victories over Fairleigh Dickinson (28 SOS), Mount St. Mary’s (50) and Coppin State (53) have been easier to digest than the wins over Chicago State (83), Binghamton (265) and Navy (272).

Notre Dame’s best win to date has been over Massachusetts, which carries an SOS of 11. Michigan State’s SOS is 56.

Brey bumped up the non-league schedule last season when he put Notre Dame out on a limb with home games against Indiana State and North Dakota State. That limb snapped with losses to both.

Brey wasn’t about to repeat that.

“We needed a frame of mind coming back as we get into league play,” he said. “I like where we’re at here. We’re fully aware that the level of it changes starting Saturday for the rest of the season.”

Notre Dame’s RPI and SOS will improve the deeper it ventures into ACC play. The league currently carries three teams inside the Top 10 of the RPI – Duke (3), Virginia (5) and Louisville (6). Five future league opponents have a Top 50 SOS – North Carolina (18), Boston College (29), Duke (35), Syracuse (36) and Virginia (41).

Subtract Notre Dame’s inflated numbers from the ACC equation and the average SOS of the remaining 14 league teams is 102 with an average RPI of 86.1.

Notre Dame finished with an RPI of 136 and SOS of 62 last season. The last time the Irish went to the NCAA tournament in 2012-13, their last season in the Big East, they had an RPI of 36 and an SOS of 62.

Comings and goings

Less than a week after participating in his first game with a professional team in Mongolia, former Irish guard Tory Jackson returned home to Michigan.

A native of Saginaw, Jackson resigned his position as an assistant coach at Division II Northwood (Mich.) University in November to pursue a professional playing career overseas. Jackson told the Tribune on Wednesday that several issues hastened his departure from northeast Asia, one of which was that the team, Tanan, was unable to pay his salary.

Jackson plans to join a semi-pro team in Grand Rapids while his agent sorts through any additional pro options.

• Former Irish guard Cameron Biedscheid has landed at his fourth school – Jacksonville (Ala.) State – in less than a year.

Biedscheid left Notre Dame in late December 2013 with plans to play closer to his St. Louis home. He enrolled at Missouri but left the program in the fall. He now reportedly plans to enroll at the Ohio Valley Conference school.

Biedscheid plans to file a medical hardship appeal with the NCAA to play immediately.

He committed last month to Iona. He was quoted saying how Iona would help “showcase my skills.” But following that commitment, Biedscheid and his mother visited Jacksonville State before offering a commitment.

Baseline bits

• Notre Dame continues to lead the nation in field-goal percentage (56.2). The Irish have shot at least 50 percent in nine of their first 10 games and at least 55 percent in seven of 10.

• Irish guard Jerian Grant leads the ACC in scoring (19.0) and assists (6.1). He’s the only player in Division I averaging at least 19 points and six assists per game.

• Saturday’s league game against Florida State marks the earliest that Notre Dame has opened league play since the 1998-99 season. The Irish opened Big East play on Dec. 8 with an 83-80 victory at Providence, a game that saw then-freshman Troy Murphy go for 30 points and 11 rebounds.

• Florida State currently ranks ninth in the 15-team ACC in scoring offense (70.2), 14th in scoring defense (67.8), 14th in assist/turnover ratio (0.8), 14th in blocks (3.3), 14th in scoring margin (+2.5), 15th in assists (11.0), 15th in 3-point field goal percentage (20.4) and 15th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.9).

• Notre Dame averages 85.1 points per game while Florida State has allowed only one opponent – Providence – to score at least 80.

Stan Wilcox returns to Notre Dame on Saturday as athletic director of Florida State.Photo courtesy/NOTRE DAME