Mike Brey's 23 best moments as Notre Dame men's basketball coach

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

The end arrived earlier than anticipated for Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey, who will leave at season’s end as the program’s winningest coach (481 victories), and someone who took the program to places — and heights — that it had never seen. 

Not in one league (Atlantic Coast Conference) but two (Big East). 

Following is a look back at the top 23 moments (one for each season Brey coached in South Bend) during his time on the Notre Dame sideline. We highlight 23, but with Brey, we could go 123. There were so many snapshots, so many where-were-you-when times. Not all had to do with winning basketball games, but all are hoops related. 

They’re ranked from No. 23 to No. 1, which, if you followed the program closely during his tenure, should be a no-brainer. 

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

23: Introductory press conference

July 14, 2000

He walked into the old Joyce Center actually wearing a tie and a smile and the look of someone who just knew he was going to do something with a program that needed something good. He even gave the assembled crowd a “thumbs up” during his first presser. It didn’t take long — maybe a few minutes — to realize that he was the right guy at the right time in the right place to lead a program that was desperate for a new direction. Brey took the Irish there. 

22: Notre Dame 104, Sacred Heart 58 (first Notre Dame win)

First Notre Dame win Nov. 18, 2000

His first win – witnessed by more than 10,000 fans on a Saturday night — was career win No. 100 for Brey, who was presented the game ball in the locker room after the game. It was an energetic basketball night — even during football season — that gave a glimpse of the wins that were to come.  

21: Notre Dame 83, Xavier 71

First NCAA tournament win, March 18, 2001

The Irish had gone over a decade without winning an NCAA game, so that they had to wait until deep into a Friday night (tipoff finally arrived close to 11 p.m. eastern time), didn’t much matter. Notre Dame hadn’t been on that big of a stage in so many years, but didn’t play nervous at old Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. Didn’t get rattled. It took care of business against the Musketeers in workmanlike, veteran fashion. The Irish shot 63.3 percent from the field in the game, 70 percent in the second half as the program won its first NCAA game in 12 seasons. 

The tournament inexperienced Irish took their cues from Brey.  

More:Who's got next? Here are some coaches Notre Dame could consider to replace Mike Brey

20: A Fourth of July phone call

July 4, 2013

Brey had had enough of the sniping about Notre Dame joining the Atlantic Coast Conference as a partial member (i.e., no football) and decided to reach out to a Tribune reporter to voice his displeasure with Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski, the guy who opened the college coaching door for the former DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School history teacher. Come on, Mike K., Brey said on the phone from his beach house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, can’t you just embrace Notre Dame in the conference? It was an early sign that Brey and his program weren’t going to be pushed around by the old guard in the new league. 

19: Selection Sunday 2001

March 11, 2001

Brey and the Irish gathered at his Granger home – and even invited local media to attend. Everyone assembled in the house’ lower level for the Selection Show. Brey and his daughter and his players (and reporters) squeezed into his media/TV room to watch Notre Dame pop up as a No. 6 seed before cheers and high-fives and hugs erupted. After an 11-year absence, Notre Dame was part of March Madness. 

18: More than just a coach

Staten Island, New York Jan. 24, 2007

On Jan. 23, Notre Dame lost a critical Big East game to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. The Irish traveling party flew home late that night, before Brey flew back the next morning to visit guard Kyle McAlarney at his home in Staten Island. McAlarney had been suspended for the spring semester after a traffic stop near campus led to the discovery of a marijuana cigarette. 

Brey spent a few hours at McAlarney’s home working through the family’s and the kid’s frustration with the suspension process. Just before leaving, Brey laid a black No. 23 jersey — McAlarney's — on a table in the front hallway. Three days later, McAlarney announced he would return. Brey had aced his first true off-court crisis management test at Notre Dame.  

South Bend Tribune Photo/MARCUS MARTER Notre Dame's Mike Brey reacts to a score in the first half against Sacred Heart at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center Monday, December 19, 2011. To view a photo gallery visit   via FTP

The following year, McAlarney earned first team All-Big East honors and helped Notre Dame back to the NCAA tournament.  

17: A really big contract extension

June 19, 2012

Having promised to give Notre Dame at least 10 years, Brey had been around for 12 when athletic director Jack Swarbrick signed Brey — and then-women's coach Muffet McGraw — to 10-year extensions, which was almost unheard of in the profession. It signified that after so many years of uncertainty, there was stability in the men’s basketball program. 

16: The best in the business

April 1, 2011

A 2010-11 season that saw Notre Dame go 27-7 overall and 14-4 in the Big East ended with a thud with a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Florida State at United Center in Chicago. Two weeks later, at the Final Four in Houston, Brey was recognized as the Associated Press and USBWA national coach of the year. Honors like that don’t usually occur for Irish men’s basketball coaches.  

