As one of the designated “captains” of the neighborhood cul-de-sac in Bridgewater, N.J., Greg Grande would have either the first or second choice in the pick-up basketball game.
If he had the first pick, he would select Bo Farrell’s little brother.
If he had the second pick, he would select Bo Farrell’s little brother.
Five years older than little brother Matt – a fifth-grader going up against a bunch of high school freshmen – Bo would never choose his younger sibling.
“Bo, being the older brother, didn’t want Matt on his team because he didn’t want to have to take care of him,” Grande said. “So I would choose Matt to be on my team and we’d win most of the time.
“I started picking him over my friends. He was expected to play at our level. He was still very small, and that’s why he had that chip on his shoulder. Playing against bigger and stronger kids doesn’t faze him. He’s done it his whole life.”
Robert Farrell III – Bo – was just like all big brothers with their younger siblings. Bo held Matt’s feet to the fire at an early age. Matt had an ample amount of fire of his own.
“We’d play Nerf basketball and I’d put his head through the sheetrock, and we’d try to cover it up,” said Bo, also known as Senior First Lieutenant Bo Farrell of the United States Army, and soon-to-be Captain Bo Farrell.
“We’d put a couch in front of it or something. My mother would say, ‘Are you kidding me? Wait ‘til your father comes home!’ And my father would come home and say, ‘Who fouled who?’
Robert “Bob” Farrell II – father of Matt and Bo, and son of 1954 Notre Dame graduate Bob Farrell, Sr. -- was shocked when Matt, about to enter high school, chose to hang up his baseball cleats.
Matt was a talented, switch-hitting outfielder. He’d be a starter on the varsity as a freshman in both basketball and baseball. But his true passion ended his budding baseball career.
“You could see at a young age he was special,” Bob said. “He had that eye-hand coordination that other kids didn’t have. Bo used to get so pissed off when Greg would take Matty as the first pick, but he was better than all the freshmen.”
Matt’s commitment to basketball became 100 percent. Every day. All the time.
“He always had a basketball in his hands,” Bo said. “I don’t remember when he didn’t have a basketball in his hands. It’s always been clear that his drive and his passion is basketball.”
Ultimately, there are numerous reasons why Matt Farrell – despite a lack of size, a limited major college offer list, and sparse playing time his first two years at Notre Dame – was one of the top guards in the ACC in his first full season as a starter.
It started with a dream and a burning desire to achieve it.
“Hard work,” Bo said. “The kid has not stopped working. My father being a coach, me and him were always in the gym.
“He’s making waves in the ACC because it boils down to him working on it continuously. I’ve never seen anyone so committed.”
GROWING UP FARRELL
USA Today Sports Images
Bob Farrell, today a noteworthy success in the mortgage industry in New Jersey, coached both his sons in Little League. He coached Matt in the Cal Ripken World Series held in Arkansas and through his grade school years on the AAU circuit.
For nearly 20 years, Bob was a high school and AAU coach with Mark Taylor, who played at Fordham. They coached several future NBA players, including Tyler Ennis and Andrew Bynum, and current Pittsburgh Panther standout Michael Young.
The lessons he applied to those standouts were the same ones he stressed with Matt.
“His passion was always basketball,” Bob said. “His freshman year, the baseball coach wanted him on the varsity. Matt was afraid to call me. He said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to play baseball.’
“I said, ‘Matt, are you kidding me? You’re a phenomenal baseball player. You’re going to play varsity as a freshman.’ He said, ‘Dad, I just want to concentrate on basketball.’ It took the air out of me because he was that good.”
Growing up Farrell came with expectations. It was challenging and competitive, and with an older brother and friend helping lead the way, there were no breaks. Rolling with the punches was a significant part of the preparation.
“You have to have a tough skin because let’s be honest, life sucks at times,” Bob said. “Everything in life doesn’t always go the way you want it. So you need to have that tough skin.
“He’s developed a great tough skin.”
Bob recalls an AAU tournament during Matt’s sophomore year in high school. Watching from the stands near the bench, Bob heard “F bombs” directed at Matt by his coach when Matt failed to get back on defense.
After the game -- and after the coach realized Bob had heard every word of his tirade directed at Matt -- he sheepishly offered an apology.
“I told the coach, ‘Don’t ever apologize,’” Bob said. “I said, ‘You did exactly what I would have done. You’ve got my permission. You made my son accountable. I saw exactly what you saw, jogging back on a 3-on-1. You were reading my mind.’
“In my world, everybody doesn’t get a trophy.”
Matt talks about the days when coming home from a game, the conversation would get heated over his performance on the court. Sometimes the Farrells would have to leave a restaurant early when a post-game meal turned into a very loud and heated discussion.
Matt says there were times he had to get out of the car because the exchange became so heated.
“Well, I don’t know about getting out of the car,” Bob said. “But I’m not that father or that coach that pats you on the back when you do something wrong. I’ll pat you on the back when you do something right because there has to be a mean. You can’t keep kicking the dog.
“My point that day was it’s not about Matt; it’s about the team. You’re one of five guys on the floor, so if one guy doesn’t play hard, look at the pressure you’re putting on the other four. Why, because you had a bad night or you don’t want to play or you’re lazy? That’s not fair to the other four players.”
By the time Matt was done playing basketball for his father – at the end of his eighth grade year -- the message had been delivered and received.
“I told him that I’d give him the tools,” Bob said. “Now go build the house.”
THE FAMILY FARRELL
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Tattooed across his heart and peeking out from under Matt Farrell’s Notre Dame jersey is the word “family.” It is not a gratuitous statement. It is the foundation upon which he has built his burgeoning basketball career and entry into adulthood.
“It’s 100 percent from him,” said Farrell of his father, when asked from whence his determination and drive are derived. “From him and my brother.
“Now, we just talk about things and analyze the way I played. But for sure, he played a big part in my toughness and playing with that chip on my shoulder.”
When Matt was the center of a Mike Brey halftime tirade in early January following a sluggish first half against Clemson, he simply shrugged it off.
“I’ll hear about the first half all night from my dad, so it’s not over yet,” he said.
The patriarch of the Farrell family determines the final verdict.
“I’ve always said there are two people I’m afraid of: God and my father,” said Bo, a high school friend of former Irish running back Theo Riddick. “One time, when I -- let’s just say I consumed some alcoholic beverages before I was of legal age -- I almost bought a wheelchair because I thought he would break my legs.”
Ultimate respect, however, sometimes gives way to hyperbole. Bob Farrell may strike fear in the hearts of family and friends between the lines, but he also elicits love and respect from the players who have come under his tutelage.
“I love that guy,” Grande said. “He’s like a second father to me.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Bob Farrell to drive a high school player to his tutor so he could qualify academically for a major college basketball program, or help a player’s mother pay rent so her son could remain put and concentrate on working his way toward a college scholarship.
“He has given us more than enough in life to be successful,” said Bo of his father. “But he’s also given us assistance and guidance. If I have a problem, I’m going to my father. He’s always been there for me, Matt and the guys who played for him.”
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
During a four-year varsity career (and three-year captainship) at Point Pleasant Beach (N.J.) High School, Matt Farrell worked tirelessly to master his craft. He was obsessed with the game.
But at slightly above 6-foot-0 and with a 165-pound frame, Farrell’s major college offers were difficult to come by. Providence, Rutgers, Monmouth, St. Joseph’s and Boston College were among the programs that came calling. Farrell was verbally committed to Boston College when the Irish suddenly felt a need to recruit another point guard.
With Jerian Grant running the show and leading Notre Dame to the first of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, followed by McDonald’s All-American and local superstar Demetrius Jackson waiting in the wings, Mike Brey didn’t believe he needed another point guard for a year or two.
But when Jackson struggled academically during his freshman year, prompting Brey to sideline him for two games, Notre Dame assistants Anthony Solomon, Rod Balanis and Martin Ingelsby were instructed to keep an eye out for a point guard on the recruiting trail.
Ingelsby found an undersized, downright scrawny point guard by the name of Matt Farrell. It was what was within that small package that jumped out at Ingelsby.
“At the beginning of the year, we weren’t looking for a point guard,” said Ingelsby, Brey’s first point guard at Notre Dame, a member of Brey’s staff for 14 seasons, and now the head coach at Delaware.
“But as things moved on with Demetrius, we needed to add some insurance with another ball-handler.”
Farrell impressed Ingelsby moments after tip-off.
“A tough, confident, kind of cocky kid that knew how to play,” Ingelsby said. “He could make shots and made his teammates better.
“I remember telling Coach Brey, ‘He fits us. Whether we need it, whether we go that route, he’s the type of kid that you want in your program. He’s a gym rat and he’s going to be able to make an impact for us down the road.’”
In some respects, Farrell reminded Ingelsby of himself. Ingelsby was a more stoic, reserved personality, but both had played basketball for their fathers. Ingelsby played high school basketball under former Villanova standout and long-time high school coach Tom Ingelsby.
“There was an edge about him, a confidence about him, kind of a swagger,” Ingelsby said. “He had that quickness where he could really get by people. He impressed me from the minute I saw him.”
When Brey went to see Farrell in person to validate Ingelsby’s claim, it didn’t take long for him to pull the trigger.
“Mike texted me at halftime,” Ingelsby said. “’I’ve seen enough. We’ve got to try and get this kid.’ I texted his high school coach and I said, ‘Hey, let’s get this done.’”
