It was a cold and blustery February 17 in Milwaukee. The year was 1994 and Marquette was preparing to play one of their most hated rivals. The Warriors were a cool 17-5, but when you play against the University of Notre Dame, all bets are off. This game meant more to Marquette alumni and fans than foul language meant to then Marquette Head Coach Kevin O'Neill. And for the record, foul language meant a whole lot to Coach O'Neill.
The semantics of scheduling non-conference block buster games are always difficult. That is to say, it's hard to figure out when you want to play these rivalry games, and still give your team a chance to win their conference games during the year. Marquette was in the middle of their Midwest Conference slate, but took a pause to play at Virginia Tech and then home against Notre Dame. Athletic Director Bill Cords, then in his seventh season at the helm, scheduled the Irish allowing his team just two days of rest. He didn't flinch, however, as Notre Dame was also to play on two days rest, including a travel day to Milwaukee. Typically, Notre Dame and Marquette played each other with the same amount of off days before the game to give both teams equal preparation time.
"We had it all worked out," said Cords. "Then, before the season started, Kevin (O'Neill) comes running into my office with a Street and Smith Magazine and says, ‘those blankety-blanks did it again.'"
Notre Dame had cunningly cancelled a non conference game before their date with Marquette. O'Neill pointed out that his Warriors had to play three games in eight days leading up to the showdown with the Irish, while Notre Dame had to play just two. O'Neill immediately asked Cords to switch the schedule or cancel games so his team would have time to prepare. Cords was reluctant to breach any contracts he had made with the teams already on the schedule. He told O'Neill to just play the game and see what happens.
"He came in my office again the week before the game," recalled Cords. "He told me that if we lost the game, he was going to let everyone know on ESPN and everywhere else what those blankety-blanks did to us."
After winning a tough road game at Virginia Tech, Marquette came out blazing against Notre Dame and took a six point advantage into the second half. The tide would turn though. As Cords describes it, Marquette just lost their legs late in the game. The Irish were out-hustling the Warriors and getting up and down the floor a lot quicker. Marquette had no stamina and was tired from playing so many games on such little rest. Notre Dame won the game 68-58 on the Warrior's home court.
Thirteen years removed from this memorable game with the Notre Dame, Athletic Director Bill Cords has announced he will retire. Tuesday's announcement came with little surprise, as the sixty-five year old Cords had reportedly been contemplating retirement for the better part of three years. While the ceremony held at the Al McGuire Center was supposed to be a celebration of his accomplishments at Marquette, the community will certainly miss him.
Cords came to Marquette from the University of Texas-El Paso, where he received his first Athletic Directing job. Previous to UTEP, he coached high school football in Montana and held various athletic department jobs at Washington State after that. He was brought to Marquette to provide stability and leadership in 1987.
He and his family trekked to Milwaukee after spending their entire lives out west and in Texas. During his first few years, he moved Marquette into the Midwestern Collegiate Conference marking the first time that MU became part of any conference affiliation. From there, Marquette teams competed in the Great Midwest Conference, Conference USA, and presently compete in the Big East.
Cords will be remembered most recently for the move to the Big East, widely regarded as the country's most well rounded conference. However, many distinguish Cords as the biggest reason why the Al McGuire Center was built. The entire process of constructing the "Al" was overseen by Cords. Now four years old, it serves as one of the best athletic facilities in the country.
"Bill has run a program of unquestionable integrity," said University President Fr. Robert Wild S.J., who helped introduce Cords Tuesday morning. "It is something that we take great pride in. He has been so committed to the quality of the programs and the student athletes. In his twenty years, Bill has come to bleed blue and gold."
"Bill allows his coaches to not only coach with their head, but coach with their heart, and there's a big difference," added Tom Crean. "Bill Cords always stands with you. He gives everybody the opportunity to do their very best."
As for his legacy, Cords wants to be remembered as someone who improved Marquette athletics and gave his teams and coaches the opportunity to compete. "I hope that through the twenty years I've been here, our students athletes felt like every time they stepped into the arena of competition, they had a chance to win," remarked Cords.
It is difficult to quantify the achievements of an athletic director or coach. They are positions of guidance and leadership, while the student athletes are depended on for the raw results year in and year out. But if one thing is true about Cords' legacy at Marquette, he shouldered the blame whenever the media questioned anything, and he shied away from the spotlight when the accolades came.
"When the bullets came, Bill Cords always stepped in front," added Crean. "I'll never forget how hard it was to get him to cut a piece of that net when we beat Kentucky to go to the final four in 2003. When the credit came, he always stepped behind."
Somewhere back inside the Bradley Center, Kevin O'Neill was fuming. Angered that his team was tired just like he predicted, O'Neill was primed to reveal just exactly how Notre Dame slipped past his team that night and how Bill Cords refused to change the schedule.
The media sat in the press room eager for Coach O'Neill to explain the devastating second half collapse to one of Marquette's biggest rivals. The door opened and out came Bill Cords. Cords stepped to the microphone much to the surprise of the media members, and took full responsibility for the loss.
"I feel bad for our coaches, I feel bad for our players and I feel bad for our fans," Cords said after the game. "I made the schedule and things changed. I want you to know that it's my fault."
Not only were Marquette's student athletes given a chance to win everyday during Cords' tenure, they knew they had someone who would take a bullet for them, and leave a blood trail of blue and gold.