PITTSBURGH – Stepping slowly out of the Notre Dame locker room early Sunday morning to meet the media in a CONSOL Energy Center hallway, coach Mike Brey was admittedly drained after everything that had just occurred.
Few outside of the program’s inner circle had any idea of everything that Brey had dealt with during what would become the biggest day in the last 12 years of the program.
In a game that ended around 12:30 a.m., Notre Dame beat Butler, 67-64, in overtime of a Midwest Region third-round game. The win advanced the Irish (31-5) to their first Sweet 16 since 2003. The night should have been nothing but bright for Brey, now finishing his 15th season.
Instead of only happiness, there was heartache.
Brey offered afterward that his mother, Betty, died earlier that morning of a heart attack at her home in Florida. She was 84.
“She was with me all the way tonight,” said Brey, who never considered not coaching in the evening.
Betty Mullen Brey was a member of the USA swim team at the 1956 Olympics. A member of the Indiana Swimming Hall of Fame, she once held the world record in the butterfly.
“Man, she had a great run,” he said. “An amazing woman. A woman ahead of her time.”
Brey often cites Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and long-time DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School coach Morgan Wootten as his basketball mentors. But long before either of those two had an influence on his life, Brey looked to his parents for guidance and support.
And he always got it.
“Probably the real driving force behind everything I’ve done,” he said.
The NCAA mandates that locker rooms open no more than 10 minutes after a tournament game ends. But early Sunday morning, that time period came and went and the door to the Notre Dame locker room stayed closed. An NCAA official could be heard telling Notre Dame officials to take all the time they wanted. It was an odd scene.
Fifteen minutes passed. Then 20. Nothing.
Finally, Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia emerged and headed for the interview area with a Notre Dame spokesperson. Minutes earlier, they had been told by athletic director Jack Swarbrick that Brey’s mother had passed.
Inside the Irish locker room, the tone was quiet and subdued. There certainly was much to celebrate, but nobody felt much like celebrating. The Irish hurt too much for their head coach.
Outside of Swarbrick and deputy athletics director Jim Fraleigh, Brey told nearly no one inside the Notre Dame circle and didn’t address it with the team until they returned to their downtown hotel Sunday morning.
“I don’t want my team dealing with that,” Brey said. “Let’s just go play. I owe it to my guys. We’ll have time to reflect a little bit (Sunday).”
Brey flew Sunday to Florida to be with his father, his brother and his sister. He planned to sit outside by the pool at his parents’ house, enjoy a good cigar and watch the Kansas-Wichita State game.
Notre Dame faces the winner of that one Thursday in a Midwest Region semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Brey plans to return to campus Monday to get back to basketball. But first, it was family.
“We’re going to celebrate her life,” Brey said.
Brey was thankful that he was able to get his parents up to Greensboro, N.C. last weekend where they saw Notre Dame win its first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship.
“We decided to get them up for one last road game and she saw that,” Brey said. “I do feel good that I got her there.”