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Not Easy Walking the Green

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The office is virtually empty. No furniture except a temporary desk. Nothing on the walls except old nails. A gaudy green carpet, which John MacLeod, dressed tastefully in a white dress shirt and Cannes Film Festival tie, says he intends to pull up when he gets a free minute.

The office is his now. Digger Phelps has vacated. Coach of Notre Dame basketball for 20 years, Phelps took an early retirement, possibly voluntary, more likely not. Having cleared out to make room for his replacement, Phelps uses a smaller office tucked away in the fencing gymnasium, neither entirely out of sight nor out of mind.

“That reminds me,” MacLeod says, making a note to himself. “I should give him a call this afternoon.”

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The new coach is hustling to catch up, as well as catch his breath. A week ago Tuesday, MacLeod was coaching the New York Knicks in an NBA playoff game at Madison Square Garden. Next afternoon, he was negotiating with Notre Dame, and two days later, he was in South Bend to start work as the Irish’s first new basketball coach since Richard Nixon’s first term in the White House. It all happened so fast for MacLeod, he and Phelps haven’t even had a chance to confer.

His last three jobs having been with the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks and the Knicks of the NBA, MacLeod is hustling to reacquaint himself with Notre Dame specifically and with college sports in general. Atop his desk is the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh’s book, “God, Country, Notre Dame.” In a corner is a stuffed-leprechaun hand puppet given him by Irish football Coach Lou Holtz to be used as a golf-club head cover; in another corner is a good-luck balloon from Judy Cohen, his secretary with the Knicks.

“In your life as a basketball coach, two of the jobs a man might dream of someday having are coach of the New York Knicks and coach of Notre Dame,” MacLeod says. “And I had both in one week.”

Funny thing is, the Knick job has been passed around like a canape, with Pat Riley currently being offered a taste, and the Notre Dame job reportedly had turndowns galore. What appealed to the school about MacLeod, after certain college coaches unexpectedly demurred, was a varied background that included experience at high schools in Indianapolis and outside Bloomington.

“Later on, when I coached at Oklahoma, we recruited the heck out of Indiana,” MacLeod recalls. “I’m no fool.”

That is his task now, to return to the world of recruiting after being absent from college coaching for 18 seasons. MacLeod says he is looking forward to it, but first he still has to be introduced to some of the players who will be part of his next team. He still hasn’t met them. That’s how fast this whole thing happened.

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His best player, junior forward LaPhonso Ellis, wasn’t even sure he intended to remain at Notre Dame after Phelps left, although he did say Thursday that he will stay for his senior year and not make himself available for the NBA draft.

Consulting his appointment book again, MacLeod says: “I’m seeing LaPhonso at 2 o’clock.”

Getting organized this quickly isn’t easy. MacLeod calls it the most hectic time of his life. By mid-afternoon, the new coach had his chance to sit with Ellis, a gifted player who has missed 24 of Notre Dame’s last 61 games for academic reasons, and said he evinced a promise from Ellis to stay in school, or at least that was his impression.

“I told him you only have one senior year at Notre Dame,” MacLeod says.

And only one first year. Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal told people last week that MacLeod was Notre Dame’s man all along, that alumni touted him and superiors approved of him and that, “I have every belief that John MacLeod would have been our coach no matter what happened.”

Rosenthal insisted the position was never formally offered to Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Pete Gillen of Xavier or anyone else, although Cremins definitely was interviewed. MacLeod doesn’t care how he got the job, only that he got it, and jokes that the only thing that nearly made him reconsider was a 1991-92 schedule that includes games at Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke.

The Knicks’ losing by 40 points to the Chicago Bulls in their first playoff game seemed another good reason to move on.

Now, the change has been made, with more in store.

“This green rug’s definitely got to go,” MacLeod says.

“Definitely,” a visitor concurs. “You know these Irish and their green.”

“Oh, green,” MacLeod says, as though suddenly realizing again where he now worked. “Well, maybe just a softer shade of green.”

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