Noie: Choosing coaching over comfort, Rod Balanis leaves Notre Dame hoops for Howard

Tom Noie
ND Insider
After 21 seasons on coach Mike Brey's staff, Rod Balanis will leave to become associate head coach at Howard University in Washington.

For 21 seasons, through staff shuffling and conference affiliation change, he remained a constant of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program. 

A half-dozen assistant coaches arrived and worked and departed. Dozens of players spent their four and five seasons on campus, graduated and moved on in the game. Massive successes and crushing losses all were part of it with Rod Balanis always on the Irish bench in some capacity — first as coordinator of basketball operations when head coach Mike Brey arrived in 2000, then as an assistant coach and eventually, the associate head coach. 

There won’t be a season No. 22 for Balanis at Notre Dame after word surfaced Thursday morning that he was in line to become the associate head coach at Howard University. Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports first reported the departure of Balanis, who confirmed in a text message to the Tribune that after serving on the Irish staff for 696 games (448 wins), it’s time for a change. 

No official word/statement from anyone involved means the official hiring process isn’t yet official. But that’s more a formality. The longest tenured assistant coach in Notre Dame hoops history is gone. That's big.

For the 51-year-old Balanis, a return closer to his native Williamsburg, Virginia offers the college basketball lifer a chance to do something he wasn’t going to do this season at Notre Dame. Coach. Teach. Recruit. Scout. Impact the daily doings of a college basketball program and its players. Be close to the game. Live it. Breathe it. 

Had Balanis stayed at Notre Dame, he would’ve worked in a new/old role — one that he likely wasn’t happy about, but one that he would run with regardless. That was Balanis — the ultimate team guy. Never flashy or outspoken or seeking praise for any Irish success. Just there to do his job every day. What did Brey need from him? How could he best help?

His bio on the Irish men’s basketball home page, which was still up Thursday morning, included this passage — “no individual has been more loyal or understands better the model of consistency that Brey has built on the hardwood at Notre Dame than Balanis.” 

That’s pretty powerful. 

As the start of another basketball season neared, and a summer had passed without Balanis on the court coaching or in the gyms recruiting, he likely realized there was something missing in his professional life. 

Being a coach. Being around the guys every afternoon. Being in the gym late at night. Being constantly on the go inside the game. Living and breathing and thinking it all from the salt mine that is college coaching. 

At his age and after all he’s done at Notre Dame, Balanis likely didn’t want to be the ops guy, a guy nobody ever really sees. Someone who does his work far from the bright lights of the arenas and the energy of the practice court. He didn’t want to be stuck there on the third floor in the administrative offices of Rolfs Hall with nowhere to be come 3:30 every afternoon. 

While this move is a surprise in terms of timing, it really isn’t. It was more of when, not if. 

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It was nearly a year ago that Brey decided that no matter how the 2020-21 season evolved — the Irish wound up going 11-15 and missing the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight season — staff change was needed. Necessary. Imminent. Everything about the staff would look a lot different for 2021-22. It was just time for something different. 

Change indeed has happened. A lot of it. More than at any other time during Brey’s tenure. His staff, be it with personnel or job titles, has basically turned over. 

Former Irish assistant coach Rod Balanis works with Garrick Sherman prior to the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio. Balanis worked with both the bigs and the guards during his time on coach Mike Brey's staff.

A different direction 

No one was more affected by the offseason change that blew through Rolfs than Balanis, who relinquished his associate head coach title — basically second in command behind only Brey — for an administrative position. 

That’s not a step back; it’s a leap. 

Instead of having Brey’s ear during a timeout in the middle of a key Atlantic Coast Conference game, Balanis would be relegated to spot on the bench closer to the trainer and the team chaplain. Instead of being on the road recruiting during the summer, he’d oversee Brey’s basketball camp. He’d still be in the game, but not really in the game. 

It was a demotion, but it was one that Balanis seemingly was willing to accept. His three sons are in elementary/middle/high school in South Bend. His wife, Liz, spent six seasons as assistant women’s tennis coach. He grew to love Notre Dame and his place in it. He could’ve stayed as long as Brey remained head coach. As long as Brey’s there, there always would be a place for Balanis. 

But at what price? 

Balanis chose coaching over comfort. 

He doesn’t head to Howard a complete stranger. Balanis will be reunited with good friend Kenny Blakeney, the Bison head coach and, like Balanis, a graduate of nearby DeMatha Catholic (Md.) High School. There’s familiarity there. 

As basketball fate has it, the paths of Howard and Notre Dame cross this season. The teams are scheduled to play on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 17, 2022 at Burr Gymnasium on the Howard campus. 

One guess who will snag the scout for the Bison on that one. 

Balanis is a basketball savant. Want to know how many points Irish development and recruiting coordinator Scott Martin scored in the 2011 Big East Tournament semifinal against Louisville? Balanis knew. How about how former Irish guard Tory Jackson fared in his first college start? Balanis knew. Text Balanis when a classic Irish contest pops up on ESPNU or the ACC Network and he’ll fire back a seemingly forgotten fact about the game. 

He knew. 

He had an almost instant recall of anything Irish hoops over the last two-plus decades. What out-of-bounds-under play worked against what teams. What baseline-out-of-bounds play didn’t. He knew players. He knew outcomes. He knows the game.

That knowledge will be missed. So will his penchant for rising and frantically waving his arms to the crowd to make some noise during an Irish run. 

During his on-court coaching time, Balanis worked with both the Irish big men and the guards in various seasons. He tutored power forward Zach Auguste during consecutive Elite Eight runs. He recruited guards Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. He was universally liked for his basketball knowledge and easy-going disposition. Asked annually during Brey’s radio show what current Irish assistant was most like the head coach, the players almost always offered Balanis as the answer. 

The departure of Balanis opens yet another spot on Brey’s staff, the third that will be filled by a new (but likely familiar) face this offseason. Brey hired former Irish assistant coach Anthony Solomon to replace Balanis as associate head coach in the spring. In the summer, he brought back former Irish guard Antoni Wyche as an assistant. 

Another former Irish forward, Harold Swanagan, moved this summer from his director of basketball operations role to the staff of athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Swanagan served the previous 12 seasons as DOBO. The role, which was set to be assumed by Balanis, now likely rotates to Martin, who will be in his third different one in as many seasons. 

Got all that? 

That’s a lot of change for a program that for the longest time rarely did. Let’s see how it works. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI