Nov. 13, 2014
By Todd Burlage
Need a glimpse into just how talented an athlete Pat Connaughton is?
Who else could pull off a posterizing basketball dunk over future NBA star Jabari Parker in January and then strike out Heisman Trophy holder and baseball prodigy Jameis Winston three months later?
With a couple of career highlights like those, it’s no wonder Connaughton hopes to someday follow the lead of legendary athletes Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders and become a professional in two sports.
The dunk on Duke University’s Parker, the No. 2 pick in the 2014 National Basketball Association Draft, and the strikeout of Florida State University’s Winston, an all-star relief pitcher and the Seminoles’ star quarterback, are just two line items on an amazing resume Connaughton has built as one of the best two-sport athletes to attend the University of Notre Dame.
If expectations go according to plan during Connaughton’s fourth and final basketball season, the Notre Dame senior very well could make a little professional history someday soon as both a major-league pitcher and an NBA shooting guard. Sound crazy? Don’t tell that to Connaughton.
Already a fourth-round draft pick and a starting pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league system, Connaughton also is drawing some preseason attention from NBA scouts.
“There are some people that think I can do both,” Connaughton says. “I’m still in wait and see mode, but I’m not ruling it out.”
Connaughton understands the odds are long of playing both sports professionally, and that baseball probably provides greater longevity and security than basketball.
But Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey gives Connaughton a shot after several NBA scouts have been hanging around Irish practices this preseason for a look at his co-captain. At 6-feet-5 and 218 pounds, Connaughton has adequate size to play guard in the NBA, but he’ll need a terrific senior season to increase his notice and notoriety.
“There is definitely some intrigue about him,” Brey says of his gifted guard. “He shoots the ball at a great clip, he’s athletic, he has good size, his ball handling has improved. I wouldn’t count him out.”
With or without a professional future in basketball, Connaughton’s nasty 90-plus mph fastball already has him on the fast track to a baseball career.
“There is no doubt Pat has the makeup to be able to pitch in the big leagues,” says Notre Dame baseball coach Mik Aoki. “I can envision him pitching in Camden Yards, pitching in Fenway Park. I absolutely can envision that.”
Athletics obviously will always be an important part of Connaughton’s life yet there is much more to this special young man than a wicked fastball and a deadly jump shot.
Brey calls Connaughton the most well-rounded person and player he ever has coached, while Aoki marvels at how seamlessly this gifted athlete moved between his two sports, both on the field and in the locker room. Seasonal overlap could have made for a tricky transition between the two teams, especially with the sort of here-today-gone-tomorrow dynamic Connaughton kept with the baseball team.
“It would have been easy for some guys to be bitter when you’re talking about somebody losing a job because of Pat’s transition over from the basketball team,” Aoki says. “But Pat is so well respected in the locker room, nobody ever blinked when he rejoined us after the basketball season and Pat was great about it. Pat was so respected by the guys on the [baseball] team, there was never any bitterness to any of it.”
Connaughton’s three-year baseball career at Notre Dame ended in June when he accepted a contract to join the Orioles’ organization. He’ll tip off his final Irish basketball season on Nov. 14 while also finishing classes for his management consulting degree from the Mendoza College of Business.
“My entire focus is now on basketball and school,” Connaughton says. “I’m not going to worry about baseball until this season is done. I owe that to my teammates.”
“Special” and “insightful” and “mature” and “steady” are just a few of the adjectives the Irish coaches use when asked to describe Connaughton. He’s become such a terrific ambassador for his school, Connaughton is frequently asked by Notre Dame administrators to speak at University functions.
“Pat is just the ultimate student-athlete, the kind of guy you want your daughter to bring home,” Brey says. “He did it playing two sports, he did it getting a degree ahead of schedule from the No. 1 business school in the country and he did it with amazing maturity and grace.”
He always did it with a respect for his teammates and a deep appreciation for the opportunities Notre Dame has provided him. Connaughton takes nothing for granted, which is very much at the root of his success as a student and an athlete.
“At a school like this, you meet people who become far more successful in different areas than you ever will be,” Connaughton says. “So you always have to be humbled by it and show them you are somebody who cares much more about your time here than just while playing two sports.”
Summer classes have put Connaughton on schedule to graduate a semester early in December and then resume his professional baseball career in the spring — presumably in full-season Class A ball — unless NBA aspirations delay those pitching plans.
“I understand my career potential in baseball probably far exceeds my potential in basketball,” he says. “But at the end of the day, I’ve been playing both of these sports for my entire life, so I would be kicking myself if I didn’t at least try to play both and didn’t at least see what happened. It’s eerily similar to what I was going through in high school when people told me I was crazy for wanting to play both sports in college.”
Brey admits there were some logistical challenges to recruiting an athlete so committed to playing two sports that shared some seasonal overlap. But after watching Connaughton play his AAU basketball while at St. John’s Prep in Arlington, Conn., Brey decided to offer a scholarship first and figure out the logistics later.
“He was playing with energy. He’s talking to his teammates. He’s flying around. He’s leading,” Brey says. “I just wanted to coach this guy. There was something unique about him. I wanted him in my program. I didn’t even know what position he would play but I wanted him in my locker room.”
A JUGGLING ACT
Poise in academics and production in athletics have always made Connaughton’s move through his years at Notre Dame seem relatively easy from the outside looking in, but nothing was ever simple. Classes, basketball, baseball — the demands were relentless and time management a must.
“There are times when you can’t do social things that other guys want you to do, but I am willing to sacrifice those things to play the two sports I have always wanted to play,” Connaughton says. “I love playing both so giving up some other things, that didn’t bother me.”
Aoki says there were never any shortcuts for Connaughton. His pitcher always tried to maximize any free time by using the gaps in a busy basketball schedule to hustle over to the baseball diamond for some work, even if it was basically a fly-by.
“Whether it was for just 20 minutes, or 40 minutes, he’d be there just to get some throwing in, get some work done,” Aoki says. “And I think with each year he was able to get better with that time management and commitment. That was a big part of the growth for him as far as becoming a better baseball player.”
“The baseball coaches were very good about working with the basketball coaches,” says Connaughton, whose basketball scholarship makes that sport top priority. “Especially in the fall because almost every single day involved both sports. Even if I went over to the baseball team after basketball and squeezed in 40 minutes of work before I would go eat or get my schoolwork done, I felt obligated to my team and myself to put the time in.”
And while Connaughton is obviously blessed to already be pitching and making money professionally, he quickly learned pitching in his first minor league season last summer that life in short-season A Ball is very different from college ball.
As a regular in the Irish starting rotation last season, Connaughton went 3-5 with 10 starts, 62.0 innings, 36 strikeouts and 40 walks with a 3.92 earned-run average. With the Aberdeen (Maryland) IronBirds in the New York-Penn League last summer, Connaughton would be lucky to pitch two full innings per outing. In four starts and six games over six weeks there, Connaughton finished the season 0-1 with a 2.45 ERA and just 14.2 innings.
Obviously, it was limited work compared to what Connaughton became used to at Notre Dame, but it was still another important step in the growth needed to become a big leaguer.
And given his pattern of steady improvement, an All-American type of season may be the next step for Connaughton to reaching his other professional dream. As a junior and the face of the Irish basketball team last year, Connaughton led the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive rebounds (5.9) and averaged 13.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 37.2 minutes, all career highs.
Whether Connaughton demonstrates the necessary skills this season to legitimize his NBA stock remains to be seen. Yet whatever lies ahead, Connaughton will use his time at Notre Dame to finish his degree, help his basketball team back to the NCAA Championship and savor the homestretch of his college days before moving onto a professional career … or two.
“It has been an amazing experience coming to Notre Dame. It is tough for words to describe it,” Connaughton says. “Everybody at Notre Dame wants everybody else at Notre Dame to succeed, and that is what makes it such a successful school and such a special school.”