When Rick Cornett gets off the bench, now regularly for the first time in his Notre Dame career, the Joyce Center erupts. Adopted as the hardest luck player on college basketball's hardest luck team, the applause comes not for any stat line but simply because Cornett is still here.
More times than he'd like to admit, the 6-foot-9, 244-pound forward from Country Club Hills, Ill., thought about giving up on his Notre Dame career that's produced more frustration than joy. Cornett never approached other coaches about exiting the Irish lineup for good, but starting just three games in his college career wasn't exactly the goal when he enrolled four years ago.
"A lot of people in my position probably would have transferred or given up," Cornett said. "I ask myself [what kept me here] sometimes. Honestly I don't know, it's probably a combination of things."
A Notre Dame education, his teammates and family helped smooth Cornett's rough patches, but no basketball player signs on to sit the bench. Caught behind classmate Torin Francis to the point Mike Brey entertained a red-shirt year during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Cornett's career arc started with disappointment, shifted to anger and settled on maturity.
It's not only a surprise Cornett stuck around South Bend, but that his sense of humor stayed too. He doesn't mind joking, often at his own expense, about not playing more.
"You've got to laugh about it," Cornett said. "You can't be too serious. Life is too short. It's OK to be upset about a basketball game but in the big scheme of things it's not as important as my health, my family and other things.
"Everything happens for a reason."
Take Cornett's increased commitment to basketball last summer, prompted by the forward staring down his final season of eligibility. An avid musician who plays the drums in a campus jazz group, Cornett has never been called a gym rat that needed a coach to lock the arena doors. The senior describes himself as "well rounded" and looks forward to time away from the game.
That time spent clanging symbols probably helped Cornett's frame of mind, but it didn't do much for mastering a 2-3 zone.
"He does have other interests," Brey said. "That's healthy, that's well rounded, but also then too you want a kind of maniacal focus."
Brey got that from Cornett this summer when he attended the Pete Newell Big Man camp in Las Vegas with some parental urging. The trip cost more than $1,000, but it pushed the forward's confidence to a new level. The camp included about 80 players with a handful from the NBA. Cornett was the only college player bumped into the pro group where he got a chance to post against forwards such as Ike Diogu of the Golden State Warriors.
"It made me feel good about the way I've been playing," Cornett said. "I feel like I can score on pretty much anybody except for Shaq or Yao Ming. I just go out there with the mindset that I'm not going to take anything from anyone."
The benefits of Cornett's Vegas vacation showed when he scored over Connecticut's Josh Boone in Notre Dame's 75-74 overtime loss to the Huskies on Feb. 21. In that game Cornett logged a career-high 27 minutes, scoring 12 points and grabbing five rebounds. Connecticut finished with a Big East record 19 blocks, but Cornett didn't suffer from fear of rejection.
He's endured worse than fighting taller defenders on the block.
That resiliency fueled his fan favorite status and helped Cornett earn tri-captain honors at the start of Big East play. When Notre Dame voted for its captains before the season the distinction went to only Chris Quinn and Francis. Brey told Cornett that if his summer commitment extended to the pre-season and non-conference schedule, he'd probably join his classmates as captains.
"His frame of mind was more intense than ever before," Brey said. "The light bulb goes on at different times with guys. You're always trying to figure out how to turn it on and what turns it on. Throughout it all, he's been a beautiful kid to coach."
How much longer Brey coaches Cornett depends on the next week. Notre Dame hosts Marquette on Saturday followed by a March 1 trip to Providence and a March 4 home date with DePaul. Two wins in those three games should qualify Notre Dame for the Big East Tournament, with bids extended to the league's top 12 teams.
"If we're going to do this New York City thing, I think we should put it in [the seniors'] hands and either get us there or not," Brey said. "Let the two senior big guys play together more. Put it in their lap. Let's see."
Cornett has waited four years for that chance to show off.