Noie: College hoops beat often can be a weird ride

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Cover all angles of a college basketball program, and it becomes six months in a bubble of games and interviews and arenas and travel and more of the same.

The days and nights and weeks and months run together, but they’re never boring. No two are the same. Sometimes, the moments you most remember have nothing to do with the final score.

Following are a dozen of the more interesting/odd/weird moments experienced on the Irish men’s hoops beat the past 22 years.

12. A Garden hoops guy

Seeing big names backstage at Madison Square Garden during the Big East tournament was common. One night, at halftime of a Notre Dame-Louisville semifinal game in 2013, former President Bill Clinton held court.

He talked like Joe Fan from one of the outer boroughs instead of the former leader of the free world. Clinton praised both teams, and pondered how exciting the second half would be. He shook hands. He posed for pictures. He smiled for just about everybody. He had a presence. He seemed as approachable as approachable could be. Just as the buzzer to start the second half sounded, Clinton stepped inside the men’s room before the door was blocked by the secret service. When you gotta go …

11. The forgotten game

It will go down as a loss that kind of never happened, for obvious reasons.

On Dec. 21, 2013, Notre Dame led then-No. 3 Ohio State by eight points with less than a minute remaining at Madison Square Garden. The Irish then committed four turnovers in 48 seconds. Their lead disappeared in 32. What was supposed to be a signature non-league win turned into a soul-crushing loss, one unlike few in Mike Brey’s tenure.

Afterward, there were so many questions and concerns and issues. All of it was erased less than 24 hours later when guard Jerian Grant announced he was leaving school for the spring semester after an “academic misstep.” Stunningly, Grant was the only Irish made available to the media after the Ohio State game, even though he knew that it was his last game, perhaps of his career.

Without Grant, everything Brey thought his first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference would be wouldn’t. The Irish were basically starting over without their best player. What happened the previous night didn’t matter.

10. That’s not ‘Gody

Notre Dame was in Freedom Hall in 2010 to face Louisville without leading scorer and rebounder, Luke Harangody, sidelined with a bone bruise to his right knee. Or was he?

Watching the Irish warm up before the game, two Louisville fans were convinced that Harangody would play that night. Look at him move, one of them said. He’s definitely playing, the other countered. Knee injury? He looked fine to them.

Only problem was the player they were watching wasn’t Harangody. It was then-freshman Jack Cooley. He played 19 minutes with two points and five rebounds in the 91-89 double overtime loss. Harangody? He stayed in street clothes.

9. Thanks for nothing

The Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes were nearly deserted on New Year’s Day morning in 2017 as I made my way back from Pittsburgh, where Notre Dame won its league opener the previous night by one point in overtime.

A few miles after filling the gas tank and grabbing breakfast at the last service plaza before the Indiana state line, I was pulled over for doing 82 (allegedly) in a 70 mph zone. The Ohio State Trooper also asked what I was doing on the road so early on a holiday. Hearing of my job covering Notre Dame hoops, he naturally turned the topic to … Irish football.

What’s the deal with that coach? He was referring to Brian Kelly, coming off a 4-8 season and maybe in jeopardy of losing his job.

Sensing an opportunity to talk my way out of a speeding ticket, I engaged him in Irish football talk. The officer thanked me for the insight, then handed me a ticket, mentioning as he did that he was a Michigan fan.

8. A summer simmerLooking out his then-office window in the Joyce Center at the $400 Campus Crossroads project, Brey had seen enough. For so many years, he’d quietly played the part of the good solider, especially during summers when a rolling list of events in Purcell Pavilion often left his team with no set place to play or practice.

Walking out of the basketball offices one day, Brey was nearly hit in the head with a baton from the annual ”America Youth on Parade” event. That did it. Scheduled to appear on Weekday Sportsbeat that day, Brey called me to offer a question suggestion — ask about the practice facility.

It was a classic softball-style setup. Right out over the plate. All Brey had to do was hit it.

If they were to ever be taken seriously in the ACC, Brey said on the show, they’d have to get serious about basketball. Four years later, he’d get his stand-alone practice facility when Rolfs Athletics Hall was renovated from the student center to a hoops center. And there may be no nicer facility anywhere in the ACC.

7. The hot pretzel game

Warming up at halftime in January 2000 against defending national champion Connecticut, former Notre Dame All-American power forward Troy Murphy seemed distracted. Each time he ran through the layup line, he looked into the XL Center stands. The third time by, he glanced again and mouthed, “Oh, man!”

What did he see? It was a stadium vendor selling hot pretzels. Murphy scored 33 points with 16 rebounds in all 40 minutes of a 75-70 Irish upset. Afterward, I asked what caught his eye at halftime. Murphy being Murphy said that it indeed was the vendor. He was hungry, and thought how nice it would’ve been at that moment to have one of those hot pretzels. Classic Murph.

6. No happy holiday

When your phone rings and the caller ID says it’s Brey on the other end, you pick up. Doesn’t matter if you’re on vacation. You pick up. Doesn’t matter if it’s not even noon on the Fourth of July. You pick up.

