After 23 seasons, head coach Mike Brey will step down at Notre Dame at season's end

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — An era for one of the good guys in college basketball soon will end. 

Mike Brey has been the coach of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program for the past 23 seasons. He won’t be the coach of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program for a 24th

It's all over. Or will be come March, or whenever this current Irish season closes down.

Brey, the winningest coach in program history, the guy who took a program going nowhere and took it somewhere — in two different conferences — has mutually decided with university leadership that this season will be his last. Notre Dame made it official with a late Thursday afternoon press release.

“It has been a great run for me and our program over the past two decades, but it is time for a new voice to lead this group into the future,” Brey said in the university statement.

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Brey told the Irish players of his plans following Thursday's practice.

“Mike and I have talked often in recent years about a future transition in the program’s leadership and during our most recent conversation we reached the mutual conclusion that the end of this season represented the right time,” said athletic director Jack Swarbrick in the university statement.

The Jan. 17 home loss to Florida State may have unofficially marked the beginning of the end for Brey. Florida State scored the first 10 points. Nine minutes in, Notre Dame trailed 32-8. It again trailed by 24 points in the second half. Afterward, when fingers required pointing, Brey directed one at himself. It wasn’t the first time, but may have been the last. 

He expected to see a team that would dig in and defend and fight after having lost three nights earlier at Syracuse. He saw none of that, and may have finally figured out why. He, Brey said, had spoiled his players. 

“I’m probably too nice,” he said. “Probably too, ‘How’s your psyche?’ And ‘How’s your head?’ Be positive. You know Coach Mike does it — ‘Hey, rah, rah. Everybody get confident.’ Anyways.  … 

“God, I spoil everybody. Everybody. People who work with me. Everybody’s spoiled. Everybody’s spoiled. ” 

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey shouts during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Florida State on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

When this all went sideways, not even Brey could say for sure. Those closest to him started seeing signs that the end was near as early as the close of the 2020-21 season, which finished without a trip to the all-important NCAA tournament. That year was impacted by a global pandemic, one where no college coach knew if he would work with his team for one week, for one month or for one year. 

Notre Dame was the only school among the 15 in the Atlantic Coast Conference not to go on any COVID pause of its own doing that season. It was a point of pride for Brey — he couldn’t get the Irish to the NCAA tournament, but he did get them through a pandemic. 

Brey told those close to him that the following season — 2021-22 — Notre Dame might not make the NCAA tournament, and that he might leave. He would follow that statement with another - hell, he’d say, Notre Dame might make the NCAA tournament, and he’d still leave. 

Brey was joking. Sort of. His fire to do the job at the highest of levels was flickering. That pandemic year, and the two that preceded it, took a lot out of him. Tested him in ways that he hadn’t been tested at Notre Dame. 

Jan 3, 2023; Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey reacts to game action during the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Conte Forum. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to those seasons, anytime Brey needed to zag in a particular season, he was able to push the right buttons. The buttons Brey tried those seasons, nothing seemed to work. That was difficult for him to digest. The ability to reach his players had faded. 

An ability to reach his guys carried Brey through three Big East coach of the year honors, through a national coach of the year recognition (2011) and consecutive Elite Eights (2015, 2016). It helped take Notre Dame back to the NCAA tournament, a place the program hadn’t been for 11 years, during his first season. Thirteen trips to March Madness followed, including last year’s unexpected run (those became the best kinds for the Irish under Brey) where Notre Dame was a minute and change away from a Sweet 16. 

But that coaching fire that had burned for so long, had been fueled by myriad changes, simply burned out. In a way, so did the 63-year-old native of Bethesda, Maryland. 

Hired in July 2000 as program’s third coach in three seasons, Brey promised to give Notre Dame, the only job he ever really chased, 10 good seasons. Maybe 15. Hopefully more. 

“For over two decades Mike Brey’s program has maintained the highest integrity, graduated its student athletes and achieved tremendous success on the court,” Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame said in a university statement.  “Despite the many pressures of his sport, he remained at heart a teacher of young men, helping them play at the highest level while growing into adults and preparing for success beyond basketball.”

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Brey insisted that the 2021-22 season, one that saw Notre Dame go 24-11 overall and win a school record 15 league games, had rekindled his coaching passion. It rejuvenated him in many ways. The program needed it in the worst way, but he needed it more. It breathed new life into what had become a stale situation. Getting back to the NCAA tournament – Notre Dame won two games for the first time since that Elite Eight run of 2016 – recharged him. Energized him. Offered optimism for extending his career in South Bend. 

He hired two new staff members - assistant coach Hamlet Tibbs and video coordinator Ryan Greer – last offseason and looked forward to an extended/successful future. He even looked to stay beyond his current contract, which runs through the 2024-25 season. At that point, he would’ve been at Notre Dame for 25 years. Who knows, Brey often wondered, he felt so good that he might go the Jim Boeheim route and coach into his 70s. 

Instead, he’ll end it after season 23. Most were solid. A few were sub-par. Soon, there will be someone else on the sideline, but there was nobody — n-o-b-o-d-y — who could’ve done what Brey did in his two-plus decades with the program. 

He did it with class. He did it with care for the student-athlete. He did it through a landmine of issues that would’ve torpedoed other coaches with other-sized egos. Being the coach of Notre Dame men’s basketball is hard. Brey so often made it look easy. 

Fine at a football school

Brey often operated without ego in a profession filled with them. He knew that football came first and often second and third and fourth at Notre Dame. It rarely mattered to him, even though at times, it ate at him. He just wanted to coach, to teach, to educate, to nurture kids through his program who he’d be proud enough to consider like sons. That was the real payoff for Brey, not the wins or the possible trips to Final Fours or even national championships. 

