CU's Kearney cherishes special ND hoops connection

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Descending through metropolitan New York air space aboard a commercial flight Friday night, former Notre Dame associate head coach Sean Kearney took a few moments to step back in time.

He thought about all those Irish charter flights in Teterboro. The road trips down the New Jersey Turnpike to Seton Hall, and further south out to Rutgers. He forgot about how hectic LaGuardia Airport can be, but liked being back in the Eastern time zone. He remembered all the time spent in midtown Manhattan, where the Irish traveling party would put down roots at the same hotel every March during the Big East tournament, and practice every off-day at John J. College.

Kearney has been gone from Notre Dame since the start of the 2009-10 college basketball season when he spent his only year as a Division I head coach at Holy Cross. Unable to meet overwhelming and some would say unrealistic expectations, Kearney was fired after finishing 9-22.

Notre Dame is long in his rear-view mirror, but what he helped build and the time he spent back in Northern Indiana certainly is not forgotten.

“I don’t know if I can say this in the right way, but it was the best assistant’s position that I ever had,” said the 57-year-old Kearney, now in his fourth season as director of player development at Colorado (3-0), which faces Notre Dame (3-0) on Monday in one Legends Classic semifinal at Barclays Center. “I’m extremely proud of the work there with the staff and the recruiting the coaching we did with those guys. It was special.”

Notre Dame had been a special place for Kearney ever since he drove a station wagon out from Pennsylvania to work a high school girls’ basketball camp in the old Joyce Center in the summer of 1980.

Thinking then that he’d likely never get back, Kearney took a long look around and even talked his way into seeing the men’s basketball offices.

Twenty summers later, in July of 2000, the head coaching position at Notre Dame opened for the second time in as many offseasons. And for the second time, Mike Brey was on the short list. Not long after Brey was hired, his first staff addition was Kearney, who had been with him as an assistant for five years at Delaware.

Raised Irish-Catholic in Springfield, Pa., it was a perfect fit for Kearney. The campus. The people. The atmosphere. It was something he tried not to take for granted.

“Walking onto that campus was just awesome for me,” Kearney said. “It’s such a special place.”

With each passing season, Kearney was given the professional freedom to spread his working wings. He was in charge of recruiting. Scouting. Non-conference scheduling. He served as a coaching mentor for former Irish point guard and assistant Martin Ingelsby, now the head coach at Delaware. He was as right-hand a man as they got in college basketball. The more responsibility he took on, the more he proved worthy of any role.

During Kearney’s nine seasons, Notre Dame won 188 games, won a Big East West Division regular-season championship, won at least 10 Big East games five times, got to the NCAA Tournament in 2001 for the first time in 11 seasons and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003 for the first time in 16 years.

“Sean was an unbelievable right-hand man for me at Delaware and then here,” Brey said following Friday’s win over Loyola (Md.). “It will be good to catch up with him.”

Monday marks only the second time during Brey’s 17 seasons at Notre Dame that he has crossed coaching paths with a former Irish assistant in a game. In 2012, Notre Dame beat Kennesaw State, then coached by former Irish assistant Lewis Preston, 85-57.

Being hired at Colorado in 2013 allowed Kearney to get back on the front line of the college basketball game. The more he worked with Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle, the more he was reminded of Brey. Both consider themselves teachers first. Both communicate well. They’re demanding, but fair. Loyal. While Brey’s calling card is offense, Boyle’s is defense.

What style wins out Monday?

“I’ll always be a fan of Notre Dame basketball and I’ll be one for 30 games this season,” Kearney said. “But not for one game.”

Kearney watched closely the last two years as Notre Dame became the only program in the country to advance to consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eights. Knowing Notre Dame from the inside, it was hard for the outsider to comprehend.

“What Mike and his staff have done there is truly amazing,” he said. “I know they’ve had special players the last two years, but you have to coach them. Develop them. What they’ve done there is awe-inspiring.

“The things they do are just beautiful to watch.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

2016 Legends Classic

Semifinals

WHO: Notre Dame (3-0) vs. Colorado (3-0).

WHERE: Barclays Center (18,103), Brooklyn, N.Y.

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), audio also available at WatchND.

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

 NOTING: This is a set Final Four tournament with Northwestern and Texas also automatically advancing after each team played two home games in the tournament. The championship and consolation games are Tuesday. … With an average margin of victory of 22.6 points, Colorado is coming off an 89-70 victory Thursday at home over Louisiana-Monroe. Five players scored double figures led by Josh Fortune and Xavier Johnson, each with 14. The Buffaloes shot 40.3 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3 and finished with a +12 rebounding margin. … Colorado also has wins over Seattle and Sacramento State. … Eleven Buffaloes average at least 14 minutes per game. … Four starters return off last year’s team that finished 22-12 overall, 10-8 and fifth place in the Pac-12. Colorado advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in six years where it lost to Connecticut in the first round. … A transfer from Providence, Fortune leads the Buffaloes in scoring (12.3). Wesley Gordon leads in rebounding (11.7). … Colorado was picked in preseason by the media to finish fifth in the Pac-12. … These teams have never met. … Monday is the first game for Notre Dame against a Pac-12 school since a home win over UCLA on Dec. 19, 2009 when Colorado was a member of the Big 12. … Nine Irish average at least 10 minutes per game. …Notre Dame is averaging 88 points a game while allowing 53.7. The Irish have shot 49 percent from the field, 37.3 percent from 3 and 83 percent from the foul line with 61 assists to 20 turnovers their first three games.

QUOTING: “I just have to make sure I go to the right bench when they blow the horn before the game.”

• Former Notre Dame associate head coach Sean Kearney, now director of player development at Colorado.