Noie: Apology aside, staff shuffle was needed for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
ND Insider

When he gathers with his guys and his reshuffled staff before the start of another summer school practice Tuesday morning, Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey will offer two words often hard for men of any age to muster.

I’m sorry.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey planned to open the first week of July with an apology to his team for the way he handled his staff last season.

Now in his 22nd season with the Irish, Brey believes an apology is in order before diving deeply into the 2021-22 season. Not for how last season ended with a 42-point loss to North Carolina in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Or how he admits now that he may have overscheduled his team, which faced its share of challenges during a pandemic-affected season. Or how through it all, the Irish seldom stopped to ask or wonder why. They just kept plugging and kept playing.

The reason Brey believes a Mea culpa is necessary is because he didn’t put his players in the best position to succeed in a year that saw Notre Dame go 11-15 overall, 7-11 and 11th place in the ACC. It was a season that saw the Irish miss the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year. Had Brey approached the start in a different way, maybe the end would’ve been better.

In late September, former Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers suddenly left the program — “resigned” — to pursue other basketball interest. That’s the university’s way of saying that Ayers was fired following incidents involving women that resulted in formal charges in early 2021.

Ayers is scheduled to stand trial in Saint Joseph County next month.

When Ayers left, Brey moved former Irish swingman Scott Martin up to assistant coach and left the development/recruiting coordinator job vacant. Notre Dame operated a staff member short last season. In a time of specialization, where plenty more programs have plenty more analytical/administrative assistants than Notre Dame, Brey believes that was a disservice.

He’s always been a believer that bigger doesn’t mean better. Whether its roster or staff sizes, Brey's often done more with less. That’s usually worked. Last year it didn’t. He now wants to do more with more.

First, the apology.

“I owe it to them to give them the best ammunition to coach them,” Brey told the Tribune last week. “I appreciate them working with me last year because we didn’t have that. That’s on me, all right? That’s on me.

“We did the best we could (but) we did not have all the ammo. I apologize.”

Brey knew that once Ayers was out — and even if he was in — staff change had to come. It had grown too stagnant, too stale, too just kind of there. He needed to shake it up, expand the director of basketball operations role to include more analytics, more self scouting, more basketball work.

“When Ayers left, the floodgates opened,” Brey said. “We’re going to reinvent the whole thing. When the season starts, we’re going to have the ammo as a staff.”

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Roll with the changes

When summer school started, the new-look staff already included the addition — for a third tour — of now associate head coach Anthony Solomon. On Tuesday, Brey planned to officially introduce former Irish guard Antoni Wyche — a 1999 graduate — as an assistant coach. The 43-year-old Wyche has spent 12 years as a college assistant, the last two at Siena after 10 at Lehigh.

Tuesday’s his first day at his alma mater.

“He’s a veteran who’s seen it all,” Brey said. “There’s a toughness about him that we need.”

The only staff member returning to his role from last season is assistant coach Ryan Humphrey, who’s found more of his voice alongside Solomon early in offseason workouts.

“Hump’s really blossomed,” Brey said.

Martin now is director of player improvement, which will allow him to work with players in individual or small group settings, but prohibits him from day-to-day, on-court coaching duties.

Former associate head coach Rod Balanis, the only member of Brey’s staff to serve alongside him for all 22 seasons at Notre Dame, will rotate into the director of basketball operations area vacated by Harold Swanagan. The former Irish power forward will move into a new assistant athletic director role on Jack Swarbrick’s staff.

Balanis’ role will expand beyond typical DOBO responsibilities.

“I want more out of that spot,” Brey said.

Balanis, who spent his first three years at Notre Dame as coordinator of basketball operations, still will be on the road this month — just not in a recruiting role. The plan is for him to visit various NBA organizations and see how they operate. What do they do with their guards on ball screens? What about their out of bounds and sideline out of bounds plays? There’s plenty of Intel to be gathered and fitted to the way the Irish work.

Brey wants Balanis to go and “dig into (stuff.)”

Balanis will be in charge of constantly scouting the Irish, a role not previous served by the DOBO. What do they do? How do they do it? What can they do better to be better?

When Brey thinks of his program, he often relates it to the way Rolfs Hall is laid out with three floors. On the first, is the training/strength and conditioning areas of Nixon Dorvilien and Tony Rolinski. That’s in solid shape, so much so that Brey tabbed Dorvilien team most valuable honors last season for the way he steered everyone through the pandemic.

Notre Dame was one of two ACC teams (Miami, Fla.) not to have a coronavirus stop of its own doing last winter.

“The first floor is as good as it’s ever been,” Brey said. “Nixon’s been the best hire I’ve ever made. The guy’s unbelievable.”

The second floor houses the players’ locker room/lounge. With nobody fleeing for the transfer portal, that’s also on good ground despite the recent lack of NCAA tournament trips.

“They know what we didn’t do,” Brey said. “They know what we have to do to get better.”

The third floor — home to the coaches’ offices — needed a serious teardown and rebuild. With two (somewhat) new faces and two others in new places, it got one.

“It had to be a total change up there,” Brey said. “It’s complete. We could be a great story if we can do this thing and get to March.”

The staff shuffle was needed — for the head coach and for this program. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, no apology necessary.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI