Noie: Basketball bonds run deep between Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Cincinnati's Mick Cronin
Criticism arrived from all angles after one of college basketball’s uglier incidents became a sore spot for the sport seven seasons ago.
So Notre Dame coach Mike Brey picked up his phone to make sure someone he considers a close friend in the coaching fraternity was all right.
The annual crosstown rivalry game between Cincinnati and Xavier disintegrated into an all-out brawl in 2011, one that that spilled from the benches and into the Cintas Center stands that December afternoon. It was as ugly as ugly gets. Players threw punches. Coaches threw insults. One fan base became even more incensed with the other. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin did his best during his postgame press conference to diffuse everything. Want someone to blame for the problem, Cronin said, blame him. But he promised to make it all right.
Afterward, Cronin stayed away from all the calls and texts that flooded his cell phone. One number from one area code — 574 — kept popping up. It was Brey’s. The Irish coach left an early message, but that wasn’t good enough. So he called again and again and again.
“He said, ‘I’m going to keep calling you until you pick up the phone,’” Cronin said. “A lot of people in this business will call to congratulate you, but Mike’s always one of those guys who calls you when you’re struggling to make sure you’re OK.”
Cronin was, but he was struggling that day. Then the next week. The next month. He didn’t know if he’d even have a job when the fallout finally settled, but he knew he’d have at least one colleague in his corner. For the rest of that year and for however many that followed for Cronin at his hometown school.
“It was an unbelievable crisis to clean up and his comments in the press conference without having time to prepare, he was unbelievable,” Brey said. “He just took it all like a man. I just wanted to let him know that the first step publicly was fabulous.”
Their college head coaching paths on the basketball court first crossed in 2007 when Cincinnati joined the Big East. Their college coaching paths on the basketball court last crossed in 2013 when Notre Dame jettisoned the life-support league for the Atlantic Coast Conference and Cincinnati scrambled to find a conference lifeline in the American Athletic Conference. The coaches remained close friends, often calling one another to commiserate about their teams one week, congratulate the other the next.
Brey is 7-2 lifetime against Cronin, but the wins and losses don’t matter much.
“I’ve looked up to him since I got the job,” said the 47-year-old Cronin, now in his 13th season at Cincinnati. “If you can’t get along with Mike, you can’t get along with anybody.”
“We kind of root for each other,” said the 59-year-old Brey, set to start his 19th season at Notre Dame. “Philosophically, we’re a lot alike in how we look at the profession. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s just so steady, so solid.”
Brey and Cronin and their teams meet again on the basketball court Sunday (maybe, wink, wink) when the Bearcats and Irish hold one of those not-for-publication, nobody-better-know-about secret scrimmages at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. When two teams decided to do something like this — and it’s a first for Notre Dame under Brey – the NCAA discourages coaches or players or anyone associated with either program from even acknowledging it. Nobody’s supposed to keep stats, or publicize the final score. It’s as if it never happens.
Even leading into it, coaches aren’t supposed to promote it or comment on aspect of it.
Neither Brey nor Cronin did (wink, wink).
But a good source indicated that Cronin first broached the idea over the summer of a scrimmage to Brey, who took about two seconds to respond. Heck yeah, Brey said. Let’s do it. For this Notre Dame team, for this season, the Irish need the type of preseason challenge that Cincinnati, which finished 31-5 and first place in the American at 16-2 last season while leading the league in six defensive categories, can present.
Having gone to eight-straight NCAA tournaments, Cincinnati does it with defense and toughness. Notre Dame may need a lesson or two in both areas. It may get it Sunday (wink, wink).
“They are who they are all the time,” Brey said of the Bearcats.
Foes and friends
As much as Brey admires Cronin’s teams for their defense, Cronin has long envied the ways Brey’s teams move the ball and flow on offense. That traces back to a moment that Cronin would like to forget.
Notre Dame shredded Cincinnati, 89-51, in a 2011 Big East Championship quarterfinal game at Madison Square Garden. It was the second-largest margin of victory in Big East Championship history. It wasn’t even that close. The outcome aggravated Cronin, but he also left the Garden that night an admirer of how Brey’s teams do it. In the years that have followed, Brey has often counseled Cronin on offense.
“I can’t tell you how much I think of him as a friend and how great he’s been for me,” Cronin said. “A lot of guys in our business don’t say a whole lot (but) he’s been nothing but open to me and has tried to help me as a young coach.”
The more time Brey and Cronin coached against one another, the more time they wanted to spend around one another. At the annual Big East meetings each May in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. On the road recruiting, where they have shared the cost of private planes to get from one AAU tournament to the next. At dinner on the road. On junkets to the Bahamas and Puerto Rico for Under Armour. It helps that the two have the same agent (Jordan Bazant), but the coaches generally enjoy one another’s company, something not that common today in the cutthroat world of college basketball.
Both also consider themselves lifers with their current programs.
“We just kind of connected,” Brey said. “It’s been a neat relationship.”
One that took off one Saturday night eight years ago in the old Fifth Third Arena (the renovated gym is set to reopen next month with UC’s opener against Ohio State). The coaches met at midcourt just before tip. Cronin took one look at Brey, then still rocking his mock turtleneck look and gave him a thumbs down. Time to change it up, Cronin said. Go with something up to date, and more comfortable.
All this occurred before a game that Cincinnati won 60-58.
“I was thinking, well that’s a hell of a way to start the night,” Brey said. “It kind of stuck with me. I do give him some credit. He was a young, hip guy then. So that was good.”
Two years later, Brey started to shift toward his self-described “Don Johnson look” of an open collar dress shirt. The mocks were gone for good by 2012-13. Brey likely won’t go back to it for Sunday’s reunion — if there is one (wink, wink). Regardless of the outcome if the teams play (wink, wink), the coaches will remain in contact as they move through the 2018-19 season.
Brey likely will revert to his “loosest coach in America” routine if the Irish hit a rough patch. But Cronin cautions not to be fooled by all that loose and relaxed stuff. He knows Brey, so he knows better.
“He’s way more competitive than he comes off as at times,” he said. “He’s this happy guy all the time, but nobody wants to get Notre Dame to a Final Four more than Mike.
“He may not be as nuts on the sideline as me, but he wants that more than anything.”
If that happens, Cronin will be one of the first to call.