Four years ago on his 54th birthday (March 22), Mike Brey was at maybe the lowest point in his 13 seasons as Notre Dame’s head basketball coach.
His seventh-seed Fighting Irish had just been thrashed 76-58 by No. 10-seed Iowa State in first round NCAA Tournament action. After winning four games in the Big Dance his first three years with the Irish, Brey now had only two such victories in the last 10 years while posting a 2-6 record — with five of the losses to a double-digit seed.
Just a few days prior to that loss to the Cyclones, Brey, one of the most amiable and media-friendly personalities in the business, snapped at a reporter who noted that college coaches are judged mainly by their tournament record. Clearly, that struck a nerve with Brey, who after the Iowa State defeat was as crestfallen as he had ever been in his career.
The man who finished his Big East career fourth in wins behind only Hall-of-Famers Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson Jr., saw his career overshadowed by a 10-13 ledger in the league’s tournament — never able to advance to the Saturday night final he so dreamed about at Madison Square Garden — and 6-9 in the NCAA Tournament.
"We've been so consistent in the regular season, and we haven't been able to do much here,” said Brey that night in 2013 of the repeated post-season flops. “That's what keeps me up at night… This is a hump we can't get over yet, but we'll keep trying to figure it out."
One year later in his first season in the ACC, Brey reached the nadir of his 14-year Notre Dame career with his first losing season (15-17), capped naturally with an 81-69 first-round loss to Wake Forest in the league tournament.
Throughout the first 14 years of his Notre Dame tenure, Mike Brey was to college basketball what Marty Schottenheimer was to the NFL from 1984-2006 — as good a regular season coach as there was in the business, but a 5-13 playoff record couldn’t quite elevate him into exalted Hall-of-Fame status. Schottenheimer didn’t even have a losing record until his 15th season, and Brey had his lone sub-.500 finish in year 14 at Notre Dame.
Face it, the man had run his course with the Fighting Irish, and the cure wasn’t going to come in the cutthroat 15-team ACC with top programs such as Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse, Virginia annually atop the league standings, plus Florida State (which upset 2-seed Notre Dame in the 2011 NCAA Tournament), Miami (with a Final Four coach who had just led the Hurricanes to the 2013 ACC Tournament title), North Carolina State (two Sweet 16s in their last four years) or even Pitt having achieved more in recent years.
Brey had ostensibly reached his plateau, and the reset button necessitated new and fresh blood.
“You have to be honest with yourself,” reflected Brey earlier this year on his introspection after that season. “…Your stock was still one where you could get another job and feel somewhat comfortable, so you think and go, ‘Is it time for me to re-invent?’
“You think about all those things as you’re going through it. It kind of had my edge up through the off-season, and I felt we had to do some things with our culture.”
And now, a short three years later after some “come to Jesus” moments with his staff and players, here we sit with Notre Dame in its second ACC Tournament title game in three years, and Brey is again the embodiment and perfect fit as Fighting Irish head coach.
• In 2015, Notre Dame won the ACC Tournament — one of the two or three greatest accomplishments in the program’s post-World War II history, right up there with ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974 and reaching the Final Four in 1978.
• The Fighting Irish are 6-1 the last three years in ACC Tournament play, the best in the league, including eliminating mighty Duke each of the previous two years.
A win over the Blue Devils tonight — who are 2-5 versus the Irish the last seven meetings — would make it a remarkable three straight campaigns and an astounding second ACC title in three years.
• Over the past three seasons, including ACC Tournament play, North Carolina has the best league record at 46-17, followed by Virginia (43-17) — with Notre Dame and Duke tied at 42-19. Fifth is Louisville at 36-20.
Living in the highest rent district in college basketball has become a part of Brey’s program.
• Notre Dame is the lone team in college basketball to reach the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament each of the past two years.
• The six NCAA Tournament victories by the Irish are the school record over a two-year period, eclipsing the five in 1978 and 1979.
• This year, Notre Dame will attempt to record a minimum of two wins in NCAA Tournament action a third straight season, which would be another first in the program’s annals.
Once upon a time, the two weeks of postseason tournaments were Brey’s personal albatross that usually overshadowed the previous 16 weeks of exceptional work. He was like the diligent, overachieving college student who in an advanced course posted a B+ or A- average through the first 16 weeks of the 17-week semester — and then, despite intense study, finished with a D in the heavily weighted final exam, thereby bringing down the overall grade.
These days, Brey and Notre Dame men’s basketball continue to “March” forward better than they ever have. It just goes to show that just because your coaching obituary might have appeared in print, one can rise and thrive again.
Who knows … maybe three years from now Brian Kelly can enjoy a similar fate after some much-needed reinvention this year.
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