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THE NEW DEAL AT NOTRE DAME
Frank Deford
December 21, 1964
Coach Johnny Dee has changed the style of basketball at South Bend and he has trained a winning team, but far more important are the steps he has taken to make it enjoyable for visitors to lose to the Irish
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December 21, 1964

The New Deal At Notre Dame

Coach Johnny Dee has changed the style of basketball at South Bend and he has trained a winning team, but far more important are the steps he has taken to make it enjoyable for visitors to lose to the Irish

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In the controversy over the movie John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!—which Notre Dame says misrepresents Notre Dame and Hedda Hopper says is unethical—an arbiter clearly acceptable to both sides has now appeared. Johnny Dee (left) has come home to his alma mater this season to coach basketball, and already South Bend reflects the Hollywood touch.

Dee is all Notre Dame—three-fourths Irish by descent, all Irish by manner—and for genealogical or other reasons he has a flair for drama. Really, honestly, Johnny Dee sold programs in the stands one Saturday and started at quarterback for Notre Dame the next—in 1944. Basketball has never been more exciting at South Bend.

Dee inherited a team this year that was not comfortable playing in its former deliberate style. Throwing some details (like defense) to the winds, he has gotten the Irish off, running and shooting, to a 4-1 record. They are second in the country in scoring (100.8 a game) and surely lead in mistakes (24). But tactics have been only part of Dee's concern. He has also concentrated mightily on exorcising the tradition of tasteless partisanship and discourtesy to visiting teams that long characterized games at the old Notre Dame fieldhouse—an athletic facility so outmoded that Bob Hope once remarked there: "Well, I better stop now. I know you have to get the cows back in soon."

Groundbreaking for a new field house that will hold 12,000 for basketball is scheduled for the spring but, for now, there are still only 4,000 seats and 7,000 students, so that the ones that do get in are ready to yell just because they did. "I don't ever want to hold the noise down here," Dee says, "but I do want to uphold courtesy to our guests. It's my responsibility." He is serious about such principles. Once he quit the bench for three games in the old American Basketball League when the league permitted one of its teams to sign a player who still had some college eligibility.

Dee began his regime in October with weekly clinics for students, not just to explain the elements of strategy that he would employ but to describe the behavior he expected from them. And he and his players have set the example. Visiting team banners have been posted about the gym, and at games—for the first time—the starting lineups are introduced. (Introducing visitors, in the past, probably would have set off riots.) Then the two coaches and their starting fives move toward midcourt, where the Notre Dame players present their opposites with small mementos. "Good grief," a stunned priest said as he watched the subdued crowd and the new ritual for the first time last week, "it looks just like solemn High Mass."

Dee's Irish are also the most-dressed team around, falling only three layers short of Salome's seven. On top is a large green parka, then a white flannel sweat suit with a snappy sailor's collar. Beneath these is a warmup shirt with the player's own name and, finally, the uniform. At home the uniform carries Irish across the chest—in gold script, with a shamrock for the dot over the second i. But the biggest conversation piece in South Bend is the gold carpet, a gift of Continental Airlines, that is rolled out on court before games. Players from both teams run out on the carpet, between matching gold stanchions, as they are introduced. "You know, when you come to a game, you expect something to happen," says Dee, "but we also want to settle the crowd down." For a final bit of therapy, The Star-Spangled Banner is preceded by a solemnly impressive presentation of the colors by an ROTC unit.

Dee's approach to team attitudes is reflected by his decision to cover a scoreboard in the field house that listed individual scoring. "The scoreboard put too much emphasis on the individual," he says. "I tell these kids that the only place it counts"—and he points to a team listing—"is there. In San Diego what do they know about Notre Dame? One line, in the scores. The important thing is to get on the left, where they list the winner." A couple of his players came to Dee after their win over Michigan State last week and asked, "How are we in San Diego, Coach?" "We're on the left, baby," Johnny Dee said with a smile.

Dee is an unusually erudite coach, and has been a winner in high school, college, industrial and pro ball. He has taught prelaw at Alabama, run an executive training program, tried out for the Baltimore Colts, run for the Colorado legislature and served on the mayor's cabinet in Denver. He is a member of the bar and returns to Denver in the summer where he works in the firm of Lee, Bryans, Kelly & Stansfield. "When I was coaching at Alabama," he says, in a statement that may lead to ostracism by the coaching fraternity, "I went nuts one summer. There was nothing to do. Why, I played golf—get this—131 straight days." He is absorbed by detail, even to taping his players' ankles. He shakes hands with every player who comes out of a game and hugs and practically kisses the first he can get hold of at a time-out when things are going well. This spirit of enthusiasm has spread across campus where "The Era of Ara"—for Ara Parseghian, the new football coach who brought in a 9-1 record this fall—is superseded during the basketball season by something called "Dee Era Go Bragh."

The students were at their volatile best, screaming "We're No. 1," last week, as Notre Dame routed Detroit 107-86. The score was, unfortunately, symptomatic: this team must win on its scoring power alone. With nearly all seniors as regulars, Dee has not had the time or opportunity to install a new all-court style. He has had trouble enough in converting the players to his so-called "alley game" of power break and shoot. "The way the rules are," he says, "why not win 100-80 instead of 80-60? It's still 20 points, but a lot more fun. Sometimes I think what they really ought to do is throw 10 balls out there. Shoot 'em up, shoot 'em up. What a game—1,342-1,339 at the half!"

With just the one ball, however, the Irish can score with anyone. They had four different high scorers in their first five games—Larry Sheffield, Ron Reed, Jay Miller and Walt Sahm. Sheffield handles the ball superbly, though he dribbles too much, and Reed and Sahm are among the nation's rebound leaders. But everyone makes so many errors in adapting to the new style that Dee led off the team meeting before the Detroit game by joking about it. So the Irish came right out on the gold carpet, through the gold stanchions, disrobed over a period of time, gave away charms and promptly kicked their way behind 10-1. It took them almost 16 minutes to get even, but then, with Sheffield driving through for 37, the Irish winged on to 107 points and 25 errors. They made 20 errors two nights later, losing to Evansville, though they scored eight more field goals.

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