Noie: Pandemic was perfect pause for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Coach college basketball and it doesn’t take long for those guys to realize that the carousel never stops.

The head coach might be swimming in a close conference contest that hinges on a late possession in February, but his mind’s also diving ahead on how to best handle the April recruiting period.

A coach could be on the road recruiting in spring, but he’s also planning on how to schedule out the summer. When preseason camp arrives, thoughts jump to the early portion of the schedule. When non-conference play dominates November and December, the head coach frets over what league play mysteries await come January and February and March.

When a season ends, everything starts over. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s the world of college basketball, where there are no off days. It’s 365 of them every year. It’s sometimes 24 hours a day and usually seven days a week. It never ends, even when it does.

It wears you down. It wears you out. It’s enough to push even the most seasoned of head coaches toward the brink of burnout.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey walked that fine burnout line the last two seasons. Finishing 3-15 and last place in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2018-19 took a lot out of the winningest coach in program history. No button he pushed worked. Eventually, there were no more moves remaining. Just ride it out and be better next time.

Last season, the Irish finished seven games better in the league win column, good enough to scramble back to the break-even mark (10-10) in an unforgiving ACC. February brought an uncharacteristic post-game eruption by Brey. He criticized the officials (a no-no) and the league (a bigger no-no) and was belted with a $20,000 fine. In March, after slamming down his headset and stalking off his post-game radio interview, Brey sat through an uncomfortable post-game media session after consecutive loss No. 21 to a ranked team.

Veteran program observers wondered if it was the beginning of the end at Notre Dame for the 61-year-old Brey. Some days, he may have even wondered it. Something had to change or he’d eventually reach a point of no return. Maybe he already had.

“From a physical/mental routine of a season, when you’re at a place for 20 years on the same merry-go-round, it burns you out a little bit,” Brey admitted last week.

The head coach needed to step away, to recharge his batteries, to refocus and finish the remaining four years on his contract. To again become the “loosest coach in America.” But how? When? Spring recruiting was closing quickly. Another important offseason beckoned. Next year soon would be here. There was little time to get away. There was little time to recharge. There was little time to refresh.

Until he had nothing but time. Weeks of it. Months of it.

A basketball break

The coronavirus pandemic offered Brey an escape route. Days after the 2019-20 college basketball season shut down, Brey gathered with the returning Irish in the lounge area of Rolfs Hall. They ordered in some pizza. They discussed an uncertain future. Brey admitted he didn’t know when he’d see them again. Since then, he hasn’t.

That was March 15.

Not long after that team meeting, Brey packed his bags and headed for Bradenton, Fla., to see his son, Kyle, and his family. He snagged one of the last available rental properties near the Gulf of Mexico. The plan was to spend time with his family, with his grandchildren, to unplug after another long and sometimes frustrating season. To live the good life for a week.

One week turned into two. Two turned into three. There was no reason to return to campus. The pandemic had closed everything down. He couldn’t go into his office at Rolfs Hall. His key card was deactivated. He couldn’t be around his staff. He couldn’t be around his players. He couldn’t go on the road and recruit.

So there he stayed near his son and his family and the Gulf of Mexico for a fourth week. Then a fifth.

It was the break he needed. He ate better. He slept longer. He exercised more. He sat in the sun, and joked that he hadn’t had a tan that deep since he was 12 years old spending summers at outdoor pools around his native Maryland. The longer he stayed away, the more he missed the game. Missed the guys. Missed the staff. Missed the job.

The pandemic offered Brey a glimpse of life after coaching. It was stress-free. It was care-free. It was a good one.

“It was a bit of a leave of absence,” Brey said. “It was awesome. You weren’t traveling; you weren’t running. I got some energy back.”

He could sense it. His staff could see it. He wasn’t as run down. He had more juice. Good juice.

“Where he’s at right now, it was great,” said associate head coach Rod Balanis said. “He looks at the big picture now and sees it and says that we’ve got a chance to do something special.”

