Notre Dame's Brey persevered his way to 300 wins
SOUTH BEND — Ever the optimist, Mike Brey’s not quite ready to cash in his chips on this Notre Dame men’s basketball season quite yet.
He didn’t win the 300th game in his 14-year tenure with the Irish without believing.
Notre Dame’s 65-62 victory over Georgia Tech Wednesday night was hardly a reason to storm the court, shake down the echoes, or even jar a little dust from the rafters of half-full (as compared to half-empty) Purcell Pavilion.
Survival over those 14 years – some pretty good, some (like this one) kinda clunkers – has been a daily challenge.
Brey has taken his share of heat. The common criticisms: Can’t recruit the great athletes; plays a soft pre-conference schedule that doesn’t prepare his team; underachievement in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, he continues to persevere. It’s a milestone that carries some significance.
“It means a lot,” Brey said. “To be able to be at a place as long as I’ve been, and have had the support I’ve had; coaching the kind of kids I get here; a fan base that’s been pretty supportive…
“Of course, we’ve been pretty darn good, too.
“To have your name on a program, it takes a lot. I’m really proud of that. The clientele and the young people I get to work with here, (I’m) spoiled, man. They’re great. Sometimes I want to choke them this season, but they’re great.”
The conquest of Georgia Tech allowed Brey to become the third Irish coach – along with Digger Phelps (393, 1971-91) and George Keogan (327, 1923-43) – to reach that magical number.
“Mike’s done a great job over the years,” said Phelps, who provided the analysis for ESPN Wednesday night. “The transition going from the Big East to the ACC; losing (Jerian) Grant, that really hurt…
“A season’s a season. You just play for it. You don’t worry about numbers. More important, this was a big win tonight. Get the win against Pitt (Saturday). And see what you can do against (North) Carolina (next Monday).”
Phelps tried to boil the tough parts of the job down to the basics.
“You have to realize, it comes back to recruiting,” Phelps said. “When you see the players out there, they’ve gotta be able to compete. Then, of course, it’s how you play with what you have.”
So, Mike, how have you survived?
“Don’t have too many tough (years),” Brey said. “Have more good ones than tough ones. We’re having a tough one right now, but our body of work has been pretty good. We still hope and dream as we finish the season this year.
“We’ve had a good rhythm to our roster, with older guys being able to play. This is the first year in a while where we’ve had to play maybe too many young guys.
“I was really proud of the presence we’ve had in the Big East. We are trying to establish that in the (Atlantic Coast Conference). What I’m disappointed about this season, I really wanted to go in guns blazing and get (an NCAA Tournament) bid the first year. It certainly doesn’t look like it’s going to work out that way at this point. But, stay tuned. Crazier things have happened.”
From a player’s perspective, the best compliment they can give a coach is that he’s steady. As they get ready to exit the program, fifth-year Tom Knight and senior Eric Atkins see Brey as the same guy they committed to as freshmen.
“I could write a book on (Brey),” Knight said with a chuckle. “He’s had to evolve with each different team we’ve had. We’ve had five completely different teams.”
That evolution process had to happen in midstream most times. Rarely has an Irish team ended with the same dynamics with which it started – this year included.
“Coach Brey does a good job knowing the players on his team and utilizing them to the best of his ability,” Knight said. “He’s a player’s coach. He wants to have a close relationship with them. He wants to trust his players. He cares about his guys and he plays the guys he trusts.”
“He’s always been the same coach; always there for his guys,” said Atkins. “He’s a confidence-giver.
“Coming in, I didn’t know he was that fiery guy. I only saw this cool-mannered guy on TV. When you get here, you see that he’s really passionate about the game. It really shows.”
Three hundred wins don’t happen without passion, trust and belief.
That’s why he’s not ready to pack it in just yet.