Feb. 28, 2000
by Paul A. Camarata
Sitting in his office, among swashes of blue and gold, the fore of his desk guarded by a picture of adopted Notre Dame zealot Dick Vitale, Matt Doherty considers the games in his first year that have gone the other way.
“There are three games that come to mind, Miami of Ohio, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh (on the road).” Vanderbilt? Doherty nods. “Yeah I’d like to have that back, I’ll take all my losses back, lets play them again.” He smiles wryly before continuing. “But there are a few games I wouldn’t give back either.”
Should one be unfamiliar with the rise that Doherty has orchestrated this year as the new skipper of the recently unsteady Irish men’s basketball program, they could easily think he was hedging his words. It would not be difficult to mistake so many stern looks and articulate answers as the attempt of a first-year coach to guide around issues with a political fervor and basketball rhetoric. But Doherty is anything but evasive, never trying to fool his audience. The man who graciously accepted the responsibility of recreating Notre Dame basketball says all the right things. And simply because he means them.
“I’ve talked all season about playing hard, playing smart and playing together,” Doherty says. “That probably sounds boring, but that’s the way it is. If we play hard, we play smart and we play together, then we can win some basketball games.”
The stir the Irish have caused on the schedules of both its non-conference and BIG EAST opponents this season has not often been called boring. Wins at Ohio State and Connecticut early in the season proved the Irish had more mettle than their highly-ranked opponents were expecting. While those wins occurred before the beginning of the home conference schedule in January, news of them proved to be the spark that lit up the student body’s latent desire to scream for the Irish.
Between the resurrected belief in their team and Coach Doherty’s ongoing canvassing of the Notre Dame campus, Irish hoops has recently been all the rage.
“The fans have come out and supported our team immensely and its been a big help to the success of the team,” Doherty says. “I think its helped that I’ve gotten to know the students. I think they respect that. I feel I have a relationship with them. When they see me at the dining halls or on campus or in the Joyce Center, I think they feel comfortable approaching me and saying hello. They can call me ‘Matt’ or ‘Coach D’ and I like that.”
Such momentum helped contribute to more impressive wins, this time over BIG EAST adversaries. Notre Dame beat a surging Seton Hall team on the road and surprised their talented and very athletic visitors from St. John’s. The Irish went on to show how much they enjoyed beating the defending national champions by again defeating Connecticut upon the Huskies trip to South Bend. Every unexpected victory proved more how legitimate the last one had been. The Irish faithful became more elated, and Doherty watched the ‘poised’ label get tacked onto his young team, even as their ‘upstart’ label began falling off.
“That takes time,” Doherty states. “I think when we become more consistent, we hopefully will reach a level that we’re expected to win those games. That all comes with success over time.”
Doherty maintains a keen eye on the future evolution of his program, but never in spite of the here and now. The 2000 BIG EAST Conference Tournament is lurking, imminently, at the end of the regular season in early March. It will convene every conference member at New York’s Madison Square Garden for one weekend, with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament rewarded to the last team standing.
“It will be exciting to go to New York and be part of the tournament. I used to work in New York City and go to the BIG EAST tournament back when Chris Mullin (St. John’s) and Pearl Washington (Syracuse) were playing. It’ll captivate college basketball and I hope we can put a few wins together and make a run at the championship.”
Not that Doherty is forsaking his last few regular-season games. He is well aware of the rumblings about Notre Dame’s potential spot in college basketball’s year-end battle royal for national supremacy ending at the Final Four in Indianapolis. After upsetting the Huskies and Red Storm at home in February, he and the Irish players waved their student section onto the arena floor for some post-game revelry. Ideally, those dance lessons Doherty gave his players will prove to be just practice. The coach knows just how close his team may be to dancing for real.
“We need to win our last two games so what we do in the BIG EAST tournament will just be gravy. The basketball (NCAA Tournament Selection) committee looks at a lot of stats and strength of schedule. This might be an interesting year for the committee picking teams because I think there are a lot of teams that have similar records, and for them to figure out what teams are in and out is going to create a lot of buzz. A lot of factors go into play and a lot of teams are going to be disappointed and others will be very excited.” Again close to wavering, Doherty refuses to flinch. “I’d like to think that if we do win a few more games, that will be good enough.”
No matter how his team’s season ends, it has been Doherty’s means that have breathed new fire into the emerging program all year long. Doherty isn’t much interested in other’s views of how complete his team is though. From one game to the next, the Irish have gotten clutch performances from all over their roster. Though Doherty does not always know who will step up on a given night, he is pleased with the overall cohesion of his team.
“I like our balance and the rotation right now,” Doherty says. “Martin (Inglesby) comes in for Jimmy (Dillon), Mike (Monserez) comes in for Matt (Carroll), Jere (Macura) comes in for David (Graves) and Ivan (Kartelo) comes in for Harold (Swanagan) or Troy (Murphy). I think the guys have a better feel for each other and, knock on wood, we’re probably executing our offense better now than we have been all year.”
Several of these players have proven their shooting touch and proficiency on the perimeter, but the last name Doherty mentions has been the All-America candidate that every first-year coach dreams of inheriting. And not surprisingly, Doherty has planted sophomore Troy Murphy at the center of his game plan all season.
“When you have a guy like him, I think you go to Troy and develop a presence inside,” says Doherty. “We’d like to get the ball inside to Troy and then we can feed off of that.”
Knowing his Notre Dame audience well, Doherty quickly borrows a metaphor from another Joyce Center office right down the hall from his own, “It’s kind of like football. You would want to establish the run first so then you can throw the ball. Hopefully teams will have to collapse on Troy a little and we’ll have more open shots off of that.”
It’s hard to contend with Doherty’s strategic philosophies, given the purebred nature of his basketball rearing. Raised on college basketball by Dean Smith at North Carolina, Doherty’s approach to the game matured in Roy Williams’ storied Kansas program. In one preseason interview, Doherty admitted, “It would be foolish for me to change what I know from Kansas and North Carolina. I said at my press conference when I was introduced that 75 to 90 percent of what we will do will be Kansas and North Carolina’s style of play and 10 percent Matt Doherty. That will be my own personal beliefs and will also be the talent on the court.”
The innovation and flair of the Doherty stamp is what Irish fans have seen develop all season.
“I definitely steal plays and get to understand philosophies of other coaches and I’ve done that ever since I’ve gotten into coaching. I’m not ashamed to ask an opposing coach what they’re trying to do.”
And, as is his nature, Doherty remains close to the wisdom of his roots.
“I talked to Coach Williams just the other night on the phone and he gave me a zone play. (First year Vanderbilt coach) Kevin Stallings is a friend of mine from the same background. He really helped me commit to playing more zone and I think that has helped us. I’m always learning.”
Doherty will need all the lessons and tricks he can accumulate up the extra-long sleeves of his snazzy sport coats, as the future brings the challenge of molding and guiding teams of different compositions. Though many of his current players will return next season, Doherty cites several personnel changes that will remake the Irish roster.
“A big difference in next year’s team will be the loss of Jimmy Dillon. He has provided leadership and energy to our team and that’s going to be the biggest question for me, who replaces Jimmy. I think we should have some pretty good depth at the other positions, but losing Jimmy will be a blow to us.”
Doherty’s front court will be bolstered though when eagerly- awaited junior Ryan Humphery regains his eligibility after transferring from Oklahoma and joins the Irish.
“Ryan will add something we don’t have right now. He can match up with any athlete we’ve played so far and I thing that will help us get some easy baskets in transition and create fast breaks. He’ll add a great deal defensively too, being able to guard the other team’s top forwards. Ryan will be one of the best athletes in college basketball.”
The answers Matt Doherty has for the future of Notre Dame basketball never seem to run out, though thankfully for Irish fans, neither does his sincerity. The coach has gained the respect of his players and a glowing rapport among his fans. He eagerly participated in last spring’s Notre Dame stalwart Bookstore Basketball tournament, and along with his coaching staff, will help fill out rosters again this year.
He has hopes of further engaging the student body, and is soliciting suggestions on how to better place and empower the Joyce Center’s student section. He has visions of Notre Dame basketball supremacy. He has challenges and stresses, and without the worry of his already silver coif turning gray because of them. The average basketball coach may not be able to please all the people all of the time, but only in his first year, Matt Doherty is coming real close.
After all, Doherty is not typical. He covers every angle.