Mike Brey, Buzz Williams foes on basketball court, friends off it

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

In the closing seconds of a 2013 Big East tournament quarterfinal game that his team was about to win over Rutgers, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey heard that familiar hoarse voice shouting at him from somewhere in the stands.

Then-Marquette coach Buzz Williams had settled into a seat on press row near the Irish bench to scout a few minutes of the game. With the game about to go final, Williams got the attention of Brey and joked that he would see him the following night — and eventually lose to the Irish — at Madison Square Garden.

Brey yelled something back before the two shared a laugh, something they’ve done routinely for over a decade.

A guy from suburban Washington (Brey) and one from North Texas (Williams) became friends over the unlikely bond of Northwestern (La.) State. Brey spent his first three years of college as the point guard for the Demons before transferring to George Washington. Williams spent one year (1999-2000) as a graduate assistant at Northwestern State. When the coaches’ paths first crossed back in the Big East, they would trade tales about life in Natchitoches, La.

When Williams replaced Tom Crean as head coach at Marquette in 2008, the friendship deepened. Brey and Williams often found themselves seated next to one another at league meetings and then later during the July evaluation period. They recruited from the same talent pool. Those long days in gyms somewhere often led to more stories and laughs over dinner.

“He’s a fun guy to be around,” Brey said of Williams, who brings Virginia Tech into Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday for an Atlantic Coast Conference contest. “I don’t think I’m the most boring guy in the world; I’m a pretty fun guy to hang with too.

“He’s a good friend.”

Asked Monday during the league coaches’ teleconference his thoughts about Notre Dame, Williams immediately turned attention to his buddy.

“The first thing that jumps out at me is Mike Brey is the coolest coach ever in college basketball,” Williams said. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever voted for as a head coach in preseason and postseason is always vote Coach (Brey) for Coach of the Year.”

Hours later during his media session prior to Monday’s practice, Brey jokingly stumped for Williams as the early favorite for league coach of the year.

“We’ve always kept it loose,” he said. “I’m sure before the game, we’ll be laughing our backsides off, but when you cut through all the stuff, he can really coach.”

Brey knew that when Williams took over a Virginia Tech program in 2014 that has spent so many years buried in the basement of the conference standings. It was only going to be a matter of time before his effort and energy would get the Hokies ultra-competitive in an unforgiving, high-level league.

When Williams arrived from Marquette, many ACC coaches went to Brey for a scouting report — what about this Buzz guy?

Brey knew.

“I said, ‘Be ready; they’re going to be good fast,’” said Brey, 5-3 all-time against Williams, including 1-0 in the ACC. “Buzz does a great job of getting young guys, new guys, to play fearlessly and really get them to believe.

“I’m really impressed with them. They’re ahead of schedule.”

Naturally, that mutual admiration runs both ways. Williams also praised Brey for the ability to keep doing what he’s doing and getting different guys to deliver in big ways after the graduation of last year’s senior leaders, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.

“You’re like, ‘Man, I can’t wait until those guys are gone; they won’t be near as good,’” Williams said. “You watch them a year later and you’re like, ‘I don’t even know who (Bonzie Colson) was. He didn’t play (much) last year and he scores (31) at Duke. Who is that guy?’

“That’s just the way (Brey’s) been in his entire tenure at Notre Dame.”

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Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams jumps in the air during a recent game, and also jumps at the chance to praise one of his friends in the profession, Notre Dame's Mike Brey.AP File Photo/DON PETERSEN