So much so that after those five weeks in Florida, Brey was ready to run back to South Bend. Ready to get back to coaching. To recruiting. To the grind. He missed all of it. And he could do none of it.

“It gets to May and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m ready,’” he said. “And then the country goes, ‘Well, we’re not ready.’”

Brey’s beyond ready for this weekend. Typically when the calendar crawls toward early August, he’s ready to get away for one final time to his summer house in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Another July recruiting period would’ve just ended. His annual Coaches vs. Cancer weekend, too. Summer school would be wrapping up with the start of the fall semester right around the corner.

But there was no July evaluation period to keep Brey and his staff on the go for days on end. There was no summer school on campus. No basketball camp to oversee. His Coaches vs. Cancer annual has been downsized to this weekend’s golf outing. Nothing has been normal for him this summer.

This weekend, some normalcy returns when the Irish migrate to campus for the first time since that mid-March Sunday night of pizza.

This weekend, Brey will meet incoming freshman Tony Sanders and Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz for the first time in person. Both were recruited during spring via Zoom. The players have never been on campus. Brey’s anxious. He’s nervous. He’s ready.

“I’ve never looked more forward to August,” he said. “I never look forward to the start of the fall semester. After running the whole summer, you’re usually like, ‘Yeah, I’ll ease into it.’ Now I can’t wait to see these guys.”

Moving forward

Some semblance of routine may return around Rolfs Hall, but not much. The players may be headed back. But the basketball isn’t. Not yet.

“I’m trying to break it to them — just because they get in (Saturday), that doesn’t mean (Sunday) you can come over here and shoot like the old days,” Brey said. “This thing’s still going to be shut down until maybe mid-August. I know there will be some frustrations with what we can do and how we can be around our guys, but we’ve just got to get through it.”

The NCAA allowed men’s basketball players to return to their respective campuses for voluntary offseason workouts starting June 1. Several ACC schools stayed with that target date. Notre Dame slow-played the return for players in its men’s and women’s programs. That will continue. Brey hopes that maybe by the middle of August, the Irish can start with small groups in the weight room. Then perhaps pockets of two or three players together for individual instruction on the court. If all goes well health-wise across campus, maybe they can practice by Labor Day.

There’s a lot to work with, led by a junior class that includes potential all-league point guard Prentiss Hubb. There’s a freshman class that still hasn’t been on campus. There’s some pieces that can be moved around Brey’s basketball puzzle.

“I feel like he’s going to enjoy coaching this group more,” Balanis said. “Hopefully we can pull this off.”

When might Brey coach them? When can he close the doors of the practice gym and get back to teaching, to doing what he loves to do? No clue.

“God, we all want to play basketball and we’re going to try and figure that out,” Brey said. “But if we can just get them back and then look at the fall as the summer that we lost.”

That’s how Brey spent summer on those weekly Zoom calls with his players — get them to treat the fall like the summer. Get back in the weight room when they can to work on their bodies. Get back in the gym to work with one another. Get better in August and September the way they would’ve done in June and July.

“If we’re back in the gym practicing and doing stuff together with some access and the guys get to hang out, that right there is going to be great for everybody’s psyches, including mine,” Brey said. “That’s really where we are.”

There is no road map to where all this might be headed. Will the Irish start preseason practice on schedule? Will the 2020-21 opener still be at home against Army on Veteran’s Day? Will there even be a non-conference portion of the schedule? Will there be fans in the stands? What will the season look like?

All are questions without answers. Brey doesn’t know. Not today. Not next week. Not next month. Maybe, not for a long time.

“People are like, ‘Are you going to play Kentucky (at Rupp Arena on Dec. 12)? Are you going to play in the Legends Classic (Nov. 23-24 at Barclays Center)?’” he said. “That’s so far down the road. I’m not sure we’re going to play in November and December.

“That’s the reality of it.”

A refreshed head coach is ready to face it.

The last two college basketball seasons took a toll for myriad reasons on Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who’s refreshed and ready to roll with renewed energy into the 2020-21 campaign — if there is one.