Noie: Former Notre Dame basketball coach John MacLeod set foundation for program's resurgence

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They never forgot what he meant to them or what he meant to the program.

Riding a basketball high they’d never experienced, and on a day that cemented a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 seasons, several core members of the 2000-01 Notre Dame men’s team thought of him.

It was an early Saturday evening in late February at a hotel across the street from Virginia Tech University. Hours earlier, Notre Dame and then-first year coach Mike Brey clinched a Big East West Division regular-season championship.

Never in the school’s previous five seasons in the league had it enjoyed such success. Never had the Irish finished with a winning league record. They did that year. The Irish were good. Basketball again mattered. The players wanted to celebrate that on that night in Blacksburg, yet also embrace one person who helped make it possible.

After doing all the post-game stuff and after posing for a team picture on the floor of Cassell Coliseum, the core of that Irish team gathered in the hotel room of former trainer Skip Meyer.

Present was then-senior point guard Martin Ingelsby with then-juniors David Graves and Troy Murphy and Harold Swanagan. Matt Carroll, then a sophomore, also was there. Somebody picked up the room’s phone (pre-cell days), punched a nine or a seven or whatever was needed to get an outside line and dialed a number with a suburban Phoenix area code.

On the other line was their former coach, John MacLeod, who listened as Moose and Dave and Murph and Swan and Matty offered thanks for helping them get to that moment.

In March 1999, MacLeod “resigned” after eight seasons and a 106-124 record at Notre Dame. He recruited that core to South Bend. He believed in their potential, envisioned the type of success the group experienced that day, that season.

It was a call everyone knew they HAD to make.

“We had to send the message that we cared about him, thought about him,” Graves said Monday morning of MacLeod, who died Sunday in Arizona at age 81. “If it wasn’t for him and his staff, we wouldn’t have been together. We wouldn’t have achieved what we did.”

The players heard in MacLeod’s voice how much that moment meant.

It means the world to me.

I miss you guys.

I’m happy for all of you.

“He recruited a lot of those guys who were part of the team that broke through,” said Ingelsby, now the coach at Delaware. “We wanted to thank him for believing in us as basketball players.

“I have the utmost respect for him as a coach, as a teacher and as a person.”

A good man

One word kept surfacing Monday morning while listening to former players, former staff members, former friends remember MacLeod.

Class.

Look it up in a dictionary, and MacLeod’s picture might be right there with the definition. He was it. One of a kind. Pure. Class. In victory. In defeat. In good times. In tough ones. He was sure and steady from beginning to end.

“One of the finest people I’ve ever known,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who spent all of MacLeod’s eight seasons at Notre Dame as his assistant. “I loved working for him.”

“Such a gracious, kind man,” Graves said.

“A good man,” Ingelsby said.

“He was humble; he was genuine,” said Belmont Abbey (N.C.) coach Billy Taylor, who was recruited by, played for and then worked for MacLeod at Notre Dame. “He was such a gentleman who taught you so many things on and off the court.”

On the court, MacLeod was as old school as old school gets. Ingelsby remembers being taken aback during his first practice freshman year. There was MacLeod, standing at center court with a whistle between his lips, a ball under his arm and sneakers on his feet. Standard coaching stuff, right?

He also was dressed in crisp khaki pants and a golf shirt. In the office, he rarely went without wearing a suit and a tie.

“If I did that today, my players would wonder what the heck’s wrong with me,” Ingelsby said. “But that was Coach MacLeod. Talk about the ultimate professional.”

The veteran pro coach (he’s still the winningest coach in Phoenix Suns history with 579 victories) surprised many when he made the move to Notre Dame in 1991. Only weeks removed from coaching the New York Knicks in the NBA playoffs, he’d been out of the college game for 18 years after a six-year stint at Oklahoma.

But college or pro, young or old, none of it mattered. MacLeod knew the game, and knew it well. It didn’t matter that he was stepping into the spot formerly held by Digger Phelps, who left the school’s all-time leader in coaching victories with 393 wins.

“Digger Phelps taught me how to be a man,” said former Irish standout LaPhonso Ellis. “But John MacLeod taught me how to be a pro.”

Prior to MacLeod’s arrival, Ellis had weighed leaving school early. Not necessarily to go to the NBA, but just to become a professional. If that meant going overseas, Ellis would go overseas. He had a family to support, and he wanted to start supporting them.

It didn’t take long for Ellis to understand that if he gave the new coach a chance, the NBA would become a real possibility. Ellis stayed for his final year in 1991-92, averaged 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds and became a top-five draft pick. He played 12 seasons at the game’s highest level.

“John MacLeod is very special to me,” Ellis said. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

MacLeod reminded Carroll of his paternal grandfather, Don Graham, who was the winningest high school boys’ basketball coach in Pennsylvania history (801 wins) when he retired. Carroll worshiped his grandfather. Considered him his best friend. MacLeod had a similar impact on him. When Carroll was in the NBA and the road took him to Phoenix, he’d always meet MacLeod for lunch. He never played for him, but it never felt that way. MacLeod always was the teacher and Carroll the student, even during their annual NBA visits.

Those lunches ceased shortly after MacLeod was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

“He had a way about himself where he made you feel at ease with yourself, with the game,” Carroll said. “I had so much respect for him.”

So much so that Carroll stayed with his commitment to Notre Dame after MacLeod was forced to resign following the 1998-99 season. MacLeod gave him the opportunity to attend Notre Dame, and Carroll was going to see it through.

“A constant gentleman,” Carroll said. “I just have that sense that it would have been great to play for him. He was so special.”

The MacLeod Years at Notre Dame were anything but special. The program was stuck in no-man’s land and in a no-win situation. Having stayed independent too long, it scrambled to keep pace in the Big East. Those seasons were lean, and loaded with losing. Just when it looked like it might get better, the university pulled the plug.

Not many care to remember the job MacLeod did at Notre Dame, but maybe more should. He was about more than just wins and losses.

“He represented Notre Dame the way Notre Dame should be represented,” McCaffery said. “He recruited a team capable of winning a Big East West Division championship. He just didn’t coach it.”

MacLeod was there that day in Blacksburg. In Ingelsby. In Graves and Murphy and Swanagan. In Carroll. They knew it.

“He,” Graves said, “was in our thoughts.”

Still is.

Former Notre Dame coach John MacLeod died Sunday after an illness. He was 81. Tribune File Photo
John MacLeod during a Notre Dame basketball game in 1998.

“A constant gentleman. I just have that sense that it would have been great to play for him. He was so special.”

Former Notre Dame player Matt Carroll, who was recruited by John MacLeod but never played for him.