Noie: Milestone basketball moment awaits Notre Dame coach Mike Brey

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Don’t forget about the guy who makes it all go.

When the first of more than 100 practices stretched over the next six months commences Monday for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, much of the focus will be on the Irish.

Rightfully so. There’s a lot to like.

Like senior power forward Bonzie Colson. Not only should he be the favorite to earn Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, but also seriously considered for national player of the year. Like point guard Matt Farrell, ready to elevate his game to an even more elite level. Like junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs. Both guards are ready to rotate into larger roles this season as full-time starters. Like prized freshman D.J. Harvey, who could challenge for key minutes sooner than later. Like senior Martinas Geben, ready to make his last season his best season.

Then there’s the head coach.

The guy who once wore a tie – what?! – to his introductory press conference that hot Friday afternoon in July 2000. The guy who hoped that if everything worked out right after that night, he’d be able to offer the program 10, 15 good years. The guy who hoped to be good enough that they wouldn’t run him out of town.

If everything holds to form the first two months of the regular season, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, Mike Brey will do what many thought was unthinkable when he became the third coach in as many seasons for a program that had spent the better part of the 1990s wandering the college basketball wasteland of independence with no immediate direction. Or future.

Twelve wins and Brey becomes the winningest coach in the history of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program. Twelve wins, which likely will arrive in mid-to late-December, and Brey is without men’s basketball coaching peer in school history.

Pretty heavy stuff.

Never one to make it about himself or how he does it, Brey would fire off a standard text message each time he was congratulated for winning one of his three Big East coach of the year honors: “fooled them again.”

There’s no fooling anyone any longer.

Even Brey will need a deep breath when he hits win No. 394 at Notre Dame. The thought of it is staggering. So is beginning Year 18.

“It’s a little mind-blowing,” Brey told the Tribune earlier this summer. “I don’t know if I could have ever grasped 18 years here and having the chance to be the all-time winningest coach here.

“It’s something you’re really proud of.”

Rocky road

Proud of because it hasn’t always been as easy as Brey and the Irish have made it look the last three years. The program has averaged 27.3 overall wins and 12.3 wins in the ultra-competitive ACC, still considered without college basketball conference peer. But there have been some rough patches when everything wasn't so fun.

Four years ago, many wondered if Brey was nearing the end of the line in South Bend. That it might be time for a new voice, a fresh perspective. A different direction.

Everything unraveled over 48 long and lonely hours in December 2013. It was the ultimate lump of coal in the Christmas stocking.

In New York to play then-No. 3 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden, Notre Dame allowed an eight-point lead to get away over the final 50 seconds. A Brey team that had been so good, so attention to detail in late-game situations let everything unravel in such an unusual way. They couldn’t take care of the ball, couldn’t make clutch free throws, couldn’t put their high basketball IQ to work.

It was perhaps the most un-Brey like performance of any of his Irish teams. Ever.

Twenty-four hours later, it was as if that game had never happened.

Guard Jerian Grant, in which everything the Irish wanted do offensively was built around, announced that he was separating himself from the university after an “academic misstep.” The following night, sophomore shooting guard Cameron Biedscheid, once a prized recruit announced he was transferring. Never mind that the exit may have actually helped the program more than hurt it.

Surely those were three signs that Brey was losing it.

Notre Dame limped to a 15-17 record in 2013-14. It's the only losing record during Brey’s tenure. But that year – Notre Dame’s first in the ACC – did more to buoy the head coach instead of bury him. He saw enough that allowed him to believe the future was brighter than others believed.

Give him a full team for a full year or two or three in the sink-or-swim league, and then let’s see.

Seasons of 14, 11 and 12 league wins have followed.

“The ACC energized me again,” Brey said. “It was like taking a new job without leaving. That helped me stay fresh and keep me on my heels.”

Notre Dame has pushed a lot of ACC teams on theirs. The Irish have played for an ACC tournament championship in two of the last three years. They won it all in 2015 and came within a late Colson sprained ankle of winning it again last March. They’ve been to three-straight NCAA Tournaments. Two Elite Eights in three years.

The much-anticipated and long-overdue practice facility will be ready next summer. Brey and his staff have what many consider a top five recruiting class set to sign in November.

There’s a lot to like about the program right now.

Brey has this program where he wants it. It’s HIS.

But it’s not like the Irish got really good overnight. It’s been a model program. Build it over time. Establish an identity. A culture. Then watch it grow.

Only now are more taking notice.

“Sometimes I get a little bent out of shape when they say, ‘God, you guys have been really good lately,’” Brey said. “Well, gosh, we weren’t bad in the Big East. We were pretty darn good (74 overall wins, 38 league wins over its last three Big East seasons).

“But we’re certainly at a different level.”

Sure and steady

College basketball took a beating last week. It saw Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino basically fired at conference colleague Louisville. It brought a level of skepticism blanket to almost every program. How many schools aren’t playing by the rules? What coach, what program goes down next in FBI flames?

Scandal swept over the sport to a point where every college coach in the country huddled with their staffs. Some likely have to figure out a new way to do business.

At Notre Dame, it was likely more of business as usual.

As difficult as it’s been to compete with the University 6s and University 7s named in last week’s FBI indictments, the Notre Dame mandate has long been to do it right, or don’t do it at all. Instead of the five-star guys with their hands out, Brey and his staff recruit three- and four-star guys who want to be coached. Want to get better. Want to be taught.

Want something more than just a nine-month stopover on the way to the NBA. Want an education.

“You love the kind of guys you get to coach here at Notre Dame,” Brey said. “Maybe six, seven years ago, I kind of said, ‘You know, you’ve got your name on this program. It’s your program.’

“It’s hard to get it to that point.”

Even harder to keep it there, though Brey’s all in. The last contract extension he signed in 2012 was a 10-year deal that runs through 2021-22. Brey and athletic director Jack Swarbrick have talked about additional years. An extension likely is coming. Soon.

Now 58, Brey had times this summer when he’s thought about going until he’s 68. And beyond. He feels that good. About his program. About his life. About everything. The day he walks away, he’ll be unemployed for about 30 seconds. He’ll likely parachute right into a TV talking head job. And he’ll crush it. But that might be a few years down the road. Maybe a lot of years.

Coach until he’s 70?

“Hell, I hope my health is good enough that maybe I can do that,” he said. “I’m in for the long haul.”

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has the chance to build his next recruiting class several differernt ways. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)