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June 19, 2012
Jack Swarbrick looked at the list, and the more he studied it, the more he realized that he didn’t want to have to consult that list during his tenure as athletics director at Notre Dame.
And so Tuesday, Swarbrick and the University of Notre Dame announced a 10-year extension of men’s basketball coach Mike Brey - through the 2021-22 season - which would take him up to 22 seasons with the Irish.
“As an AD, in every sport, you’re always thinking, ‘If my coach left tomorrow, who would I hire,’” said Swarbrick Tuesday morning from the Hammes Auditorium in the Joyce Center. “When I thought about that for Mike Brey, I never had a list where I was as comfortable with anybody on it as I was with Mike. That said to me that we need to make sure this guy stays with our program.”
Brey just completed his 12th season as head coach of the Fighting Irish, and the program under his direction is peaking. Picked to finish in the lower portion of the Big East last season, the Irish rattled off nine straight victories in conference play. They finished a surprising third in the Big East with a 13-5 mark and a 22-12 overall record.
That came on the heels of a 27-7 season in 2010-11 and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, which the Irish have made four of the last five seasons. Additionally, with sixth-year senior Scott Martin returning in 2012-13, the Irish are considered a frontrunner to win the Big East regular-season championship.
“When (I) got there, (we) were trying to survive the Big East; now we’re in a mode of thriving in the Big East,” said Brey, whose squad is 70-36 (.660) in the Big East over the last six seasons, including a 100-7 (.935) mark at home with a 47-6 home record in conference play. “We’ve shifted gears, and I’m so excited about where we’re at, our momentum, our position and how we’re thought of.”
It didn’t happen overnight.
“When I got here, we hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 10 years,” Brey said. “We just needed to get a couple bids in a row to look like we belonged again, and we did that. We hit our three NITs in a row, and we were searching again, and then we’ve gotten into another gear since then.
“Now, it’s playing for a Big East championship during the regular season. You’ve heard me say (the importance of) getting to Saturday night in the Garden. Playing for a tournament championship. Playing deep into the NCAA tournament. Going back to the Final Four. It’s been a long time. Those are all things -- now that the groundwork is in place and we’re in thrive mode -- that are goals. That’s what we shoot for.”
It’s been a long time since there’s been talk of national championships. Notre Dame’s last Final Four appearance came in the 1977-78 season - Digger Phelps’ seventh season - and competing for a Big East regular-season championship has never been a remote possibility since Notre Dame joined the conference in 1995-96.
It is now, according to Swarbrick.
“We’re in business to win NCAA championships, and if I didn’t think Mike Brey could win an NCAA championship in basketball, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Swarbrick said. “I believe he can, I believe this program can. It is so hard to establish the culture of a successful, winning program in any sport, and when you get it and you get it as right as this one is, you really want to embrace it.
“In some ways relative to winning a national championship, Mike has done all the hard work. He just needs to win six games in March now. The hard stuff is building the foundation. We’re the national champions in graduation rate in college basketball. We got all the hard stuff done. We’ll go the last mile now.”
Even Brey was willing to talk about much loftier goals.
“Absolutely,” said Brey when asked if winning a national championship at Notre Dame was realistic. “Where we’re at and how we’re recruiting and how it’s coming together and what our guys are talking about, that’s something that’s realistic.
“That wasn’t realistic my first five years?We hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 10 years. We’d been crushed in the Big East. They treated us like a stepchild in the Big East for five years. We had to have an identity in the league first before we talked about making deep runs.
Such lofty talk isn’t far-fetched anymore with the strong nucleus returning. In addition to Martin, the backcourt of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins will begin the second of a three-year run. Jack Cooley emerged as a true big-man force. With recruiting on the rise, including one of the more highly touted incoming classes in recent decades, the groundwork is established.
But it took an incredible job on Brey’s part to turn this into a competitive team in 2011-12, let alone a Big East championship contender following the unexpected departure of Carleton Scott and the season-ending injury to Tim Abromaitis.
Early in the season, it looked as if the Irish would be hard pressed to win five games in the Big East. Instead, they went 13-5 and for the second consecutive season made it to the semifinals of the Big East tournament.
“If ever there’s been a coach who embraces the old Bum Phillips line - ‘He can take his’n and beat your’n, and he can take your’n and beat his’n’ - it’s Mike,” Swarbrick said.
Swarbrick is equally proud of the image Brey presents as the face of Notre Dame men’s basketball.
“He is a guy who represents the best of college basketball and he raises the value of this place,” Swarbrick said. “What I didn’t know (when I arrived) is what a great coach he is, and that’s been one of the real pleasures of the four years I’ve been working with him.
“We like to use the phrase coach-educator as the corollary to student-athlete. Mike epitomizes the coach-educator. So it was a thrill for me to have been able to work through a process that ensures for the next decade that Mike will be the head coach and continue to lead this program and lead the nation in building young men.”
Other than setting his sights a bit higher, Brey doesn’t anticipate altering his approach from the old high school teacher/coach days.
“I haven’t changed much from being a high school coach at DeMatha High School,” Brey said. “That helped me so much, being a classroom teacher. Those are experiences that I draw on and use every day. I think our guys are comfortable communicating with me. As I get older in the business, I never want to lose that.”
Asked about what his legacy will be, Brey simply stated, “A teacher and a guy that’s helped guys get better and somebody they can talk to and somebody they can have a beer with. It’s simple. It’s not really complicated for me.”
Brey is more concerned with the bigger picture of where Notre Dame sits in the hierarchy of college basketball.
“The one thing that is really powerful to me is that the basketball world, the basketball community, really respects our program and how we do business,” Brey said. “I confidently say I don’t think there’s a program more respected than ours, and that’s something you’re proud of.
“I never thought, ‘What if that job opened?’ There’s something about putting your name on a program. It’s become my program now and I’m really proud of that.”
As for that list of men’s basketball coaches to succeed Brey, Swarbrick quipped, “We burned it.”
Smiling, Brey added, “I burned mine, too.”
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