As His Team Nears Return, Mike Brey Is Eager To Coach But Aware Of Risks
Mike Brey had not seen his staff in nearly three months, and the angst was boiling over. He needed a solution, and found one.
Every Wednesday since early June, Brey and his assistants have met for lunch on the Brothers Bar and Grill patio near Notre Dame’s campus. There have been zero discussions about the upcoming season or the prior one ended by pandemic. For Brey, it’s therapeutic.
It’s a fine holdover until Aug. 1, when Brey will see his entire team for the first time since mid-March. They day can’t arrive any faster for him.
“What you really miss is the young people energizing you, just being around them, their personalities and the relationship part of it,” Brey said.
Still, the 61-year-old Brey is not blind to the health challenges this basketball season could bring and the risks of doing a job based on a college campus — an atmosphere where even university leaders expect COVID-19 cases to appear after students come back. The risks have led the health experts advising universities to recommend professors over a certain age teach courses online.
Many of those recommendations suggest professors 65 or older stay off campus. Dr. Jon McCullers, a pandemic expert who chaired the task force that established reopening guidelines for the University of Tennessee System, sees greatly increased risk of death from COVID-19 at age 55 and older.
“That’s not that old for a college professor,” said McCullers, an associate dean at Tennessee’s College of Medicine. “Part of the idea of offering a hybrid model is professors should be able to make a decision on if they want to be there.”
It’s also not that old for a college basketball coach. The ACC alone has five coaches who will be at least 70 when campuses reopen this fall. The dangers for older professors are present for older coaches, too. The decision to coach this season will be left to the coaches themselves.
“There’s risk there and they ought to be careful,” McCullers said.
Brey is willing to take it, but he has considered the drawbacks. A typical day of coaching can involve huddles, locker room talks, and practices and film sessions in tight quarters. There’s also travel and exposure to another team. When combined with the inherent nature of a college campus, an NBA-like bubble is impossible to create.
“When 6,000 or 7,000 students roll back into South Bend and campus, that’s going to be interesting,” Brey said. “I feel like I’m taking care of myself and my health is good. I’m not sitting there and looking paranoid. But there are times you think about it and go, ‘Hey, you’re 61 and had a [heart] issue 12 years ago.’
“Right now, I have so much energy that I want to teach and run a practice that I might pass out from excitement. That’s basically my mindset on it.”
‘I Feel Very Safe’
Part of Brey’s eagerness to return centers around the chances the virus has already run its course with him. Upon Notre Dame’s arrival in Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC Tournament, he felt ill. Nothing he experienced was a direct COVID-19 symptom, he said, but he was operating at less than 100 percent. He’s not ruling out the idea that he had it.
“We got down there on a Sunday night, I didn’t have a lot of energy, I was aching,” Brey said. “I didn’t have any of the breathing or fever, but it was the run-down flu symptoms on steroids. Then you play the Boston College game and you’re sweating and then you have Virginia. We came back and I was hurting the next week. I think there’s a chance.
“I didn’t get tested at that time and I got through it, I’m fine. I called my doctor and he said, ‘If you don’t have a breathing problem or a temperature, there’s no need to do anything. Just keep an eye on yourself and rest.’”
Brey said took a finger-prick antibody test in early June, and the results were negative. Still, he’s not ruling out the idea he had some form of the virus.
In the months since the season ended, Brey has kept up a regular swimming and Pilates routine. He tweaked his diet and thinks he’s in his best shape of the last five years. He speaks of his current state with a small aura of invincibility, but measured with an acceptance of the unknown.
“Moving forward, I think about who I’m exposed to,” Brey said. “If we play a full non-league schedule and we’re on the road traveling, how do you stay safe?”
Rampant testing is one part of the equation, and Notre Dame has the resources to execute it. Every student must test negative for COVID-19 before coming to campus. The university is requiring masks on campus, has an on-site testing center for symptomatic students and has slashed capacity in its dining halls and chapels.
Basketball players were sent a kit to administer themselves a test in their hometowns. Brey and his staff were tested the week of July 20. In the meantime, he will be closely watching the football team’s ability to ward off the virus during practice. Football is a test case for everything, and so far it has fared well. There have been two positive tests among 356 administered since mid-June. The NBA’s bubble will be a barometer as well.
“I’m really confident moving forward,” Brey said. “The layer upon layer of protocols with our team and student body are amazing. They’re going to be hard to do and we’re going to try our darnedest to stick to them and do it. I feel very safe.”
Going To Be Different
Game-day protocols have not yet been discussed, but practice and workouts will look and feel different. Coaches are likely to wear masks. Brey assumes film sessions won’t be done in a crowded locker room. Director of basketball operations Harold Swanagan and trainer Nixon Dorvilien are in charge of setting and enforcing protocols. Both are well-versed in the “return to play” manual given to them. Whatever they command is what will be done.
The advising process has already started. Brey hoped to replace an early July lunch meeting with a staff meeting in his office. Swanagan, though, told him that wouldn’t fly. Brey willingly stuck with the plan to meet at Brothers once again.
“Just keep telling me what we can and cannot do,” Brey said. “I’m sure I’m going to get frustrated and go, ‘Wait, we can’t do that?’ I told them they’re going to need to tell me to shut the hell up, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
McCullers has some ideas. If needed, an older coach can operate from a suite during games and use a headset to speak with a younger assistant on the bench. That becomes less important if there are no fans, though. Hopping into huddles in practice or games remains one of the riskier parts of the job, as does heading into the locker room for an extended time. Brey already knows his usual in-season and preseason routine will look different.
“It’s really avoiding close contact and distancing from the students and everybody,” McCullers said. “We have the technology. They should be conducting meetings virtually, shouldn’t be down on the floor in the huddle pacing them through practice. Let a young coach do that and observe from the sidelines.”
None of these steps will entirely erase the risk or consequences of contracting the virus, though, especially for those advanced in age.
Campuses are home to thousands of students from all over the country who will still have an element of freedom to attend parties, go to bars, congregate in groups and live off-campus. Classrooms and dining halls, even at restricted capacities, remain high-traffic areas. Universities cannot control every second of their students’ lives. The tricky part is all cases may not be discovered, leaving the door open for a spread — seismic or small.
“Because young people are very often asymptomatic, you very often don’t know,” McCullers said. “It’s not like you can screen everybody and assume if they’re not coughing, it’s safe to be around them. This is what we’re seeing right now across the South. It’s being driven by 20- to 29-year-olds because many of them are asymptomatic, so they don’t think anything of it.”
Furthermore, Notre Dame’s protocols may not be the same as an opponent who has lesser financial capabilities for protective practices or whose university decision-makers prioritized different things. Two hours intermingling on a court is not a negligible amount of time either.
But Brey, by wanting to coach this year, feels enough risk is ripped away that the benefit and enjoyment of doing his job outweighs the potential harm. At this point, the only thing that could make him not coach is a canceled season.
“I need to be there for them. I really like our nucleus,” Brey said. “It’s a group that has gotten some momentum back last year and we’re trending the right way. We could really be a neat story, these juniors especially. They finished in last place as freshmen.
“I’m just waiting for the wave of people in August and how it plays out. We don’t know and we’re all anxious.”
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