The first player Brey thought of as he watched Farrell play was another small, scrappy, tenacious player.
“He reminded me of Bobby Hurley, who I watched as an assistant at Duke,” Brey said. “There was a lot of familiarity there.
“Bobby loved Matt. Bobby really endorsed him and tried to recruit him at Buffalo. When he knew he couldn’t get him, (Hurley) recommended him to me.”
The family connection to Notre Dame made it a no-brainer.
“He was a kid who loved Notre Dame with the family connection,” Brey said. “We had a relationship with Bob from recruiting other kids from Jersey. He had recommended a bunch.
“The other comparison to Hurley was that he was coached very hard by his father. Both of them had the toughness to take it.
“The skillset was there. Matt had great speed and there was a toughness about him. He played with that edge.”
WAITING HIS TURN
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Playing behind Grant and Jackson as a freshman in 2014-15, Farrell saw action in 11 of 14 non-conference games, logging a total of 50 minutes, never scoring more than three points or handing out more than one assist.
When ACC play opened in early-January, Farrell’s minutes evaporated. He played in just four of the remaining 24 games, never more than five minutes and always in a mop-up role.
Okay, freshman year. Learning experience. Grant would be gone next year and Farrell could share point guard duties with Jackson.
Farrell put his name in the rotation early in his sophomore year with a stellar performance at Illinois in the seventh game of the season when he scored 10 points in 23 minutes of action. But from that point on, his playing time dwindled with each successive game.
“It was tough,” Farrell said.
With Jackson maintaining a year of eligibility, a third year in a back-up role would be difficult for a player of such competitiveness and confidence in his ability.
A transfer would give Farrell two years of eligibility and two years as a starter.
“The only thing I ever said to Matt was, ‘Go out and practice hard every day,’” Bob said. “Don’t be ‘that guy.’ Prepare to play and be ready every day. If the time comes to consider other options, we will. But now is not that time.”
“I know there was a lot of talk about transferring,” Bo said. “That was something amongst our family that we had talked about, but there was no ‘you will transfer.’ It was a conversation about options.”
Bo echoed his father’s advice.
“Any player with a drive to succeed is going to get frustrated if he’s not playing,” Bo said. “But I kept telling him, ‘You better bust your butt in practice. You’re sitting behind a great point guard.’
“D.J. was a great role model for my brother. I miss that kid.”
With two tours of duty in Afghanistan, Bo did not want to engage in discussions with Matt about his plight in life.
“You’re playing behind a potential lottery pick and you’ve got a full ride to the University of Notre Dame,” Bo said. “I don’t want to hear that something sucks for you while I’m sitting in Afghanistan. Your problems are not that bad.
“No. 2, I told him to enjoy college, enjoy classes, enjoy your friends, have fun, don’t be upset on the weekend because you’re not playing.
“I told him, ‘When your time comes, it might be when you least expect it.’ Case in point: last year. Nobody saw the Michigan game coming.”
It wasn’t until the final regular-season game of his sophomore year – against N.C. State – that Farrell saw extended minutes. Brey thought the Irish might need another ball-handler/scoring threat entering the ACC tournament.
Farrell played 15 minutes against the Wolfpack, handed out four assists, snagged a rebound and came up with a steal in an 89-75 Irish victory. But when the ACC tournament began with a victory over Duke, Farrell never left the bench.
He saw 16 minutes of action against North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals after the game turned into a blowout loss.
As the Irish began preparations to take on Michigan in the opening-game of the NCAA tournament, Brey inserted Farrell into the starting lineup for the first time.
In four NCAA tournament games, Farrell scored 26 points and handed out 14 assists with five turnovers, including none in 54 minutes of action against Wisconsin and North Carolina as a loss to the Tar Heels ended the season.
Within days, Jackson announced his decision to bypass his senior season for the NBA.
“I told Matt, ‘You’re driving this car now,’” Brey recalled.
THE UNWANTED TITLE
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Publicly, Matt Farrell gladly accepts the compliment. Privately, it makes him cringe. Actually, it pisses him off.
The most improved player in the country. The most improved player in the ACC.
“He doesn’t like it, and that’s the epitome of him and his makeup,” Brey said. “He bristles at that.”
For Farrell, “most improved” means he wasn’t very good to begin with, and he doesn’t believe that for a second.
“I wasn’t playing because I was behind two really good guys,” Farrell said. “Me, personally, I don’t think I got a chance to prove to people in this program I can play until I got the chance to start playing.
“Now that I’m playing, I’m having fun and loving the guys around me.”
As Notre Dame heads into the 2017 ACC tournament, two players have been consistent from start to finish in 2016-17: all-ACC first-team selection Bonzie Colson and Farrell, who ultimately finished third in conference balloting for most improved.
Even more than the statistics indicate – he’s averaging 14.2 points and 5.5 assists per game -- Farrell has been driving the car since the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn the third week of November against Colorado and Northwestern.
Farrell scored a career-high 20 points with six assists and three steals – and zero turnovers – in 32 minutes of action as Notre Dame claimed an 89-83 victory over the Buffaloes.
The following night, Farrell’s three-point play with 14 seconds left and a pair of free throws moments later capped an 18-point night and the Legends Classic most valuable player award in a 70-66 victory over the Wildcats.
“This has been blossoming since March and watching him through the summer,” said Brey, referring to Farrell’s time in Italy playing for the East Coast All-Stars in August. “I don’t think the staff or his teammates are shocked.
“There’s an edge about him, a fearlessness about him, and I’m thrilled that he’s coming out of here a really confident guy. He knows he’s got the keys to the car.”
Farrell has been the model of consistency ever since. He’s scored in double-figures in 24 of his last 27 games, including 17 of 18 in ACC play, which is no small feat for a point guard entrusted with running the show for his teammates while providing a scoring source.
Farrell shot 45.2 percent (48-of-106) from three-point range in ACC play, finishing fifth in the conference. He also was third in assists, tied for third in steals, and sixth in minutes played.
Off the dribble, Farrell is a dead-eye shooter. His penetration skills open up an array of options. He doesn’t just find the open man; he finds the most open man.
His free-wheeling, go-for-it attitude sometimes leads to turnovers, yet he finished the ACC season with nearly twice as many assists (94) as turnovers (51).
Brey’s not one to over-coach, and thus, Farrell’s aggressiveness is fine-tuned, not dampened or diminished.
“You don’t want to take away his go-for-it mentality,” Brey said.
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
It required a whole bunch of lying to pull it off. Lying to Matt, lying to Bob, and above all, lying to his mother, Michelle.
“It took a lot of planning with a lot of unknown information,” said Bo of his surprise return to the States from Afghanistan six days before Christmas. “The lying I had to do…my mother…I was back here for a week living on my buddy’s coach.
“I had to stay off social media. I had to come up with excuses to keep my mother in the dark.”
Shortly after Notre Dame’s Dec. 19 victory over Colgate at Purcell Pavilion, a game in which Farrell scored 13 points and dished out seven assists, the University surprised him with a video of Bo “from Afghanistan.”
The look of joy on Farrell’s face and the emotion he showed hearing his brother’s pride in him was the greatest Christmas gift a younger brother could get…or so he thought.
As the video came to a close and the camera pulled away, it became clear that Bo Farrell was not in Afghanistan after all. He was in the Notre Dame locker room with an American flag draped behind him.
Bo walked up the tunnel at Purcell Pavilion, picked up the pace as Matt and him caught a glimpse of one another, and they embraced on the court.
“I don’t even know what to say,” said an emotional Matt in the locker room. “I’m just lost for words…I can’t wait to spend Christmas with him.”
Credit the University of Notre Dame for pulling off the surprise of a lifetime.
“Our people here, our administration, did a great job,” Brey said. “We set this up probably six weeks ago. We had Bo stashed away in an apartment for the last 24 hours. “
Notre Dame took careful steps to keep Bob, Michelle and Matt in the dark.
“We kept it really tight; nobody said anything,” Brey said. “There was some thought of letting the family know, but Bo said, ‘No, no, no! My mom will let it out! It won’t be a surprise!’”
As Bo emerged from the locker room, Bob and Michelle came cascading down the stairs to the court from their customary seats behind the Notre Dame bench. Bob limped on his right foot, which he injured while slipping on the ice outside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis two days earlier for the Purdue game.
“I thought my mother was going to punch me once she realized I’d been home a little over a week and had been lying to her,” Bo said. “But these two months of planning for those 30 seconds was hands-down worth it.”
“That’s his buddy, that’s his guy,” Brey said. “I think one of the reasons Matty played so well in the NCAA tournament (in March) was because Bo was home. I think that helped Matty feel even more supported.”
Words were difficult to come by for Farrell…except when he realized who was involved in the scam.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You knew!?!’” Brey said. “I said, ‘Yeah, man, I’m sorry.’”
Said Bo: “It was a moment that me and him will cherish our whole lives.”
From there, it was on to the next hurdle, which Matt Farrell cleared, game after game.
“I’m ecstatic not just because of his stats, but because of his leadership,” said Bo from Fort Hood, Texas, two days before Notre Dame’s regular-season finale at Louisville.
“That’s the No. 1 thing I’ve asked of him, along with his command presence on the floor. The confidence is there. He wants the ball. But when somebody is a little rattled, he’s the guy that says, ‘We’re going to be okay. I’ve got this.’”
Matt Farrell has “had this” all along. All he needed was the opportunity – and the guidance of his family, every step of the way.