Shrewsberry basically went wire to wire as top choice for Notre Dame men's basketball coach

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Mar 30, 2023; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish Head Men’s Basketball Coach Micah Shrewsberry speaks during his introductory press conference at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — Everything about the eventual hiring of Micah Shrewsberry as the 18th men’s basketball coach in Notre Dame program history fell perfectly into place at a time when it could have — and maybe should have — fallen apart. 

On the night of Feb. 27, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who leaned on a close crew of confidants to formulate a 10-point criteria and eventual list of 70 candidates for the position, held a 45-minute Zoom call with Shrewsberry. 

The crux of the convo was simple. It wasn’t to offer him the Notre Dame job, or offer any insight into the search (one where Shrewsberry rocketed early to the top of the wish list) or anything else besides a get-to-know-you better-because-we're-maybe-going-down-this-road-together process. 

More:Notre Dame's search for men's basketball head coach Micah Shrewsberry was nice and neat

In essence, it was a first date, which can be both awkward and exhilarating.

Shrewsberry would become one of six core finalists. On that late-February night back in State College, Pennsylvania, he still was stinging from what transpired the previous day at his previous job. Needing every league win it could corral to assure getting into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, Penn State built — then blew — a 19-point lead at home to Rutgers. What seemed a dominant display disintegrated into a 59-56 loss. 

Defeats like those cut deep in February. They linger not just for hours, but for days. This one did, yet Shrewsberry didn’t beg off the Zoom. He jumped on with Swarbrick and over the course of those 45 minutes, all but cemented his status as the next guy in South Bend. 

He didn’t officially get the job that night. Unofficially, yeah, it was over. 

The way Shrewsberry methodically sifted through that wreckage, set aside his emotions and plotted a plan to proceed told Swarbrick everything he needed to know about someone whose story he already knew. Basically, that Shrewsberry could be — should be — the next head coach at Notre Dame. 

Little of what the 46-year-old Shrewsberry said that night was about him. With good coaches, elite coaches, it’s never about them. It's about their guys. How he can help them. How he can be better for them and for the program. It’s about everything but the head coach. 

“To hear him talk about his analysis of his team, his message to the team, what he learned from the loss and what he wanted his team to learn from it, it was exactly what you were looking for in a head coach,” Swarbrick said. “It was great.” 

Great in that Swarbrick had heard something similar from a head coach already on the Notre Dame campus. Specifically, Marcus Freeman, in the hours after Notre Dame football lost at home to Marshall in early September talked just as Shrewsberry talked.

“So much of what Micah said echoed what I heard Marcus say,” Swarbrick said. “I’ve always said I learned so much more about Marcus after the Marshall game than say, after beating Clemson.” 

Swarbrick learned this about Shrewsberry — that's the guy. For this program. For this university. It was the only time Swarbrick spoke with Shrewsberry while the Nittany Lions were in season. That was by design, and Swarbrick made that clear in every Zoom. To Shrewsberry. To the other finalists.

“I said, ‘You won’t hear from me again until you’re done playing,’” he said. “I didn’t want to disturb them during their season.” 

That’s how Shrewsberry wanted it, how he had to have it. The Notre Dame job publicly opened so darn early — Jan. 19 — that it offered anyone with interest plenty of time to ponder the position. Outside of that 45-minute Zoom, Shrewsberry wouldn’t allow his thoughts to go anywhere near South Bend. He just couldn’t, especially if he demanded his players be all in as Penn State chased down an NCAA tournament bid.

Mar 30, 2023; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish Head MenÕs Basketball Coach Micah Shrewsberry speaks at his introductory press conference at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

He couldn’t stray from the script and selfishly figure out his future, whatever that might mean. 

“I can’t ask them to be tunnel vision on what we were doing and I’m looking elsewhere,” he said. “We had some players take a chance and decide to come play for me. I owed it to those guys to give it my full attention. 

“When your season ended, that’s when my focus shifted and I was able to really focus on this opportunity.” 

One job and one name

As the regular season steamrolled toward its conclusion, former Notre Dame power forward Jordan Cornette would wake every morning at his home in Connecticut, grab his phone and tap a text to Swarbrick. He'd close each message the same way: 

Micah … Micah … Micah. 

Cornette was kidding, but also was serious on Shrewsberry. As a college football host on ACC Network and college basketball analyst/studio host for ESPN, Cornette is around the game enough and around guys who know the game enough to realize that there was one guy for this job. One.

Former Purdue swingman Robbie Hummel may have said it best when he told Cornette that Shrewsberry was a "basketball savant."

