Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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52 JUNE/JULY 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI I n the coaching profession, the won-lost record always serves as a final report card. For 1991-99 Notre Dame men's basketball head coach John MacLeod, who died April 14 at age 81 after battling Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade, that career record of 106-124 car- ried a stigma that he was the pro- gram's lone coach to finish under .500 since 1923. There is no getting around that bottom line, which ultimately led to his forced resignation after eight seasons. Following a mostly heavenly basketball coaching life, first at the University of Oklahoma (1967-73) and then with the NBA's Phoenix Suns (1973-87), with brief stops afterwards at Dallas and New York, the Indiana native un- dertook his hardwood purgatory by accepting the Notre Dame posi- tion in the spring of 1991. It was a dramatically different time in the program's history than when Richard "Digger" Phelps took the reins almost 20 years to the day earlier. RISE & FALL From 1968-81, Notre Dame de- veloped into a top-10 program, propelled first by the enrollment of the peerless Austin Carr, re- cruited by 1964-71 head coach John Dee, and then heightened under the direction of newly hired fire- ball Phelps as head coach in May 1971. The opening of the new basket- ball arena in 1968 helped begin a recruiting renais- sance that would see Notre Dame produce eight NBA first-round picks from 1971-81 (it had only three the first 24 years from 1947-70) and 11 others get selected in that span. This influx of premier talent helped the Fighting Irish achieve a No. 1 ranking for the first time in 1974 (and also in 1979), reach its first and lone Final Four in 1978, and topple seven teams that were ranked No. 1 at the time of the game. As an independent, Notre Dame didn't have to win a conference to make the NCAA Tournament — which was only 25 teams in 1974 — and it of- ten monopolized national television coverage which was limited to a few game of the week broadcasts on the weekends. By 1979, however, everything began to favor conference affiliation much more, including the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 40 teams (and later 64 teams in 1985), the formation of the Big East and the advent of ESPN for nightly telecasts. As the 1980s progressed, a col- lege basketball landscape that once favored the Fighting Irish and its independence was gradu- ally becoming an albatross. By the end of Phelps' 20-year run in 1991 — and aided by a pal- pable frost between the athletic administration and Phelps, lead- ing to his forced retirement — Notre Dame reached its nadir in recruiting from 1990-93. In 1990 and 1991, Phelps signed nine players. At worst for any pro- gram, three of nine must become 1,000-point scorers. For Notre Dame, only one reached even 600. Among the five then signed by MacLeod in 1992-93, one did reach 1,000 (guard Ryan Hoover). After Phelps stepped down, Notre Dame scoured the college scene for head coaches, from Pete Gillen to Bobby Cremins, and the answer was the same: Thanks but no thanks. It had become one of the most unappealing jobs in the country, and one under a con- stant black cloud. Phelps' prized 1988 recruit, LaPhonso Ellis, went through academic ineligibility as both a sophomore and then the second semester of his junior year, resulting in a 12-20 finish during Phelps' farewell tour in 1990-91. That same year, sophomore Monty Williams, another future NBA player, was diagnosed with a heart con- dition that would sideline him two seasons. Having been in the NBA through- out the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps MacLeod didn't understand what he was getting himself into — which made his candidacy to Notre Dame all the more appealing. DARKEST DAYS MacLeod's first season in 1991-92 would turn out to be his best. What he didn't know was that the schedule was set up to hasten Phelps' depar- ture — and at one point from Dec. 9 through Jan. 21 featured nine straight road games against the likes of ranked MacLeod came from the NBA to serve as head coach of the Irish basketball team from 1991-99, and he guided the program's transition from independent status into the Big East Conference. PHOTO COURTESY FIGHTING IRISH MEDIA PATH THROUGH PURGATORY The late John MacLeod shepherded the men's basketball program through its toughest decade ever in the 1990s

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