Mike Brey And Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men’s Basketball: At The Crossroads
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Mike Brey & Notre Dame Basketball: At The Crossroads

Thirty years ago this winter, Notre Dame men’s basketball went through one of the most awkward times in its history.

The 20-year tenure of Fighting Irish head coach Richard “Digger” Phelps (1971‑91) was ending on ugly terms. Phelps was informed by the Notre Dame administration prior to the 1990‑91 season that it would be his last, regardless of what happens.

A killer schedule — resulting in a 12‑20 record that year — had been assembled to help grease the skids. Recruiting had suffered tremendously in 1990 and 1991, and the program had lost its buzz.

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Digger Phelps (left) and  Mike Brey both enjoyed prosperity, but later pain in their long coaching careers at Notre Dame.
Digger Phelps (left) and Mike Brey both enjoyed prosperity, but later pain in their long coaching careers at Notre Dame. (Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports)

From 1973-81, Phelps was the ringleader of one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country, highlighted by the lone advancement to the Final Four in 1978. His marketing knowledge, assertiveness and drive made the basketball operation almost as electrifying and anticipated on campus as football, which won national titles in 1973 and 1977.

In those same seasons, Phelps followed with a 24-2 regular-season finish in 1973-74 versus a supreme schedule, and the Final Four in 1977-78. There was not a better football-basketball combination in the land, and nobody could work up a vociferous audience in the stands like Phelps.

After a 10-17 finish in 1982, he would bounce back and return to NCAA Tournament action in 1985 — but in his last 12 seasons Notre Dame would record only five wins in the Big Dance.

Phelps had become a victim of his own success. The bar set in the 1970s had fallen significantly in the 1980s. The program had become stale, maybe even complacent. His final season in 1990‑91 was one nightmare after another, including the academic ineligibility of one future first-round pick (LaPhonso Ellis) and medical disqualification of another (Monty Williams).

By the end of Phelps’ tenure, his name was not even announced in home introductions, because the cacophony of boos from the stands had become an embarrassment.

With the passage of time, Phelps’ tenure is now remembered as part of “the good ’ol days” and he is in the Ring of Honor at Purcell Pavilion.

30 Years Later …

Today, 21st-year head coach Mike Brey is somewhat enduring similar travails. Ever since surpassing Phelps for the most all-time wins at the program in January 2018, it’s been one setback after another, even off the hardwood with former assistant Ryan Ayers, who was let go this September with charges that resulted in three counts of voyeurism and one count of domestic battery.

A three-time Big East Coach of the Year, 2011 Associated Press National Coach of the Year, 2015 ACC champion, and the lone Irish coach to direct seven NCAA Tournament wins over three years (2015-17), Brey has seen his prosperous career trending the wrong way the past three years.

With Wednesday night’s 62-51 loss at home to No. 20 Virginia Tech, a game where he admitted there were no answers to find or right buttons to push, Notre Dame extended its program-record losing streak against ranked teams to 28 straight, well past the previous mark of 18 during the John MacLeod era from 1994-98.

Like Phelps in 1988 with a five-man class led by Ellis, Brey signed a five-man harvest in 2018 — ranked 9th in the country — he was expecting to return Notre Dame to prominence. Instead, the program has hit a rut the past four years, with a 14-19 mark in 2018-19 the nadir that could be challenged this year

In the Power Five world of college basketball, no NCAA Tournament bid three straight seasons often results in hot-seat status. Because there was no 2020 NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19, one can’t say the Irish have not been invited three straight seasons — but even Brey has acknowledged a bid last year would have been unlikely.

This year with a seasoned junior class and two fifth-year seniors, Brey thought the older, wiser Irish, who took their lumps as freshmen two years ago, would begin the return to relevance. Unlike Phelps 30 years ago, he even voluntarily assembled a land-mine schedule, expressing confidence that this group was primed to excel.

Instead, a 5-9 start — 2-6 in the ACC — and likely another season without an NCAA Tournament bid has raised many an inquiry on the present and future of the program.

Brey has lamented the lack of toughness on the current team, although landing Yale graduate transfer center Paul Atkinson for next year provided a boost amid tepid high school recruiting the past several cycles.

In the summer of 2019, I asked Brey, who turns 62 this March, how much more juice he has left in him. Typically forthright and self-aware, he replied he knows when it will be time to say “thanks for the memories.”

“I have older, veteran coaches telling me, ‘Don’t retire. Ride it as long as you can,’” he replied. “I’m not going to ride it if I’m faking it, or if I’m not productive. Believe me, I will be, ‘You need a new voice, you need new blood.’ I’m not going to go kicking and screaming.”

The Future

On occasion this year, including last night, Brey has had the look and tone of a beaten man out of answers.

“We don't quite have that mindset to get over that hump against really good teams that believe,” he said following the 66-57 loss a home to Virginia on Dec. 30 “… I almost expect it a little bit still.”

Once the lead man anticipates it, there is an inevitable trickle-down effect.

There are at least two differences from the current situation and the way Phelps’ regime ended. One is that because of the pandemic that mandates extremely limited attendance at games, the frustration or apathy is not fully manifested in the stands. If tickets were available to everyone, how many would really be interested to attend?

Two, whereas Phelps’ persona could often rub many negatively — including his superiors — Brey throughout his public career has been one of the most congenial, down-to-earth figures in the business while embracing the “loosest coach in America” title. This goodwill, combined with Elite 8 appearances in 2015 and 2016, resulted in a contract extension through 2025.

Brey’s formula to keep the program competitive through most of his career was “staying old.” Next year with seven seniors — including the 6-10 grad transfer Atkinson — Brey might have the oldest basketball team in school history. He has expressed a desire to see this class through before maybe then riding off into the sunset.

This is so difficult to write because I have always had much affinity toward Brey. After the seven seniors next year depart (or likely most of them), there is very little “wow factor," not that any has resulted the past three years with the current juniors.

When Phelps’ stellar 1988 class of Ellis, Elmer Bennett, Daimon Sweet and Keith Tower graduated as seniors under MacLeod, it had only an NIT runner-up finish to show for it. Thereafter, the program continued a tailspin where it did not reach the NCAA Tournament for a school record 10 straight years.

In addition to the current junior class not yet fully thriving collectively, no high school player was signed in 2019, the three-man class in 2020 was ranked 60th and this year’s two-man group, both South Bend products, is 55th. That kind of three-year stretch on the recruiting trail will not create any buzz for the future. At least the current juniors did when they were ranked ninth as a class, but now continue to struggle in the unforgiving ACC — which actually is experiencing more of a down year this season.

It is the ultimate crossroads for Brey and the overall program in which honest assessments must be made at the end of this season. The question Brey and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick must honestly evaluate is whether the fire truly remains in the belly, not just for 2021 and 2022, but beyond to avoid a repeat of the 1990s.

Like Phelps, Brey will one day deservedly be in the Ring of Honor at Purcell Pavilion. For now, though, the awkwardness of 30 years ago has returned.

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