Noie: Basketball the bond between Mike Brey, Buzz Williams

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

That handshake was something.

Typically when Notre Dame coach Mike Brey meets his coaching counterpart at midcourt before a basketball game, there’s usually a quick hello and a how are you and that’s that. Both have more on their minds for much of anything else.

Then there was Saturday.

With the pre-game clock racing toward zero and everyone getting set for the National Anthem, Brey hustled down the far sideline to get to Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams, who didn’t emerge from the tunnel leading to the visitor’s locker room until the last possible moment.

Brey didn’t want to let another second pass without an exchange. And a laugh. And a handshake. A moment between colleagues. Between friends. Just before the anthem started and with the place near quiet, Brey slapped his right hand into Williams’ before shaking it. It was so forceful and loud — palm pounding palm — that it echoed toward press row near the arena’s top reaches.

SMACK!

Brey then took his two hands, placed them on Williams’ shoulders and shook him. Hard. Happily. Just two guys being guys.

“I’m really proud of him, man,” Brey said following a 67-59 loss to Virginia Tech, which dropped Notre Dame to 13-14, 3-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. “Maybe I’m his big brother in a lot of ways.”

The two have coached against one another in one league (Big East) or another (ACC) since the 46-year-old Williams replaced Tom Crean at Marquette in 2008 before he made the stunning move to once-annual ACC doormat Virginia Tech in 2014. But the two long ago cemented their bond forged by Northwestern (La.) State.

Brey played three seasons at the school in Natchitoches, La., where Williams eventually served one season as an assistant. They first met when Williams was a sophomore at Navarro (Texas) Junior College. For the next two years until he graduated in 1994, Williams wrote Brey a letter once a week. He’d wonder about coaching philosophy and inquire about basketball X’s and Os. Sometimes he just asked about life.

Brey wasn’t alone. Williams said Saturday that he wrote 425 different coaches letters from a legal pad. Every single week. To guys who seemingly had it made in Division I. Others who’d grind their way through Division III. Brey was one of only about a dozen who responded to Williams’ letters.

“As a kid, that meant the world to me,” Williams said. “He’s my hero and I tell him that every time I see him.”

So much so that when the two worked in the Big East, and it came time to poll the conference coaches with their annual preseason awards ballots, Williams routinely refused to vote for any honor. Except one. Without fail, he’d list one guy for Coach of the Year — Brey. Every year. Without fail. One vote. One guy. Brey. It drove former Big East men’s basketball administrator Dan Gavitt nuts.

But that’s Buzz being Buzz.

Williams can be a tough coach to engage. Sometimes you ask him a question and there’s nothing but coach-speak in response. Like, that’s all you’ve got? But ask him Saturday about the 59-year-old Brey, and everything flows. He relaxes. He smiles. He ponders. Had it not been for the awaiting charter flight home, Williams looked like he could have cracked a cold one or two and talked into the night about Brey.

Kind of sums up how they spend their time together at league meetings. Dinner. Drinks. A lot of stories. And laughs. Good times for guys who get along well.

“I have so much admiration for how he handles his position,” Williams said. “I think football means a lot at Notre Dame (but) I don’t think there could be a better ambassador for the basketball program and the athletic department than him.”

Mutual admiration aside, Brey would like to see his team take on the traits of the one Williams coaches. When Williams was at Marquette, Brey often joked that some of those guys — Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Lazar Hayward, Darius Johnson-Odom — were so tough both mentally and physically that they ate nails for pre-game meal. It was the ultimate compliment to the blue-collar mentality that Williams cultivated. Had it then in Milwaukee. Has it now in Blacksburg.

The Hokies have dudes. The Irish need some.

“They have some nail-eaters,” Brey said. “As a matter of fact, I may throw some nails in the buffet this summer for our guys.”

The friends went their separate ways following Saturday’s game, but not before Williams stayed and stood and watched as Brey and the Irish lined up to listen to the alma mater. Williams and the Hokies flew home Saturday night to Virginia to prepare for Tuesday’s home game against No. 1 Duke. Brey and the Irish departed windy South Bend on Sunday afternoon for Tallahassee, Fla., and Monday’s matchup against No. 16 Florida State.

Brey’s now 8-6 against Williams, 4-3 in the ACC. Their paths may cross for a few minutes at next month’s league tournament, then again at the Final Four and at the league meetings in May. Until then, Williams will keep tabs on anything that’s written about Brey.

“I’ve followed everything that he’s done,” Williams said. “He’s always positive. Our society needs more of him because I think he’s changing kids’ lives because he always speaks hope.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey admires the toughness that Buzz Williams’ teams play with, first at Marquette and now at Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams first wrote an actual letter to Notre Dame coach Mike Brey when he was still in college and trying to break into the business. Brey responded and the two eventually became friends. And colleagues.

WHO: Notre Dame (13-14; 3-11 ACC) vs. No. 16 Florida State (21-6; 9-5).

WHERE: Donald L. Tucker Civic Center (11,500), Tallahassee, Fla.

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Florida State had its school record of eight-straight league wins snapped Saturday at No. 8 North Carolina, 77-58. Guard David Nichols led the Seminoles with 16 points. … Prior to that eight-game run, Florida State lost four of five in league play. … The Seminoles are 12-1 at home with the loss to No. 1 Duke. … Ten Seminoles average at least 11 minutes per game while only two average at least 11 points. The team’s leading scorer (13.2 ppg.) is redshirt sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele, from Ontario, Canada. He’s played in all 27 games with zero starts. A nephew of Basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Kabengele played one year of high school at the Bosco Institute with Irish junior guard Nik Djogo. … Florida State has been ranked in every Associated Press poll this season but one. The Seminoles have been ranked as high as No. 9. … Florida State returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 23-12, 9-9 and tied for eighth in the league before advancing to the NCAA tournament Elite Eight. … They were picked this season to finish seventh. … The series between the schools is tied 4-4. Notre Dame is 3-0 at home, 0-3 on the road and 1-1 in neutral-site games. The Irish have won the last three. … This is the second of two Saturday-Monday swings for Notre Dame. The Irish lost both ends — to No. 3 Virginia and to No. 1 Duke — at home in late January.

QUOTING: “We’re not getting the results that we like and we’re growing within that, but at the same time, this team has shown that we can play with a lot of teams and play with almost any team in the country. We’re not going to fold; we’re not going to bust and just keep fighting.”

• Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs.