Noie: In one year, Matt Doherty set foundation for future Notre Dame basketball success

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Burning the endless amount of energy required from a first-year coach, he trailblazed his way through college basketball for that one special season.

He was a comet streaking across the Northern Indiana sky, getting everyone around Notre Dame to believe that it could shake irrelevance and indifference and again be good. He coached up his players to compete at levels they never thought possible. He coaxed the student body that it was fine to rush the court after wins over ranked teams. He brought back a buzz to a place that been too quiet for too long.

He was the right coach at the right time for the right program.

And then, he was gone.

Saturday marked 20 years to the day — July 11, 2000 — that Matt Doherty left town in a rush for a massive leap of faith, something that wouldn’t end well for a myriad of reasons. He left Notre Dame after one season to coach North Carolina, his alma mater.

Doherty led the Irish to a 22-15 record and a post-season National Invitation Tournament runner-up. Notre Dame had its share of setbacks. Doherty had his share of trying times. He seemingly ran hot all the time. He was demanding and sometimes difficult. His emotions were all over the board. He’d weep after losses. He’d weep after wins. He lived on edge. So were his players. So was the program. So was the media.

At season’s end, everyone agreed that his energy and enthusiasm helped get the Irish back on track. The program eventually would head back to the NCAA tournament after sitting out a decade. It would establish an identity and a credibility and a believability in the Big East. It could compete with the elite of college basketball.

Much of that was Doherty’s doing. When he took the Carolina job, it all seemed undone. Notre Dame would seek a third coach in as many seasons. A core that included future NBA lottery pick Troy Murphy and program cornerstones Matt Carroll and David Graves, would again start all over.

Twenty years later, Notre Dame has established winning identities in the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference under coach Mike Brey. It’s gone to the NCAA tournament. It’s gone to Sweet 16s. It’s gone to Elite Eights. It’s won an ACC tournament championship. It’s been good.

Doherty lasted three years at North Carolina before “resigning.” He coached at Florida Atlantic for one year and then at Southern Methodist for six. By 2012 he was done with coaching. He bounced around basketball, working as a scout for the Indiana Pacers before serving two seasons as an associate commissioner for men’s basketball with the Atlantic 10.

By 2019, he believed there was nothing left to give to the game. He works today in businesses that don’t include basketball. Earlier this week, in a late-night phone call, Doherty looked back with a belief — easy to say now — that he should’ve stayed at Notre Dame.

“If you’re honest with yourself, you say, yeah, there are regrets,” the 58-year-old Doherty said from his home in Mooresville, N.C. “But you make plans and God laughs, right? I believed in the mission of Notre Dame. There was a fit there. You look back and think, well, why did I leave? You replay that in your mind a lot.

“To be the coach there was kind of surreal.”

So were the circumstances that led to leaving.

A trying time

Doherty’s personal and professional life forever changed in the Mishawaka Wal-Mart.

It was early July, and his head was spinning at Tilt-a-Whirl speed. So much so that he had to get out of the house and think. He went with his family on a routine run to Wal-Mart. Maybe to pick up milk for his son, Tucker, who then was 3 years old. Or to get diapers for his daughter, Hattie, who was nine months old. What he went for didn’t matter as much as why he was there.

He was trying to make sense of the situation.

“I was walking around in a daze,” Doherty said. “I had spent every night then at the Grotto. Like, God, help me.”

Doherty’s cell phone buzzed. Then-North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour was calling to arrange a formal interview. Wheels were turning, but Doherty was torn. Should he stay and build something in South Bend or go home to Chapel Hill?

“You’re looking for signs,” he said. “I remember being on the phone with Dick and some guy walks toward me and he’s wearing a Carolina sweatshirt. I’m like, that’s a sign. You were trying to make the decision easier. That was a crazy time.”

Doherty’s clock of crazy started ticking in late June. He and his wife, Kelly, were on vacation at a home on Lake Michigan. That’s where he learned North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge had retired. Doherty’s first thought was, what college basketball coach leaves in June? His second was, better start preparing.

For Kansas.

Roy Williams was the Kansas coach. He also was the landslide, not-even-close favorite to take over at North Carolina, where he’d served 10 seasons as an assistant to legendary coach Dean Smith. Doherty worked as a Williams assistant at KU for seven years before coming to Notre Dame. The way Doherty had the dominoes figured, Williams would take the Carolina job and Kansas would call. Doherty wanted Smith’s advice on that scenario.

“He said, ‘Well, it’s not a done deal with Roy yet; you’re still on the (UNC) short list,’” Doherty said. “I’m like, well, that’s a no-brainer. That’s not going to happen.”

