Noie: What does 394 mean? For Mike Brey, the number cements his program's identity

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Give him an avenue to discuss his guys or dissect the game and he’ll fill notebooks with quality quotes in ways few college basketball coaches can.

Give him a hot microphone after an historic night for him and he’ll treat it like a hot potato.

Offered the opportunity to say a few words late Wednesday following win No. 394 in his Notre Dame coaching career, which moved him past Digger Phelps to become the winningest coach in men's program history, Mike Brey delivered.

With an emphasis on few.

Brey took only 93 seconds following an 88-58 victory over North Carolina State to sum up all those wins in 18 seasons. He repeated what he’d said for weeks. He’s humbled. He’s honored. When second No. 94 arrived, Brey did something that’s textbook Brey. Standing at center court, he dropped the mic to the ND logo and walked away.

It said this — "we did it baby, but it’s over. Let’s move on."

The post-game celebration for Brey included video congratulations from a handful of former players. His current squad watched as video of his introductory press conference in 2000 played overhead.

Injured senior Bonzie Colson gave Brey grief for the long-since departed part in his hair and the tie he wore around his neck that day. Brey laughed with him.

Phelps then requested to be the one to hand Brey the game ball. It’s one of only two that Brey has from Notre Dame. The other was from his first career win — on Nov. 18, 2000 against Sacred Heart — which also was No. 100 in his coaching career. Brey was the head coach at the University of Delaware before coming to Notre Dame.

Back in the locker room, T-shirts bearing 394 were waiting. Brey pulled one on for a few minutes to celebrate. Soon enough, the shirt was off in favor of a green pull-over. The message? Time to move on. Time to chase more memories.

“Let’s be a great story,” he said.

It would be another of many for Notre Dame. For Brey.

Mindful as far back as summer that this moment awaited, Brey finally let it all go. He dropped his coaching guard and embraced it with about three minutes left in Wednesday’s game. Cameras caught Brey doing a dance in his seat on the Irish bench. The moment was captured overhead on the video board as “Rock and Roll All Night” by Kiss bounced around the building.

Brey would have preferred some Springsteen. Born to Run? Rosalita? But Brey being Brey, he went with it.

Leading up to the record, Brey soured over the additional attention and stream of stories about what it all meant, about his 18 seasons spent in South Bend, about having to adequately and successfully navigate not one but two basketball conferences — The ACC and the Big East — that have been without peer.

He talked so little about the record, about passing Phelps, an icon around town and still present in his baseline seat for every home game, that those closest to him started to wonder.

What did 394 mean to the guy in the corner office?

Even at a recent staff meeting, second-year assistant coach Ryan Humphrey finally said what the rest of the guys in the room were wondering — what does getting to 394 really mean?

Brey was happy to be closing in on it, but said he’d be even happier when 394 was in the rearview mirror so he could get back to coaching. Get back to teaching. Get back to some sense of coaching normalcy.

Brey said it often as summer slid into fall and fall became winter. All he wanted to do was win enough at Notre Dame — he was the program’s third coach in three years — so he wouldn’t get fired. That never seriously was an option.

Often it was Brey who seemed too good for the place. He won a lot, so much that he changed the program’s culture and rekindled an identity. Still, the program seemed stuck in the 1970s of what once was.

Brey’s teams won 45 straight home games — at the time, the nation’s longest streak — in an aging arena in need of serious renovation. He won often working in an antiquated practice facility that could make other power-conference coaches snicker.

He won with a program that long had no summer home for players to perfect their craft. He won while watched by a fickle fan base that embraced too little about the Big East and too much about the old days of basketball independence.

Brey kept coaching, developing players and winning. He stayed in South Bend when few others would have done the same. He never seriously entertained thoughts of leaving.

Why? He had plans.

He wanted to make this program special. He wanted to make it his own. The more he won, the more he became known in coaching circles as the Notre Dame guy. And that was good. That meant something to him. He, like his program, cemented a national identity.

On a hot Friday afternoon in the middle of July 2000, Brey walked in the back door of Purcell Pavilion as a 41-year-old coach about to embark on his dream job, the only job he ever dreamed of chasing. Of owning.

On a snowy evening in early January, Brey walked out that same back door of Purcell Pavilion as a 58-year-old on the verge of a contract extension at a place where the basketball program is his.

Not many words are needed to know that.

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Former coach and wins leader Digger Phelps hands current head coach Mike Brey a basketball for beating his record after winning the NC State at Notre Dame NCAA men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
The number of wins Mike Brey has after winning the NC State at Notre Dame NCAA men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

Here are the top five winningest Notre Dame men's basketball coaches in program history:

1. Mike Brey 394-190 2000-present

2. Digger Phelps 393-197 1971-91

3. George Keogan 332-100 1923-43

4. John Jordan 199-131 1951-64

5. Johnny Dee 116-80 1964-71