By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 14, 2010; D10
Basketball coaches talk all the time about the importance of team chemistry. When a team is winning, it is always about work ethic and great kids and desire and, of course, team chemistry. Players on winning teams love one another. Players on losing teams transfer or, in the NBA, demand to be traded.
Cornell Coach Steve Donahue doesn't have to talk about team chemistry. His players live team chemistry. "If you tried to get your players to do this, ordered them to do it, no way would it happen," he said this week. "Our guys just did it. It was their idea. That's why it works."
Their idea, hatched two years ago, was to live together. All of them. In one house -- 14 college basketball players under one roof in an old house near the Cornell campus.
"The good news is it's a really big house," starting center Jeff Foote said. "We've all got our own rooms. Even so, the place does get pretty dirty a fair amount of the time."
No doubt. Donahue really doesn't care that much about his players' skills as housekeepers, though, especially given the results they've produced as basketball players the last three seasons. The Big Red has won back-to-back Ivy League titles and was 21-4 after Saturday night's 48-45 win over Princeton. It has road or neutral-site wins over Alabama, St. John's, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph's, Toledo, Davidson and La Salle. And its losses were to Seton Hall, at Pennsylvania in a slip-up Friday night, and at Kansas and Syracuse -- currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation.
The final score of the Kansas game was 71-66, and it was closer than that. Cornell led most of the game and leading scorer Ryan Wittman had a crack at a three-point shot in the final seconds that could have tied the score.
"Because of who we were playing and where we were playing and the fact that the last six or seven minutes were on national TV [ESPN switched to the game], I think I've had more feedback on that game than on all the other games I've coached here combined," Donahue said. "I think it surprised some people to see how good we are."
Cornell is good, even though it doesn't have a single national TV appearance scheduled this season. But no one is going to call the Big Red or Donahue an overnight success. This was a long time coming.
Donahue came to Cornell in the fall of 2000 after 10 seasons as an assistant coach under Fran Dunphy at Penn. The popular thinking then, as it has been throughout most of the Ivy League's history, was that third place was about as good as any Ivy League team not named Penn or Princeton could hope for most years. Columbia shared the league title with Princeton in 1968, Brown won it in 1986 and Cornell won it in 1988. In the other 37 seasons from Columbia's co-title through 2007, Princeton or Penn won or shared each championship.
"I knew in a place like this you don't build quickly," Donahue said. "You have to get kids who fit Cornell, not just kids with talent, because if they don't like the place, their talent isn't going to matter. We were lucky we got some kids to come who went out and convinced better kids to follow them, and they convinced better kids than that to come. By the time we got this senior class [high school class of 2006] we thought we had something going.
"And then we got Foote."
The key player in that 2006 recruiting class was Wittman, the son of former Indiana star and NBA player Randy Wittman. "I liked everything about the place when I visited," he said.
It was during that season that Foote transferred from St. Bonaventure. He was not, in any way, a typical transfer. Donahue had seen him play briefly in a high school tournament at Cornell. "He was probably 6-9 or 6-10 and might have weighed 170," he said. "I remember thinking he could pass the ball but he was so gangly and awkward. There were D-3 coaches watching him that day and none of them thought he was good enough for them."
In fact, the only D-3 school that even talked to Foote was Rochester Institute of Technology, and that was as a courtesy because his brother Jesse had played there. "I went from like 6-4 as a sophomore to 6-11 as a senior," Jeff Foote said. "I lost all my coordination. Everything was hard for me."
Foote ended up at St. Bonaventure as a walk-on. During his freshman season, Donahue and his team were struck by what appeared at the time to be a genuine tragedy when Khaliq Gant, then a sophomore, went down during a drill in practice and, in one of those horrible freak accidents, never got up.
Gant was paralyzed from the neck down. Eight weeks after the accident, he could only blink his eyes. It took four months before he got movement back, but he did recover -- not to play basketball, but to graduate from Cornell and live a normal life. "Thank God he turned out to be completely okay," Donahue said. "For a long time it didn't look like he would be."
During Gant's lengthy stay at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, N.Y., the chief nurse in the intensive care unit was Wanda Foote -- Jeff's mom.
"She got to be friendly with everyone on the team, but especially with" Zach Spiker, then a Big Red assistant, her son said. "She mentioned I was at Bonaventure not playing at all and they invited me to come and work out with them at their camp that summer. I couldn't do it but when I decided the next fall to transfer, Mom contacted Coach Spiker right away."
By then, Foote had filled out to all of about 205 pounds, but at 7 feet tall and a good student, Spiker convinced Donahue he was worth the risk. Foote transferred between semesters and became part of the class of 2010.
Foote now weighs about 240 pounds and is considered a long-shot NBA prospect, someone who will at least get to continue playing basketball overseas. He's the team's second-leading scorer (12.7 points per game) and averages close to nine rebounds in addition to being a defensive force inside. He's become something of a folk hero on campus partly because of his play; partly because he once told the student newspaper that he "hated" all squirrels because one had gotten into the house he was living in one summer and destroyed his laptop; and partly because he famously got up on a table and danced in a campus hangout the night Cornell clinched the Ivy League title in 2008.
All of that said, as much fun as the players clearly have together, they are very serious about wanting to be known as more than just a nice mid-major team. As a No. 14 seed in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, the Big Red drew Stanford and Missouri. This year, if it continues to play well, Cornell should be a much higher seed given the quality of teams it has beaten -- and the teams it has lost to thus far.
"When we saw the schedule last summer we knew why Coach had put it together that way," Wittman said. "He wanted to challenge us, see if we could close the deal against good teams. We've been to the NCAA tournament, and our first goal is to win the Ivy League and get back there. But I don't think we'll be satisfied with that. We want to do more than that. We think we have that kind of ability."
They also have the team chemistry. And the messy house they all live in to prove it.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.