Cornette was convinced.

“It just made sense,” said Cornette, a 2005 graduate who still cares deeply enough about Irish basketball that he served as master of ceremonies during Thursday’s introductory press conference. “I know Micah can build this place from the ground up again.” 

As February became March and the end of many teams’ seasons arrived, it only was a matter of time before that build back could commence. Penn State lost to Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 18. On March 22, word leaked that Shrewsberry and Notre Dame were finalizing a seven-year contract. On March 24, Shrewsberry was officially announced as the head coach. 

On March 30 – Thursday – he was officially introduced on the floor of Purcell Pavilion.

From the time news broke that last season would be the last for Mike Brey after 23, nearly 10 weeks – 69 days – passed until Shrewsberry was officially introduced. That gave Swarbrick and his staff plenty of time to do their hiring homework. Had the timeline been accelerated – say Brey resigned March 19 – it would’ve meant Swarbrick would have to shoehorn a lot more leg work into a smaller window. Maybe the hiring dominoes don’t fall Notre Dame’s way. Something — someone — gets lost in the hiring fog. 

Noie:End of an era: Notre Dame gave all it could, but it wasn't enough to extend Brey's tenure

That wasn’t going to happen. In the end, time was on Notre Dame’s side. It may have had too much of it. 

“I would prefer it not be that long,” Swarbrick said. “You can drive yourself a little crazy, you know? You start hearing rumors about somebody doing something else. It’s always nerve-racking.” 

Especially after Penn State won five straight and six of its last eight following the Rutgers debacle. That late run of success rocketed Shrewsberry to the top of seemingly every list for schools searching for a head coach. He reportedly would be in the mix at Georgetown and at St. John’s and at Providence. He’d be in line for a massive raise and contract extension in State College. He was THE name. 

In the end, every piece of the hiring fell neatly into place. Each fit. For Swarbrick. For Notre Dame. For Shrewsberry. For his family. It was time to return home to Indiana. Other than having to wait out/work through what seemed like forever, the process ran as seamlessly as it possibly could. Swarbrick admitted that it was pretty simple and straight-forward. 

“In terms of sorting the field and knowing who is interested, that was relatively easy in this search,” he said. “But you find yourself revisiting it constantly.” 

Each time Swarbrick revisited his master list, several names would slide off for myriad reasons. A few might be added, but one remained near the top. After each week, when the potential candidate board was scrubbed and reseeded with a few additions and ultimately, a LOT of subtractions, Shrewsberry never was far from the first choice. He was No. 1 (or close to it) to start, and No. 1 at the end. He basically went wire to wire. 

This was a search not necessarily about specific candidates as it was about characteristics. Each time he was brought the name of a potential coach, Swarbrick balked. 

“I never let my staff talk about candidates,” Swarbrick said. “Don’t tell me who’s available. Tell me what we’re looking for.” 

Mar 30, 2023; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish Head MenÕs Basketball Coach Micah Shrewsberry speaks during his introductory press conference at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

A list of 10 characteristics critical for the next coach was crafted. Each was a must — no exceptions — for any potential candidate. This guy or that guy couldn’t carry four of the 10 or eight of the 10. It didn't matter how good of a coach he was or could be or how much he'd win. He had to have all 10.

In no particular order, the next head coach at Notre Dame, according to Notre Dame, needed to exhibit excellence on and off the court at a highly-competitive university with proven success, athletically and academically. He had to be a great recruiter. He had to care deeply about the development of the student-athlete. He had to aspire to win national championships. 

The next coach at Notre Dame had to have a passion for the school and what differentiates/defines it. He had to view Notre Dame as a destination, not a stop-over to someplace else. He had to win, but win the right way. He had to prove he could lead/manage a staff and be committed to a certain style that he believed could win. 

Apply those 10 bullet points, then see how they apply to a specific candidate. 

“Every time we did,” Swarbrick said, “the same person came out on top.” 

That person now occupies the office of head men’s basketball coach at Rolfs Hall. Shrewsberry’s only been on campus a short time — and seemingly never long enough to take it all in — but he already understands the place. 

Shrewsberry saw it while meeting across campus with human resources. He saw it while staying at the Morris Inn. Saw it at Purcell Pavilion as it was prepped for his presser. Saw it from some of the sports teams and coaches he visited last weekend during his car-wash like rollout. 

There’s an excellence there. 

“That’s what we want to be about,” Shrewsberry said. “That’s what we’re going to do here. I want this.” 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.