It happened. Williams stayed at Kansas. Other established coaches with North Carolina connections — Larry Brown, George Karl — couldn’t chase the job. Doherty became the last Carolina man standing. It reached a point where he had no choice. If the job was to remain within the all-important Carolina “family” he had to take it.

Part of Doherty wanted to stay at Notre Dame. He wanted to build his program. But when Michael Jordan calls and insists you have to take the Carolina job or they’ll hire Rick Majerus, there’s no choice.

“That was probably the one that put me over the top,” Doherty said of Jordan’s call. “I didn’t want to look back with regret that I was afraid to take it. You’re thinking, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Well...”

With a contract extension that included a hefty raise from then-athletic director Kevin White sitting on his desk in his Joyce Center corner office, Doherty was done at Notre Dame. He was there for 17 months.

Quite the ride

Doherty didn’t hit the ground running in his lone season in South Bend. He hit it on an all-out sprint.

He coached practices like they were the Final Four. He’d visit residence halls afterward and well into the night trying to drum up athletic interest from students in something other than football. He was the ultimate salesman, so sure that he’d close the deal.

In his debut, Notre Dame upset then-No. 4 Ohio State. It was the first of five Irish victories over ranked teams under Doherty. Notre Dame also swept defending national champion Connecticut. The win in Hartford marked the first time in 21 years that Notre Dame beat a team ranked that high (No. 2) away from home. Beating Ohio State and Connecticut away from home marked the first time in school history that Notre Dame beat two top five teams in true road games.

After the loss in South Bend, Huskies coach Jim Calhoun remarked about how relentless the student body had been on his players.

Doherty devoured that.

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’ve arrived.’”

Everything that season — the wins, the losses, the highs, the lows — was an experience for Doherty. The first-year coach didn’t know anything else. He didn’t worry about the outside influences or the pressures that torpedoed his time in Chapel Hill. He didn’t worry about stepping on the wrong person’s toes. He didn’t feel pressure. He just coached. He lived his Notre Dame dream.

“I don’t have a problem saying that that was my most enjoyable year coaching basketball,” Doherty said. “I’m getting goosebumps talking about it.”

Each passing basketball season requires a deeper dive in the Irish media guide to find Doherty’s single season. It gets lost in all that Brey’s done in his two decades as the winningest coach in program history. Doherty helped resuscitate the Irish program. He was a perfect cocktail of adrenaline and attitude and belief and bravado all mixed into basketball magic.

Had he stayed, maybe he would’ve won like Brey. Maybe that rocket ride/rise would’ve quickly burned out. Either way, it would’ve been fascinating to find out.

How does someone who was anything but a one-year wonder want his one year remembered? That answer didn’t come easily.

“You know … that’s … I guess ... just being a catalyst of change,” Doherty said. “We wanted to bring back Notre Dame basketball. I’d like to think that I would’ve had similar success as Mike’s had.

“It would’ve been a great run. It would’ve been home.”

Those words aren’t difficult for Doherty to hear today. Only recently, nearly 20 years later, has he come to peace with those four years — the one at Notre Dame and the three at North Carolina. Why did he leave? Why didn’t he succeed at North Carolina? Those questions were burdens for a lot of years. They hit Doherty hard. Then he realized life had to be less about looking in the rear-view mirror and more about looking out the windshield.

“It was painful for a long time,” Doherty said. “Just in the last year, I was able to look back and it’s not as painful — the decision, the what ifs. I look back with some fulfillment and pride.”

Pride that he coached at Notre Dame. Pride that he succeeded at Notre Dame. Pride that he kick-started everything again at Notre Dame.

“It was a special time that I’m very proud of and will remember for a long time,” Doherty said. “It was just a shame that Roy Williams didn’t take the Carolina job the first time.”

Then Notre Dame basketball coach Matt Doherty hugs a fan who turned out at the Joyce Center to great the NIT runner’s up on March 31, 2000. Doherty helped revive the Notre Dame program in just one year before an extraordinary set of circumstances led him to North Carolina, his alma mater.
Matt Doherty shouts encouragement to his 2000 Notre Dame men’s basketball team. The North Carolina alum wonders what would have happened if he had stayed in South Bend rather than leaving after a year to coach the Tar Heels.
Former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Matt Doherty spent one memorable season in South Bend before leaving for North Carolina in July 2000.
Only recently did former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Matt Doherty come to peace with his decision to leave the Irish program after one year to coach North Carolina, his alma mater.