Brey was calling that day in 2013 from his summer home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Three days earlier, Notre Dame had officially joined the ACC, but Brey wasn’t happy after seeing some quotes attributed to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K wasn’t pleased that Notre Dame was joining the league, but not bringing its football program. Krzyzewski slammed Notre Dame, which didn’t sit well with Brey. Thus, the phone call to publicly ask K to embrace the Irish, football program or no football program.

“Come on, man,” Brey told the Tribune that day.

Seven years later, he’d say the same after one tough ACC road loss.

5. A long ride

In January 2005, snow here and on the East Coast forced me to miss my first Irish men’s basketball game in my first seven seasons on the beat. No flights out of South Bend meant a ride on the old United Limo to O’Hare. Weather was bad there and in Washington, where Notre Dame was scheduled to play Georgetown at noon the next day, so day-of-game travel, always the last resort, wasn’t an option.

So a three-hour bus ride to O’Hare it was. Just as the bus pulled up, United Airlines announced that the rest of its flights into Reagan National were canceled. The best it could do was a rebook for Monday. No good.

So I hopped off the bus at the United departures area, walked down the stairs and over to the shuttle bus pickup spot. The United Limo bus made its required lap of O’Hare, swung back to the transportation center and picked me up for the three-hour return trip. Six hours on a bus, and no basketball. Ooof!

Notre Dame lost to Georgetown the next day by one point on a Roy Hibbert dunk with 0.1 seconds remaining. I watched on television from home. Still stings.

4. A longer night

Nothing about a February 2013 game between Louisville and Notre Dame indicated that it would be one for the record books. For the better part of 38 minutes after a late tip, the game was pretty dull. Then it got interesting as Irish guard Jerian Grant erupted for 12 points in 47 seconds to force overtime.

Notre Dame and Louisville played one overtime. Then two. Then a third. Russ Smith tried to play hero with each late-clock possession. Garrick Sherman came from nowhere — OK, deep off the bench — to score 17 points in 22 minutes. The longest game in Big East regular-season history (five overtimes) featured 16 ties and 26 lead changes. Nothing was decided until 12:36 in the morning. By the time post-game interviews and the online game story rewrite was done, the clock on the arena wall said 2:47 a.m.

There have been some weird nights on the beat. None may top that one.

3. On the record

Deadline had come and gone one memorable Sunday night in March 2018 when the cell phone buzzed. It was Brey, who had watched his team come up short when NCAA tournament bids were extended. That was the year that CBS/Tuner had the bright (not really) idea of announcing teams alphabetically. TNT’s Ernie Johnson had just revealed that North Carolina State was in. He then teased the national audience that if Notre Dame was in, this would be its spot.

Pause for dramatic effect.

Up popped Ohio State. Notre Dame was out.

The made-for-TV drama didn’t sit well with Brey. Having sat and stewed for a couple hours over the moment, Brey called to vent. The next time he saw Ernie Johnson, he told the Tribune, he was “punching him the face.”

Brey laughed, but was serious. He wanted that on the record. And in the online story.

The paths of Brey and Johnson would cross later that month during a tournament studio show. They laughed about it then, but Brey wasn’t laughing that night.

2. Room with a view

Former Irish guard Matt Farrell could only chuckle. So did I. What else was there? How would anyone believe what was happening that Saturday afternoon on the concourse of Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia?

Part of NCAA tournament protocol the day before regional finals is to give each of the five starters from both teams separate interview rooms to meet the media. Earlier in the 2015-16 season, Farrell had fallen out of the rotation and pondered transferring. The night before Notre Dame played Michigan in a first-round game, Brey decided to start the seldom-used Farrell. He played well in that game, and then the next one against Stephen F. Austin, then the next one against Wisconsin. That set up the regional final on Easter against North Carolina.

So there was Farrell, seated behind his own table next to an NCAA tourney PR rep in his own interview room. From a forgotten guy to a main guy. It was all so surreal that all he could do was smile. Me too.

1. The big blowup

The Tribune didn’t make the late-January road trip to Tallahassee for Notre Dame’s game against No. 5 Florida State. Big mistake.

That was the night that Brey, the self-described “loosest coach in America” decided to let loose. Maybe it was the years of pent-up frustration feeling that his teams didn’t always get a fair shake from the ACC. Or the fact that his team had fallen to 2-6 and faced another long climb back to the break-even mark. Or a handful of calls that didn’t go his team’s way in the one-point loss.

Whatever the case, Brey snapped like he’d never before in his 66-second post-game press conference.

Brey blasted the ACC. He blasted official John Gaffney. He got up. He walked out. He kept talking.

“Come on, man! Come on!”

It currently stands as the weirdest moment in his tenure, mainly because it came from nowhere. Audio and video of it went viral. The ACC belted him with a $20,000 fine. It was a side that Brey has seldom let the public see. But it’s always there.

Former Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell went from a possible transfer to having his own interview room during the 2016 NCAA tournament.
After everything that happened with former Irish guard Jerian Grant after the 2013 loss to Ohio State, it was as if that game never really happened.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey didn’t like that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, left, didn’t like how Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013 without bringing its football program.
Notre Dame players including Zach Auguste, center right, and Jack Cooley, center left, celebrate with fans after their 104-101 win over Louisville in the fifth overtime of their NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013.