That, in many ways, were the marching orders set forth by his bosses — run a respectable program, graduate kids. Do it the right way. Notre Dame basketball again mattered. It was respected — in two leagues. That mattered. 

They do it differently at Notre Dame and Brey embraced different. He wasn’t going to get the guys that Duke got and North Carolina got and even Virginia got. Still, he was expected to beat those schools. 

When he walked in the back door of the old Joyce Center that Friday afternoon in July 2000, he was promised by Notre Dame former athletic director Kevin White that something would be done with the aging, tired and honestly, old arena. The multi-colored seats were held together with Duct tape (true). It needed renovation in the worst way. 

Two years, White promised Brey. Give him two years and there’s be a plan in place. It took eight more for that plan to come to fruition. It took nearly a decade longer to finally get a dedicated practice facility. Brey didn’t much care. He coached. He coached in a basement facility — The Pit — fitting for a junior high school team. He found work-arounds in summers when his guys had no gym to call their own. He established an identity in the Big East. He won games. He went to the NCAA tournament. In 2003, He went to the program’s first Sweet 16 in 16 seasons. 

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The Big East kept evolving, kept changing, kept challenging Notre Dame, but Brey kept on winning. He never complained (that loudly) when the Big East broke apart and Notre Dame athletics outside of hockey and football needed a new conference home. The Irish parachuted into the ACC in 2013. Two years later, Brey had guided the program to its only conference tournament championship. 

It beat Duke. It beat North Carolina. It nearly beat Kentucky to get to the Final Four. 

End of the road

That ACC title will forever be the high-water mark. Digger Phelps had that 1974 victory over UCLA. Brey had beating the two conference gold standards, on consecutive nights in Greensboro in March 2015. 

Even now, eight seasons later, you look back on that run and wonder, how did THAT happen? 

It never got as good after those consecutive Elie Eights, and for various reasons. His recruiting (a lack of it) never produced the kind of classes for Notre Dame to build off those runs. There were injuries (Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger). There were inconsistencies. The coaching staff needed to be overhauled. There was the pandemic. 

Last winter, as Notre Dame raced toward a second-place ACC finish, Brey talked often about the program’s fabric, and how he had everything lined up the way he wanted. The infrastructure, the coaching staff, the players. The program — HIS program — seemed again on firm footing. 

Notre Dame, it seemed, had been rebuilt to last. But last March never did last. 

This season, everything and everybody was expected to pick up where we left off. With big wins. With big moments. Instead, Notre Dame lost its first five conference contests, each a little more demoralizing than the previous one. 

The Irish lost at home. They lost on the road. They lost to bad teams, average teams, good teams. Everything this season was expected to be, it wasn’t. As the losses mounted, Brey had the look of someone who was about out of options. And moves. He tried that. It didn’t work. He tried this. It didn’t work. 

Nothing Brey did could connect with his guys. In previous seasons, he could always find a way to reach them. TO motivate them. To squeeze out a few more ACC wins. his guys. First time it didn’t happen – when Notre Dame went 3-15 and finished last in the ACC in 2018-19 - Brey briefly considered walking away, then decided he couldn’t. Not that way. 

Next season, Notre Dame improved by seven games to finish 10-10 in the league. Few noticed. They just cared that he didn’t get back to the NCAA tournament. 

Coming clear of the early January loss at North Carolina, it finally felt the end was coming. Quickly. In some ways, Brey seemed at peace with the decision, and the ultimate next direction of the program, wherever that may lead. 

Former coach and wins leader Digger Phelps hands current head coach Mike Brey a basketball for beating his record after winning the NC State at Notre Dame NCAA men's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

It was as if even Brey knew it was ending. Typically, after gut-punch league losses, he’s quick to stand from his seat in the post-game press conference, exit the Hammes Auditorium door and make a quick left, which takes him down and around the Joyce Center perimeter and back toward his office in Rolfs Hall. 

He did that after the Florida State game. 

Following the Dec. 30 home loss to Miami (Fla.), which dropped Notre Dame to 0-3, Brey wrapped his presser, but stayed seated. Soaked everything in. He did the same Jan. 7 after the loss at North Carolina. Someone approached and wondered what he was doing. Why was he just sitting there? 

Brey smiled and stayed seated, then got up and walked off. Three nights later, Notre Dame finally got its first ACC win – in overtime – at home against Georgia Tech. When someone mentioned afterward how badly Notre Dame needed that win, Brey responded “you have no idea how bad(ly) we needed this one.” 

Would Brey have walked away at 0-6? Maybe. But the good vibes from league win No. 1 didn’t last – Notre Dame blew a 12-point second half lead and lost to Syracuse four nights later to fall to 1-6. 

Time for the next phase of life for Brey, one that includes being a full-time fiancée to his significant other, a full-time grandfather, a full-time father to his son Kyle and his daughter Callie. A full-time retired basketball coach. 

Every coach believes he’s got one more job move left in him, one more race he can run. Brey never made that move from Notre Dame, and now likely won’t ever. It’s time to enjoy a life that doesn’t include coaching college basketball, and all the crazy that comes with it. 

It ends for every coach in this profession. 

On Thursday, it ended for Brey. Come April,, he'll be just another former college coach. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.

All-time Notre Dame men’s basketball winningest coaches 

  • Mike Brey | 2001-present | 481-269* 
  • Digger Phelps | 1972-91 | 393-197 
  • George Keogan | 1924-43 | 327-97 
  • John Jordan | 1952-64 | 199-131 
  • Johnny Dee | 1965-71 | 116-80 
  • John MacLeod | 1992-99 | 106-124 * Still active