15: Notre Dame 68, Illinois 60

March 22, 2003

It was a surreal scene at the old RCA Dome in downtown Indianapolis as Notre Dame got hot early from 3 (thank you, Dan Miller) and just kept firing and believing. Former Irish power forward Jordan Cornette helped make Big Ten player of the year Brian Cook a non-factor as Notre Dame punched its ticket to Southern California and the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 seasons.  

14: Notre Dame 61, Wisconsin 56

March 25, 2016

Wait, what just happened? And how did it just happen? With 26 seconds remaining, Notre Dame trailed Wisconsin by three and seemed headed home on Good Friday from the Sweet 16. Then, like that, the Irish scored the last eight points to get back within one win of the Final Four for a second consecutive season. 

Brey got so excited early in the second half that he jumped up, and thought he tore his Achilles. He instead strained his right calf. He limped back to the locker room after the post-game presser with one leg of his suit pants pulled up toward his knee and a bag of ice wrapped to his leg. At Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, he looked like Rocky who’d just gone 12 rounds against Apollo Creed. 

And won. 

13: Notre Dame 89, Rutgers 87 (Double OT)

NCAA Tournament First Four, March 16, 2022

Notre Dame seemingly had it won, then had it lost, then had it won, then lost, then won in a First Four game that featured a staggering 12 ties and 17 lead changes. It was fitting that it was the final First Four game of the tournament, and that the game finally ended just after midnight on Saint Patrick’s Day. Brey literally danced off the court, and likely danced all the way to the bus and then to the plane that would take the Irish on a reverse red-eye flight to San Diego and the first round of the NCAA tournament. 

It never would get any better than this magical March run for Brey in his time at Notre Dame. 

12: A rocket rise follows an historic week

Dec. 9, 2002 

It was arguably the most memorable seven days in program history as Notre Dame beat not one (No. 10 Marquette), not two (No. 8 and defending champion Maryland) but three (No. 2 Texas) Top 10 teams in that span to go from unranked in one Associated Press Top 25 poll to No. 10 in the next Associated Press Top 25 poll.  

At the time, it was the third-highest one-week jump in AP poll history. It was the highest entry point into the AP poll since the Irish were No. 4 … in 1979. The Irish would eventually spend a staggering 13 weeks inside the AP Top 10 (and as high as No. 5) in a season that saw them get back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 16 seasons. 

How good could this Notre Dame program be under Brey? He showed it during his third year, when they became nationally relevant again. In December. 

11: Notre Dame 70, Connecticut 67

March 5, 2011

What a way to cap the regular season — spoiling Connecticut’s Senior Day at Gampel Pavilion in one of the best (and biggest) road wins during Brey’s tenure. Notre Dame was just tougher in one of the conference’s toughest environments. Irish players spilled from the bench onto the court to celebrate at the final horn. Two days later, Notre Dame jumped to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. 

Think about that – No. 4 in the nation. A whoa moment for sure. 

10: Notre Dame 79, Duke 77

Jan. 4, 2014 

Welcome (back) the ACC, all right for Brey. Fitting that Notre Dame’s first-ever ACC game (and at home) was against Duke, the program where he served as an assistant for eight seasons. It will be remembered for former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton’s drive and dunk over Jabari Parker, which threatened to blow the roof off Purcell Pavilion. It also will be remembered as the first time a former Coach K assistant beat the old boss. It was the first of six wins for Brey over K. 

9: Notre Dame 116, Georgetown 111 (Four OTs)

Feb. 9, 2002 

Brey had family and friends behind the Irish bench at the Version Center. He had family and friends in one of the arena luxury suites. Everywhere he turned, he seemingly knew someone from the old neighborhood. The D.C. guy then coached one of the most memorable games in D.C. sports history. 

On a Saturday afternoon in the city’s Chinatown section, this is where the “loosest coach in America” moniker first took shape. Brey was anything but uptight as this one kept going and going and going. Go back and watch the end when he hugs former Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey near game’s end. Pure joy. 

In an era before cell phones became a must-have, Brey did a phone interview early the next morning from his home phone. A reporter called him from a pay phone in the Pittsburgh airport. Imagine that. 

8: Notre Dame 67, Wichita State 66

Nov. 22, 2017 

Yeah, this game will forever be known as the night when Brey took a walk on the wild (and weird) side when he removed his shirt and flexed (while wearing a traditional Hawaiian lei) in the locker room, but it was about way more than that. 

In Notre Dame’s previous trip to Maui (2008), Brey looked up on a wall of the Lahaina Civic Center which holds a list of the past champions of what is arguably the sport’s premier early-season tournament. He saw Arizona and Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, UConn and UCLA. Words couldn’t describe what it would mean to him to see the Notre Dame name alongside college basketball royalty. 

In 2017, the Notre Dame name forever went up on that winners’ wall. 

7: Notre Dame 71, North Carolina 70

Jan. 5, 2015 

In three previous trips to the Dean Smith Center dating back to 1986, Notre Dame had never won. It lost by 12 points, by 29 and by two. It wasn’t supposed to win on this Big Monday night, barely 48 hours after a grueling double-overtime home victory over Georgia Tech (the Jerian Grant dunk game). 

But win Notre Dame did, for the first (and currently only) time in Chapel Hill. There were early signs that this season might be special, but beating North Carolina in North Carolina helped slingshot that 2014-15 into another stratosphere. It was the first real sign that the Irish were for real. 

6: Notre Dame 104, Louisville 101 (Five OTs)

Feb. 9, 2013

Another multi-overtime Big East game with Brey at his best. In what became the longest regular-season game in league history, Brey kept preaching about how much fun he was having as it went to one extra five-minute period, then another and another. It seemed like it might not ever end, and that was OK with Brey, who kept his guys believing with each Russ Smith missed shot at the end of periods. Afterward, he was still smiling. Exhausted, but smiling. 

5: Notre Dame 95, Duke 91

Jan. 16, 2016 

As big as the program’s first victory at North Carolina was, this one was bigger. Unexpected and yet, in some ways, unbelievable. This one had everything — Rex Pflueger banging down a late-clock 3-pointer and then sticking out his tongue; Bonzie Colson doing a fly-by past Coach K after a bucket. There’s nothing better than silencing a home crowd with a league road win and the quiet of Cameron Indoor Stadium in the closing seconds was … crazy. 

This one meant a whole lot more to Brey than he led on. To go back to Durham and win in that building against that head coach and that program, you can’t put a price on it. Does it mean more to him than say, an NCAA tournament win? Maybe. 

4: Notre Dame 67, Butler 64 (OT)

March 21, 2015 

A true NCAA tournament classic with so many momentum swings and big plays and big moments – like the Connaughton block to send it to overtime. Only after this one went final and sent Notre Dame back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 12 years did we realize that Brey learned earlier in the day that his mother, Betty, had died in Florida. Brey decided to coach that game, and coach it for her. 

He would leave hours later to be with family in Florida, then return in time to get ready for Wichita State. How he balanced everything he had to balance in that moment is still staggering. 

3: Notre Dame 88, North Carolina State 58

Jan. 3, 2018 

That goofy GIF (is there any other kind?) still remains today with Brey doing sort of an Irish jig, but not really, while seated on the bench next to his assistants in the game’s closing seconds. 

The win was No. 394 for Brey at Notre Dame, which moved him past the legendary Digger Phelps and into the most wins in program history. Afterward, Brey and his staff and several within his inner circle celebrated with a few bottles of wine. And for good reason. After 18 seasons in South Bend, Brey had forever put his mark on the Irish men’s basketball program. 

This, finally, was HIS program. 

2: Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66

Elite Eight, NCAA Tournament, March 28, 2015 

Notre Dame lost a game it really should have/could have won to get to the Final Four (where it just might’ve won the whole thing), but given how far it had come that season — that March — this one will long be remembered. If you were there in Cleveland, you’d know. How the Irish stared down big, bad undefeated Kentucky. How the crowd turned in the Irish favor. How Brey, wearing that lucky green dress shirt, tried to squeeze just one more win out of his guys. 

Afterward, there were no tears. Not from the Irish. Not from Brey. Seven days after losing his mother, Brey had maxed out the most magical of postseason runs.  He had given everything he could. There was nothing left but exhaustion. And satisfaction. 

1: Notre Dame 90, North Carolina 82

ACC Tournament championship, March 14, 2015 

It still feels like it didn’t happen. When you realize that it really did, you then ask, well, how? 

How does Notre Dame stare down a sea of Duke blue in Greensboro Coliseum one night, then stare down a sea of Carolina blue the next and become the last team standing in the prestigious ACC tournament? 

Notre Dame didn’t so much win this game as it took it away from North Carolina, in North Carolina. The second half — as well as the decisive/devastating 24-2 run — was an absolute clinic of Brey’s brand of basketball at its best. The ball didn’t move. Guys made the extra pass. They made shots. They ran away from the Tar Heels and hid. 

For someone who grew up listening to the ACC tournament on the radio at school, then watching it when school was out, then coached in the league, to win it in his second season in the league was something Brey couldn’t quite comprehend. 

It was beyond Brey’s wildest of dreams. But it happened. It was real.