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Notre Dame Basketball

Brey’s Irish Tenure Celebrated for Improbable Achievements, Marred by Routine Setbacks

January 20, 2023
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Mike Brey sat before members of the media inside the Notre Dame Stadium Press Room — usually reserved for football coach Marcus Freeman — on Friday to discuss what’s become the worst-kept secret in South Bend.

The 63-year-old coach of the Fighting Irish men’s basketball team will exit the program upon the completion of the 2022-23 season. 

“I’ve got to step down to get the football press conference room?” Brey asked as the room erupted with laughter. “That’s unbelievable. I finally got over here.”

Brey’s self-deprecating humor aside, the athletic communications staff had no choice but to host his Notre Dame retirement press conference inside the spacious media room. 

Beyond local and national media members, his entire current roster attended, as did fellow Notre Dame coaches — including women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey — and numerous university administrators. 

All were there to celebrate or cover his illustrious tenure. He holds 481 victories at Notre Dame and will leave South Bend as the winningest coach in program history. Brey is also a three-time Big East Coach of the Year and garnered consensus coach of the year honors in 2011. 

That’s not bad for a man initially passed over for the job, even if Brey held on to program reins for a little bit too long. 

Maybe he should have stepped away last spring. In 2021-22, the Irish finished tied for second in the ACC with national runner-ups North Carolina and won two games in the NCAA Tournament before falling to No. 12 Texas Tech at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

But Brey looked at his returning roster. Four senior contributors agreed to play a fifth season in 2022-23. He’d also add a pair of blue-chip freshmen in McDonald’s All-American guard JJ Starling and forward Ven-Allen Lubin, the nation’s No. 49 overall prospect on Rivals.

But instead of contending for another top-three ACC finish, Notre Dame is 1-7 in league play this year and has lost eight of its last 10 games. 

“I actually thought about [stepping away] on the plane coming back from San Diego,” Brey said. “That may have been a good time, but we had these seniors coming back, we had a heck of a class coming in and I said, ‘Let’s go back to work and do it.’”

For better or for worse, expectations rarely matched reality at Notre Dame under Brey —  which happened to be part of his charm and his repulsion.

Brey pushed for the Notre Dame job in 1999 but ended up the second choice of then-athletic director Mike Wadsworth, who hired Matt Doherty instead. 

The position reopened after Doherty bolted for his alma mater North Carolina soon thereafter. 

“Thank God Matt left in a year,” Brey said. 

At the time, the Irish had been left out of the NCAA Tournament for a decade straight, piling up six losing seasons and a 140-159 (0.468) overall record from 1991 to 2000. 

“That was always the thing,” Brey said. “We gotta get back into this thing. Can we get there regularly after Notre Dame had a 10-year drought?”

The Irish returned to the Big Dance in Brey’s first season and 12 times over his first 18 years, a massive turnaround. 

Only five of those missed NCAA Tournaments occurred when the Irish entered the season inside the Top 25. Furthermore, Brey achieved November Top-10 rankings in 2008-09 and 2017-18 only for the Fighting Irish to finish below .500 in conference play and end the season with a loss in the NIT to Penn State.

On the other hand, when expectations were low, Brey put the college basketball world on notice. 

Notre Dame’s entered the ACC in 2013-14 with a thud. The Irish went 6-12 in conference play and finished 15-17 overall, failing to garner any post-season tournament invites. After that, Brey’s detractors had the confirmation they needed — the Fighting Irish would be an ACC doormat for years to come. 

What does Brey do the following season? He led the Irish to a 14-4 ACC record and won the conference tournament, beating eventual national champion Duke twice in the process. 

Notre Dame finished the season with a two-point loss to No. 1 Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

In 2015-16, the Irish began the season ranked 19th and returned to the Elite Eight — the lone occasions where one of Brey’s preseason Top-25 teams made it beyond the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.  Even that year, he seemed to lower post-season prognostications by losing three of the team's final ACC games by 18 points or more. 

Where Brey consistently met expectations came in his personal interactions. He was nearly universally adored by those who met him. 

Once news of his Irish retirement broke, social media flooded with posts from students, coaches and national analysts praising Brey for being a stand-up guy and gracious interview. 

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More importantly, nearly every single player he coached adored and respected him.

Especially at a place like Notre Dame, that’s probably the preseason expectation that matters the most. 

“That’ll be 72 young men that have come through and finished their degrees,” Brey said. “That’s like 72 sons, and I’ve certainly heard from a lot of them in the last 24 hours. Those relationships are the key. 

“We’ve had some amazing wins and done other fun stuff. We’ve also had some disappointing losses and disappointing seasons, but it’s about the guys and the relationships.”

 
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