Noie: Mike Brey has steered Notre Dame back to NCAA tournament before but can he again?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

That fire-engine red Ferrari he drove to pick up a prospect and tour campus on an official visit last month is long gone, but the five-o'clock shadow and the easy-going disposition few college coaches carry still remain. 

Having officially started his 22nd season at Notre Dame on Friday with the first of 100 or so practices over the next six months, head coach Mike Brey looked and sounded and acted like his usual self. He was brutally honest about what awaited his team, cracked a few jokes when warranted and embraced his 15-minute media gaggle to kick off another season the way he always does. 

After everything Brey and his group went through last year during a global pandemic, it all sounded and felt and looked so normal. And, honestly, so needed. 

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey remains as easy-going as anyone in the game, but nobody wants to see the Irish get back to the NCAA tournament more than him. It drives him. Hard.

Don’t be mistaken by Brey and his what-me-worry disposition. There’s something different about him, something not seen on the surface. Or at (five-o-clock shadow) face value. It’s there percolating. Ready to boil when it’s time to boil. 

There was a time not so long ago when Brey looked and acted and sounded like a man on his way out, someone in need of a complete reset of his chosen career. Someone who didn’t look like he’d be around for season No. 22, but what do you know, here he is. Fresh. Focused.

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Having watched his program labor through four very difficult, but also very different, seasons that produced zero NCAA tournament trips, a crime punishable by firing at a lot of other places, Brey knows well the minimum marching orders for a veteran coach and a veteran team this season. 

Get back to the NCAA tournament. That was outlined as far back as March by him, for his players and his program. That will be the daily drive from now until spring. But he knows this – a core of a team that’s never been there can’t just talk about it; they’ve got to go do it. 

That’s the tough part. 

Years ago, when Notre Dame went extended seasons without NCAA tournament trips, Brey felt that pressure to produce. To get back. To prove his place in the game, back when those games were played in the Big East and he was still a young coach with young kids. He knew he had to win, because if he didn’t, who knew what the following season might bring. Maybe a pink slip. He felt the pressure. He embraced the pressure. 

He then delivered. Now, though, after four years away from the field of 68, Brey’s no longer young and his kids are grown and on their own. He doesn’t feel that same win-or-else pressure. He's too old (62). He’s won too many games at Notre Dame (448). He's been around the block in two of the nation’s premier leagues – the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference. He’s seen a lot. He’s done a lot. 

But that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied. That he doesn’t want more. That he doesn’t believe an Irish program can get back to where he believes it belongs. 

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The Irish have done it before and Brey believes they still can do it again. With him in charge. 

That determination drove him in the offseason to make the type of changes in his coaching staff that he’d never before made. He didn’t just overhaul his staff. He stripped it bare and started over. 

He wanted to do it, but he also knew he HAD to do it. For this season and however many more seasons are to follow for someone signed through 2024-25. Why now? Simple. The end game. Nobody wants the end game – the NCAA tournament – more for his guys than the head coach. 

“I’m very motivated to get us back,” Brey said. “We’ve gone through that cycle a couple times – 2007 last time in the same frame of mind (of we) really need to get back.” 

Back then, when the pressure to win weighed on Brey, Notre Dame had limped through three really tough seasons with no NCAA tournament bid. Coming clear of the program’s first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons in 2003, it was hard to watch. But in 2007, fueled by senior captains Russell Carter and Colin Falls and a sure and steady junior power forward in Rob Kurz, Notre Dame roared back from three years of stink to go 24-8, including 11-5 in the Big East and 18-0 at home, to get back to the NCAA tournament. 

This season could unfold a lot like that one. 

“I put immense pressure on myself to do that and get this group back,” Brey said. “I kind of like where we’re at. Here we go. Let’s play.”

Brey can say it, but it's time to show it. All of it. The drive. The motivation. The fire that says anything less this season is unacceptable. We're beyond words with this group. We need to see wins.

From the outside, it seems the Irish have a really long way to go and a really short time to get there, but Brey believes there’s a lot to like about this group. They’re old. They’re driven. They have that proverbial chip on their shoulders to prove a whole lot of people wrong. And they’re so far off the national radar that nobody will see them coming until – fingers crossed – the Notre Dame name pops up in one of the four Selection Sunday brackets. 

“There’s nothing like that day, and we’ve missed it for a couple years,” Brey said of Selection Sunday. “For a basketball coach, that’s Christmas – when it goes good.” 

When it doesn’t, we’ve seen that too. Too many losses. Too much disinterest in the program. Too much of not enough of being able to capitalize on consecutive Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016. Notre Dame wasn’t able to build off what guys like Pat Connaughton and Bonzie Colson and Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia did, but it’s time to let that go. 

That was then, and that time's long gone. Don’t keep chasing ghosts and what happened in the past. Focus on the future. With this core that includes six seniors. That adds graduate transfer power forward Paul Atkinson. That brings aboard two talented freshmen – two local kids – in J.R. Konieczny and Blake Wesley. Both are going to play. Right away. Maybe a lot. 

There’s talent and there’s drive and there’s determination with the group. They haven’t been good, but they want to be good. Can they?

They’re ready to put last year’s Bizzaro Year behind them. Brey admitted Friday it was nice to step on the practice floor and actually see smiles. Read body language. Exchange different emotions instead of last season when masks offered only glazed looks and blank stares and muffled responses. 

Everything at the start of this year already is different. No reason that the end of it can’t be as well. 

“There were some weird, weird dynamics last year,” Brey said. “It was crazy. These seniors deserve a year like a normal season. Let’s go.” 

A heck of a ride may await, and what a ride it could be. Just like that Ferrari, but better. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI