Mike Brey continues to put others first, even in darkest time

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CLEVELAND – Selfless, almost to a fault.

Everyone deals with personal tragedy differently. When Mike Brey was faced with a family crisis, his reaction was to avoid laying the burden on even those closest to him.

Hours before the Notre Dame men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament third-round overtime win over Butler Saturday, Brey found out his mother had died of a heart attack in Florida. Rather than disrupt his team’s focus, the Irish head coach chose to bottle the news – and the emotion – and keep it from everyone, even his three longtime assistants.

“Coaches are the greatest compartmentalizers in the history of the world, and have to be to survive in this thing,” Brey said Wednesday as his team prepared for its Sweet 16 battle with Wichita State Thursday night. “There is such a good vibe and positive energy coming off this team. It’s really good for me to be around it this week, and get back and be busy and teach.”

Irish assistants Rod Balanis (15 years on the Notre Dame staff), Martin Ingelsby (12) and Anthony Solomon (10) were as stunned as anyone when they learned – with everyone else, after the Butler game – what their boss was going through. Since the raw emotions of Saturday, Brey’s quick trip to Florida for a family re-group Sunday and return to the grind Monday has impressed those guys who have known Brey for so long.

All three were there with strong shoulders for support.

“I didn’t see anything different with how he was acting,” Ingelsby said, thinking back to Saturday. “Everybody was nervous. Pre-game meal was the same. Walk-through was the same. That just shows you the type of person he is. That’s how it’s always been since he’s been at Notre Dame. It’s all about the players.”

Once the news was out, Solomon couldn’t help but re-trace his steps to look for signs that may have been out of character for Brey.

“I reflected back over everything, and I couldn’t come up with anything (different),” he said. “I did not see a change at all. It was a normal game-day routine.

“After the game, after our post-game snack (in the hotel), he spoke to the team. He turned around and said, ‘Let me give you a little background about my mom.’ He spoke about it so eloquently. He held (his emotions) together. He held his cards very well. He’s been great through it.”

Maybe Brey needed that more than the team.

“In our first staff meeting (Monday), he was telling some great stories about his mom,” Balanis said. “His sister Brenda, he found out Sunday, was named after the woman (his mother, an Olympic swimmer) shared the butterfly (world) record with, back and forth. He thought that was pretty funny.”

Balanis, who has known Brey for more than three decades, still marvels at his personality.

“He’s a very generous guy; he’s a very unselfish guy,” Balanis said. “He’s a great people guy.

“I’ve known him longer than anyone on the staff. I’ve known him since I was 12 years old. I just turned 45 Saturday.

“It’s really all about the team for him. He was able to push it aside, which was very difficult. To think what he was going through that day…

“His greatest trait as a coach is that he’s a great confidence-giver. He’s always operated that way.

“He’s a private guy. He didn’t tell any of us. He was a little bit quiet, but he’s always a little bit quiet at the pre-game meal. I didn’t notice anything different.”

“He’s such a giver, always wanting to give support to others,” Solomon said of Brey. “That’s an unusual trait, thinking about others before yourself.

“He coached in honor of (his mother) that night. I know she was with us. I just hope she stays with us for a couple more weeks.”

For the team… And, the coach.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey watches his team during practice. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