March 8, 2011
By John Heisler
With a father who was an athletic director and a physical education teacher and a mother whowas a former Olympian and a swim coach, the dinner table talk was athletics and sports. You kind of grew up in gyms and around pools. I was a true product of my environment.
When I was growing up I went to a lot of Maryland basketball games. Went to Baltimore Bullet games because my dad had a season-ticket package there. My dad coached junior high basketball and when I was young I was kind of their manager. Sothat was the first thrill for me to sit on the bench with my dad’s eighth-grade team when I was eight, nine, 10 years old.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, coaching and teaching was something I wanted to do. I can remember thinking about that, coaching kids at camp with (DeMatha High School) Coach (Morgan) Wootten when I was 16 years old. It was something that was natural. My dad tried to talk me out of coaching and teaching. Back then my biggest vision was to be a high school coach. A couple of times when I was an assistant with Morgan I tried to get head high school coaching jobs, but I wasn’t certified to teach anything but physical education.
If I’d been hired I might have ended up a 30-year career high school coach. Instead I stayed with Morgan another two years, got the college bug and then the Duke thing came about based on what Mike (Krzyzewski) needed. It was the perfectstorm or I’d probably have been a high school coach in Montgomery County for 30 years.
Morgan’s influence on me started when I was 10 and I came to his day camp. So from the age of 10 until I was 15 I was around the DeMatha players every day and they coached me. Morgan was there teaching and coaching and talking about basketball and talking about life. So it was a dream to go to DeMatha. I traveled 20 miles every day to go to school which was kind of unheard of in the `70s – 20 miles around the beltway to go to Hyattsville from Rockville, Md. So I played for him after going to his camp and then I coached with him. It was absolutely the best training.
I remember Morgan’s greatest point was when I was leaving George Washington because GWwanted me to stay as a graduate assistant. Morgan said you should really come over with me if you want to be a college coach, because with all the players we have, everyone’s going to be in here recruiting so you’re going to meet all kinds of people. And he was right on that.
And number two, he said I want you to coach the JV team for a couple of years. You’re going to help me but you need to have your own team. You need to call the timeouts. So when I was 23 years old, for three years I had my own team. And he was really right about that one, too. You’ve got to make those decisions and sit in that seat. That really helped me when I became a head coach eight or nine years later. You had some experience being responsible for the group.
Morgan is one of the truly great educators. He was a communicator. That’s where I got the nuts and bolts. My parents were educators and I was around them every day. With Morgan and Mike, I was really around some great teachers and communicators. It was such great training.
The one phrase he (Mike Krzyzewski) used when I interviewed for the job, he said you’re going to find out in college basketball that you have to compete every single day. That’s probably the biggest thing I learned. The day-to-day intensity and preparation. You have to think about your program and how you can be better and how you can win something even in May and August. That drive was the best thing for me to be around. He had that daily drive and it was about competing every day.
(Former Notre Dame associate athletics director and current Delaware athletics director) Bernard Muir approached me about the NCAA basketball rules committee when he was here. This is my fourth year, I’ll end up being the chair of it and it’s been very interesting. I got in on the back end of the (three-point) line, so I wasn’t involved in that. Now we’ve got the (block-charge) arc coming, so this is going to be a big May meeting.
I end up being a clearinghouse for other coaches. The elbowing rule was put in last year for safety purposes. We played Syracuse on New Year’s Day and Rick Jackson had been called for one of those the game before. Jim Boeheim greets me with, “You’ve got to change that rule,” and I get that a lot and because people want to voice their opinion.
When I’m on the road in the summer, I’ll ask people what they think about the arc. Every game in November and December I asked the officials working what they thought about the arc. I was taking a mental poll. They’d give me a 10-second synopsis. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a good thing. Freedom of movement is the next big thing — let the game flow so we get away from the holding and grabbing.
My dad is a survivor of malignant melanoma. So the Coaches vs. Cancer involvement started back at Delaware. It was in its infancy, but we just decided to do it because you could relate with your family. The Delaware community really embraced it and it became a neat thing there. Then, when we came to Notre Dame, we wanted to stay with it and now it’s become the charity event. I’m amazed at how this community rallies and the money we raise here. If I’m out in public, I’ll get two questions abut the team and then I’ll get two comments about, “Hey coach, I appreciate what you do with Coaches vs. Cancer because of my mom or my dad.” It really hits home with a lot of people.
I feel like we’ve really got some momentum and we’ve really got an identity in the BIG EAST. That’s what we had to accomplish. When I got here in 2000 we had only been in the league five years and even now being in a league 15 years isn’t a long time to develop an identify. Fifteen years is an infancy in terms of developing rivalries and a league feel for your fan base. We’ve created a style of play and an identity.
We do what we do — it’s a phrase we use with our team. And when we do that we’re pretty consistent. Other coaches in the league say, “They’re gonna do what they do. That’s what they do.” And I’m really proud of that. We talk abut breaking through and doing even more but you couldn’t do anything until you had an identity.
When I got here we had a 10-year void in terms of going to the NCAA Tournament – but you can’t even talk about that unless you can make some headway in the league you’re in. I felt like we had to become a consistent regular-season team in our league. You had to do that to earn the bid.
We still have a little bit of an independent mentality because that’s who we were for so long and still are in our most visible sport. But I think over the last four years our fan base has to come to identify with all this – “Wow, the BIG EAST, this is the league we play in.”
I am so honored to be the coach at Notre Dame and I am so honored to be in the BIG EAST. I’ve invested 11 years in the BIG EAST, playing in the Garden, relationships with the conference office. I love being a BIG EAST guy as much as I love being a Notre Dame guy – I’m proud of that.
I love the kind of young man who is attracted to our place. That’s why you love coaching at Notre Dame and nothing’s changed from the day they hired me. From day one my goal was to do a good enough job where I could retire here. That’s never really changed. It comes down to the kind of young people you get to work with.
— ND —