Noie: Former Notre Dame guard Martin Ingelsby learns about (exhausting) life as a college basketball head coach

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He now knows what it feels like to be the boss.

When former Notre Dame guard Martin Ingelsby was an assistant basketball coach at his alma mater, he’d often see how his mentor, his guy, Mike Brey, was after games. Non-conference contests. League games. At home. On the road. Close calls. Lopsided losses. None of that mattered. The end result was always the same for the guy in charge.

Following 40 minutes of constant wondering and worrying, 40 minutes of decisions that demanded he have the final say, 40 minutes of high-level stress and chess, Brey often was left mentally and physically drained. There were times where it looked like he might not have enough energy to drive home. Having never been a head coach, Ingelsby couldn’t relate.

He and his fellow assistants often were fresh and focused following games. Break down some video? Sure. Grab a few wings and some of the late games on TV somewhere? Maybe. Hang around the office and just talk hoops? Why not?

Ingelsby’s adrenaline would flow for hours.

But being a head coach is a whole lot of work, something that Ingelsby learned last year in his first season at Delaware. Something he’s still learning in his second season.

“As an assistant, I was ready to go out and run three miles or go get a workout in or grab a beer after games,” the 39-year-old Ingelsby said last week over lunch on Main Street in downtown Newark, Del. “Last year, I’d go home after a game and tell my wife, ‘I’m exhausted.’

“It’s a lot of talking, decisions, strategy in the heat of the moment and everything comes back to you. You can never prepare yourself for that as an assistant. That is taxing.”

And all-involving. One day last year as the Blue Hens were preparing for a road trip, director of basketball operations Pat Rogers, a Notre Dame graduate, poked his head into Ingelsby’s office. What meal should be served on the bus ride? Pizza? Sandwiches? Even though it may have ranked down on an always-growing priority list, the head coach had to make that call.

“I’m like, ‘You guys make that decision; I don’t want to make that decision,’” Ingelsby said with a laugh. “But there’s a lot of decisions that need to be made when you’re in that hot seat.

“It can wear on you.”

During the season, Ingelsby seldom falls asleep before midnight and is awake before sunrise so he can squeeze in a workout. It’s either get to it at 6:15 a.m. or don’t get to it at all with everything else that needs attention. On Saturday morning, hours before Delaware hosted No. 18 Notre Dame in an emotional avalanche of an evening for both sides, Ingelsby’s most pressing matter was making sure his son, Will, got to his 9 a.m. basketball practice from the family home in Wilmington.

Even then, with a country music station set on his satellite car radio, Ingelsby’s thoughts likely drifted some 10 hours ahead to game night. Did he and his staff properly prepare the Blue Hens for what they would face in the Irish? Was there anything that hadn’t been covered in the scouting report? How would Delaware defend Bonzie Colson? What could they do better against Matt Farrell?

“You’re always thinking about how to put ourselves in position to be successful,” Ingelsby said a day before a 92-68 loss to Notre Dame. “You’re constantly thinking about how to improve, what to tweak to be successful. You’re so busy. So much stuff falls on your plate.

“I don’t sleep as much as I used to.”

Starting over

Success was all Ingelsby knew during his final two years as a Notre Dame assistant. The Irish won 32 games, captured the 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship and came within one basket of getting to their first Final Four since 1978. The following year, they won 26 and made a repeat run to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. All of it helped nudge Ingelsby into the category of hot assistant ready to be a head coach. He was ready to run his own program, but wasn’t going to leave for just any job.

Delaware was the perfect one. A native of nearby Philadelphia, Ingelsby knew the campus well. The facilities are better than those at Notre Dame. It had the potential to be a really good mid-major program. It’s a great place to learn about being a head coach and to raise a family. It was Ingelsby’s dream job.

But it was going to take time. Take work. Take patience. When Ingelsby arrived in the spring of 2016, Delaware had only four returning scholarship players. The success that he had seen at Notre Dame wasn’t going to surface anytime soon. This was a complete rebuild. Ingelsby loves being in the trenches and overhauling everything. Post-season parties are likely years away from being planned.

“I have to keep in perspective the program that we took over and where we are,” said Ingelsby, who finished 13-20 last year, his first of a six-year contract. “There are going to be growing pains. It’s all about baby steps trying to build this program and not trying to get ahead and focus on what we want to be.”

What Ingelsby wants Delaware to be is easy — a mirror image of Notre Dame. In the way his players operate as one on the floor. In the way they take care of business in the classroom. In the way they understand the big picture, the way they don’t skip steps. In the way the head coach relates to his guys.

“I love what he’s doing with his team,” said Brey, who spent five seasons in the same seat and at the same school as Ingelsby. “I’m really proud of how he’s building it. He’s been true to what he’s trying to do there.”

Knowing Ingelsby longed to be a head coach, Brey followed the same blueprint that his old boss, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, used to prepare him to run his own program. The longer Ingelsby stayed on Brey’s staff, the more responsibility he was handed. With the offense. With recruiting. With scheduling. Ingelsby’s fingerprints were all over the 2015 and 2016 teams.

Brey didn’t have to do it. But he did.

“He believed in me as a player my senior year; he believed in me as a young coach; he challenged me to be a better coach,’” Ingelsby said. “There’s nothing more powerful than having someone believe in you.”

So long, South Bend

For 17 years, South Bend was home for Ingelsby. First, it was four as a student-athlete before graduating in 2001. As a senior, he was the point guard on Brey’s first Irish team. It won a Big East West Division regular-season championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years. Ingelsby spent the last 13 on Brey’s staff — the first six as director of basketball operations, the last seven as an assistant. South Bend was home to his wife, Colleen, also a Notre Dame graduate. Home to their three children. The couple added a fourth last year.

It was a home that Ingelsby thought he was prepared to leave behind for Newark. Then he climbed behind the wheel of his car and pulled out of the driveway of the family home on Wayne Street. That’s when everything about all the years here hit Ingelsby. Hit him hard.

So much promise, so much newness, so many days of unknowns awaited the first-time head coach out east. He was ready to run his own program. Ready to move past being an assistant. Ready to put his stamp on a program. Call it his own.

But when the one place that he had come to know so well stared back at him in the rear-view mirror, Ingelsby lost it. Tears welled in his eyes. He found it tough to talk. To breathe. In the backseat, his kids wondered what in the world was wrong. Was their dad … crying?

“I broke down,” Ingelsby said. “You step back and think about it. I was part of an unbelievable run in putting that program back on the map and at an elite level. That’s something I’ll always hold.

“We got it to the next level. We broke through.”

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI