Men's Basketball: Coaching storyline aside, Big Monday again a big deal for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
ND Insider
It was here, at the old S & J Bar and Restaurant in Riverdale, Maryland where Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a job to then-high school coach Mike Brey in the spring of 1987.

Basketball coach walks into the local dive bar, the one advertising karaoke on the marquee, and walks out a few hours later his life forever changed. 

Seldom happens, right? At least, when there’s not Fireball shots and bottles of Crown Royal and tunes on the Jukebox and hours of tall tales involved. 

Likely rarely happened at the old S & J Bar and Restaurant, a long-since-closed joint on a quiet corner of Rhode Island Avenue in Riverdale, Maryland. The S & J, or the “J” as locals knew it, was a cool and quiet spot where you could duck in for a beer and a burger and debate the D.C. sports scene for a couple hours. 

The “J” was where you went to forget about life, not change it. 

Yet one day in the spring of 1987, a high school assistant boys’ varsity basketball coach and former history teacher at the private Catholic high school down the road walked in the front glass-paned door of the S & J, sat across the table from a certain college coaching someone and walked out hours later as the assistant basketball coach at Duke University. 

One trip to the “J,”  one deal-consummating conversation in a back booth, forever changed the course of the life of Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. He was an assistant to high school legend Morgan Wootten at DeMatha Catholic in those days. And he was good with that role, with that life. With that career arc. Maybe one day in the distant future, when Wootten retired, Brey would get a chance at running the nationally-known program. 

► Noie:Lunch with Morgan Wootten

 The Journey:Notre Dame basketball game by game

Mike Krzyzewski had other ideas. He wanted Brey to work for him. Didn’t matter that Brey had no previous college experience. Didn’t matter that all Brey really knew about Atlantic Coast Conference basketball was what he watched up at Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland. 

Not knowing where it might one day lead, Brey accepted the job offer from Krzyzewski that day in the “J.” 

Thirty-five years later, on a winter’s night in South Bend, Brey and Krzyzewski meet one last time. This one, on the sideline of Purcell Pavilion in advance of Monday’s sold-out showdown between No. 9 Duke (17-3; 7-2) and suddenly soaring Notre Dame (14-6; 7-2). 

It’s a big game, sure, but it’s also the last that Brey and Krzyzewski are scheduled to coach against one another. This season. This ever. 

Despite all that he’s accomplished, all those conference championships and Final Fours and national championships, Krzyzewski publicly prefers to stay in the moment. Looking back on what’s happened is for one day when he’s long gone from the game and on a beach. Remembering that day in the “J” with Brey, yeah, K would say, that’s not for him. Not when there’s another game to prepare for, another opponent to scout, another win to chase. 

Oh, it might be good for K to reminisce if you get five minutes with him on a good day. But finding those five? Good luck. His memories about that day in the “J” go untold. 

Jan 4, 2014; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey and Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski chat before the game at the Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame won 79-77. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s Brey, who often has thought about that life-altering conversation/job offer over the last few days and weeks and months, ever since Krzyzewski announced in early June that this season, his 47th as a college head coach and his 42nd at Duke, would be his last. 

Had not it not been for Krzyzewski, would Brey have become a college head coach? First, for five seasons at Delaware and then the past 22 at Notre Dame, where he’s the winningest coach in program history (462 victories)? Hard to say, but K set it all into motion. 

“He didn’t hire me when I was a high school (head) coach; he hired me when I was a high school assistant coach,” Brey said late Saturday after his team had just beaten Virginia at home as an ACC colleague for the first time in program history. “He gave me a chance. He let me get my hands on everything. 

“It’s very fitting that he rolls through South Bend the last year.” 

From confidants to competitors 

Once he left Duke, Brey and Krzyzewski went their separate coaching ways. Brey coached his teams in the America East and then the Big East, while K kept doing K things down in Durham. Then in 2002, as fate (luck?) would have it, the two met for the first time as head coaches in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 

It was Mike Brey vs. Mike K, part I. That was back when Brey wore mock turtle necks with his suits. Back before he knew what it was like to win a game against his college mentor. A No. 8 seed, Notre Dame came within a possession or two of upsetting the overall No. 1 seed in Duke that Sunday afternoon at the old Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, South Carolina. 

Brey remembered Saturday some of the key possessions of that game. Specifically, a missed Irish free throw and a crushing 3-pointer that helped Duke survive, 84-77. 

“Daniel Ewing hit the 3; I still remember them all,” Brey said. “We were the new guy. We’ve done a lot since there.” 

Brey became a three-time coach of the year in the Big East, where his program developed an identity as one of the best in one of the nation’s best leagues. The Irish would routinely win double-digit league games, play big ones in Madison Square Garden, go to NCAA tournaments. Even get to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons. 

Life was good in the Big East. Brey did his thing there while K did his thing in the ACC. Then 2013 happened and Notre Dame and Duke became conference colleagues. It was a marriage that Krzyzewski didn't much like.

Games against K would not be rare, but routine. 

South Bend Tribune/ MIKE HARTMAN  Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski takes a timeout in the final seconds of  their upset loss to Notre Dame at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. Sunday, January 4, 2014.

Heck, the first game Notre Dame ever played as a member of the ACC was against Duke. At Purcell Pavilion. In 2014. The day Irish forward Pat Connaughton committed a basketball felony with his drive and dunk on the head of Jabari Parker. It blew the roof off the building. It was the first time a former Krzyzewski assistant beat the big boss. 

Other big moments against Duke followed. The Irish got the Blue Devils twice in 2015, including an ACC tournament semifinal Friday night in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then the next year, Notre Dame won at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time. Weeks later, the Irish roared back from a 16-point second-half deficit for an overtime win in an ACC tournament quarterfinal at Capital One Arena in Washington, a short Metro ride from the old S & J. 

“We’ve had some great matchups with them,” said Brey, 6-9 all-time vs Krzyzewski. “We’ve had some great wins. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be in the same league with him (but) we’ve certainly grown a lot. I think our program is really respected in this league and nationally.” 

Monday means a little more to the 62-year-old Brey, for myriad reasons. Not just because the 74-year-old Krzyzewski is across from him on the sideline one last time. Because this game actually means something. For him. For his program. In the league standings. Last time Purcell Pavilion was sold out — Jan. 28, 2019 — Duke was in town. Of the 9,149 in the stands, also on a Monday night, 9,145 may have been there to see the freak basketball talent that was future No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson. 

Nobody came to see Notre Dame. Nobody cared. 

Monday, they will. They do. 

The Irish are back in previously familiar ACC territory of chasing a top-four finish, which would bring with it a double bye in the league tournament and angling for a possible return trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017. 

Brey’s had a lot of long nights and dark days since 2017. Days and nights when he wondered if his best coaching days were behind him. Wondered if the Irish might ever get back. Notre Dame has won four straight and 10 of 11. The Irish aren't back, but there's a vibe around it that hasn't been there in years.

There’s a buzz back around Brey's basketball program. His building.

Brey has thought lately a lot of the last four years. He’ll think of them again when he walks out of the tunnel for this mammoth matchup. 

“Monday will be cool,” Brey said. “It will be one of those electric ones. I guess it’s fitting Mike comes through. Shoot, here we go. We’ve got a big game and it means a lot. 

“That’s what it’s all about.” 

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