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Bob Whitmore: Notre Dame’s Washington, D.C., Pioneer And More

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Whitmore saluted an appreciative Notre Dame audience upon his induction into the Ring of Honor. (High school coach Morgan Wootten is to his right.) (Photo by Corey Bodden)

I was wrong.

Ever since the start of the Ring of Honor for the Notre Dame men’s and women’s basketball programs in 2010, an annual feature I did after a player, or coach, has been inducted, is looking ahead to who should be next.

So when it was announced this past October that 1966-69 center Bob Whitmore would have that honor, I was slightly surprised. I’ve been waiting to see more representation first from an even more distant past.

Not having Ed “Moose” Krause (1930-34) up there is like not having Babe Ruth in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Octogenarian Dick Rosenthal, who led back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in 1953 and 1954 before also becoming the school’s director of athletics (1987-95), distinguished himself in a manner to where I hope the honor won’t occur posthumously.

After Whitmore, a personal favorite was John Shumate (1972-74), although playing only two seasons might lessen his chances. Then as a freshman, Kelly Tripucka (1978-81) helped spearhead Notre Dame’s lone Final Four hope and took on a rock-star like ambiance for the top-five program.

Whitmore?

Certainly worthy, but to me he seemed more like a package deal. He and Bob Arnzen — who played both professional basketball and baseball — enrolled in 1965 and became inexorably linked as the “Bob-sey Twins” while finishing as the second- and third-leading scorers in school history by the time they graduated. Arnzen tallied 1,665 points to Whitmore’s 1,580, while Whitmore grabbed 1,043 rebounds to Arnzen’s 944.

They were to men’s basketball at Notre Dame what Beth Morgan Cunningham (also in the Ring) and Katryna Gaither were when as seniors they directed the Irish to their initial Final Four. Morgan is still the school’s second all-time leading scorer (2,322) while Gaither (2,126) just recently was passed by Arike Ogunbowale at third. But Gaither also had 986 rebounds (third most) and led the Final Four team in scoring with a 20.4 average.

Whitmore-Arnzen and Morgan-Gaither were more like a duo than a single entity.

However, when delving more into the history, Whitmore’s impact went far beyond his 47 career double-doubles, which ranks third in school annals (Luke Harangody is first with 64 in 129 games). However, because freshmen were ineligible in Whitmore’s days per NCAA rules, he played only 84 games, meaning he achieved the double-double in 56 percent of his contests.

First, there was where Notre Dame was with its basketball program when Whitmore opted to enroll in 1965. The Irish still played in the outdated Old Fieldhouse, where luring marquee opponents to play had become more difficult, while recruiting began to struggle. In the seven seasons from 1959-65, Notre Dame finished under .500 four times, a school record of futility.

When head coach Johnny Dee was hired in 1964, the recruiting had floundered to the point where in 1965-66 — Whitmore’s freshman year, when he was not eligible for the varsity — Notre Dame had its worst finish ever: 5-21.

Signing the 6-7 Whitmore was a surprise in itself after a marvelous prep career at DeMatha High School near the Washington, D.C., area. In what many basketball historians consider the most famous high school basketball game ever played, Whitmore’s Stags upset No. 1 recruit Lew Alcindor’s (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) heretofore invincible Powers Memorial School (71-game winning streak) located in New York.

Fellow future Notre Dame teammate and Washington, D.C., native Collis Jones recalled growing up and remembering how Whitmore’s performances while leading DeMatha to prominence resulted in a typical headline of “Whit-More Can You Do?”

Dee’s friend and Washington, D.C., connection Frannie Collins had introduced the Irish head coach to Whitmore, and the signing of him became a breakthrough moment of establishing the D.C. pipeline that would turn Notre Dame into one of the nation’s top 10 programs from 1968-81.

In the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights movement in the United States was at its peak, with Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. receiving the presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 for his work in that arena.

Alas, for young black males, the all-male, private Catholic school in northern Indiana was not deemed a Shangri-la. The 1966 football national champs had only one African-American player — All-American Alan Page — and basketball was well beyond second fiddle at the school.

By enrolling at Notre Dame, Whitmore’s presence and marvelous success as a student and athlete prompted a feeling back in D.C. of it’s not only okay to go to Notre Dame, but extremely beneficial for growth beyond the hardwood.

By the end of Whitmore’s freshman year, construction of the Athletic & Convocation Center (known as the ACC, and now Purcell Pavilion) was in the works. By the end of his sophomore year in 1968, the football team had admitted a school-record six African-American football players — including future All-Americans Thom Gatewood (the program’s first black captain) and Clarence Ellis.

A year earlier, the Dee-Collins connection had landed the premier recruiting class in the country with three African-American players from D.C. in Austin Carr (Mackin High), Collis Jones (St. John’s Prep) and Sid Catlett (DeMatha) — the No. 1, No. 17 and No. 55 NBA Draft picks four years later.

By Whitmore’s senior season in 1968-69, the sparkling new ACC began its inaugural season — with Whitmore jumping center against UCLA’s Alcindor in a top-five matchup — Carr and Co. were eligible as sophomores, and True magazine ranked Notre Dame as its preseason No. 1, a distinction that was unfathomable just three years earlier with a 5-21 record. The Irish made the 25-team NCAA Tournament, and set the table for routine top-10 placement for more than a decade.

One would be remiss to not point out how 50 years ago not everyone was accepting the “changing face” of Notre Dame and its athletics program. In Whitmore’s senior season, a loss at home to Michigan State on Feb. 11, 1969 was exacerbated when, late in the contest, the Fighting Irish had five black players on the floor at the same time: Whitmore, Carr, Jones, Catlett and Dwight Murphy. A chorus of boos rang out — disputed by many as overplayed and misinterpreted — but it did create a wave of discomfort internally.

Regardless, Whitmore had served as a guiding light in a tumultuous era of maintaining composure and dignity.

“He is one of the classiest players we have ever had here,” said current head coach Mike Brey, a fellow DeMatha graduate, of the ambassador role Whitmore has had for his alma mater.

Drafted by both the NBA and ABA, Whitmore never defined himself by just basketball. In 1973-74, en route to receiving his law degree as well at Notre Dame, he served as a graduate assistant under third-year head coach Digger Phelps, particularly as a mentor for Shumate and star freshman Adrian Dantley — yet another product from DeMatha.

That Notre Dame team finished 26-3, highlighted by ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, plus defeating two other Final Four teams (Marquette and Kansas), as well as recording road victories at Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan State, plus snapping South Carolina’s 34-game home winning streak.

Meanwhile, the D.C. pipeline continued with other luminaries such as Don “Duck” Williams, a star for the 1978 Final Four edition as a senior, Tracy Jackson, Tom Sluby and spilled over even into the 1990s with Monty Williams. In 2015, D.C. native Jerian Grant was an All-American linchpin for Notre Dame’s first trip to the Elite Eight in 36 years.

Today, the rebuilding Irish lineup includes more D.C. influence with sophomore D.J. Harvey (DeMatha again) and freshman Prentiss Hubb, who fittingly converted the two free throws with 2.6 seconds left, plus four three-pointers, in yesterday’s win versus Boston College, following the ceremony for Whitmore.

Associate head coach Rod Balanis played at DeMatha, while video coordinator and former Irish team captain Eric Atkins (2010-14) hailed from the D.C. area as well.

Ailing with pancreatic cancer and other health setbacks, Whitmore was unable to speak at his ceremony, but did talk to the Irish team the day prior.

There will be a time and place for others to be immortalized in Notre Dame’s basketball Ring of Honor, but the inclusion of Whitmore 50 years after his final game with the Fighting Irish went far beyond statistics.

Whit-more can you ask?

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