At a time when he often pondered his team's basketball future, Mike Brey instead decided his

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Everything about the job and his future doing it changed around Christmas. It was fitting that it was Christmas. 

The most wonderful time of the year for many had long been a time full of wonder for Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey. He would point to the holiday as the time when he could get away from everything and everybody and drill down about what the coming college basketball months might hold for him and his program. 

He did that personal Christmastime escape every year for the previous 22 he’s been on the Notre Dame sideline. A member of the Big East, a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, it didn’t much matter. Christmas for Brey didn’t mean presents and wrapping paper and Eggnog (or the occasional bottle of wine). It meant getting away and planning/plotting for the weeks ahead and how his Irish could make an all-important NCAA tournament run. 

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

Once Christmas ended, Brey was ready to roll. This past Christmas was different. He didn't think about the Irish. He thought more about himself. His future. He was ready to go. Leave. Walk off into one final ACC sunset. 

The winningest coach in Notre Dame history realized last month that the future wouldn’t include returning for a 24th season. Even though he has a contract that runs through 2024-25, Brey knew it was time for someone else to do the job he'd done for so long. 

“I’ve had 23 years; it’s been amazing; it’s been unbelievable,” Brey said Friday morning. “When you’re at a place for 23 years, you can get some fatigue of the routine. I think it’s fair to everybody involved to be up front and let everybody know where we are. 

“I just think a new voice is needed.” 

Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey speaks to the media Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, upon the announcement he’s stepping down at the end of the season after 23 years as head coach of the men’s basketball team.

On Thursday afternoon, news broke that Brey planned to step away following the end of the 2022-23 season. On Friday morning, Brey sat in the Notre Dame Stadium interview room and discussed the particulars about why and how it’s time for him — and for this Irish program — to go their separate ways. 

Why now? Why not wait? Because something had to happen, and sooner than later. The struggles the Irish (9-10 overall; 1-7 ACC) have had on the court — they've lost two straight, five of six and eight of 10 — have been overshadowed with constant speculation about the 63-year-old head coach. How he didn’t look well. How he hasn’t handled losing well. How he has seemed out of answers. Short of winning each of the remaining 12 league games, whispers about his future weren’t going away. 

That’s why Friday had to happen. 

“I just want our guys to try and focus and play,” Brey said. “My thought was, why don’t we give some clarification to this thing right now and see if it helps our group, and quite frankly, helps Notre Dame.” 

The past six seasons took a lot out of Brey — professionally and personally. He admitted that it started to turn during the 2017-18 season. Notre Dame won the Maui Invitational and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country. It then lost key seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell to foot and ankle injuries. That year ended with the Irish the 69th team in the all-important 68-team NCAA tournament field. 

“Karma’s been kind of weird since then,” Brey said, a big believer in program karma.

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

That year was hard for Brey to handle. So was 2018-19 when Notre Dame went 3-15 and finished last in the ACC. So was 2020-21 when Notre Dame successfully navigated a pandemic, but not the schedule (11-15, 7-11 ACC). So was last season’s record-setting run of 15-5 in the ACC, which got Notre Dame no better than an NCAA play-in game as an 11 seed. The best league season in school history and the Irish almost stayed home? It’s been Notre Dame’s only NCAA trip since 2017. 

“That’s how you’re measured, man,” he said. “We all know what we signed up for in this profession.” 

Brey said Friday that he contemplated leaving in March while on the charter flight back from San Diego and the NCAA tournament after Notre Dame won two games for the first time since 2016. Probably should have. It wasn’t going to get any better than going 15-5 in the ACC. Not with this group. But that itch passed without being scratched so Brey figured, why not give it one more try? His and his program’s version of “The Last Dance.” 

This dance won’t end anywhere close to the way that dance did. 

A burden of everything seemingly bursts

If you’ve ever been in the Notre Dame Stadium interview room where Friday’s 20-minute presser/media session was held, you understand how heavy the place can seem when something bad happens. Especially after a loss by the football team. When Notre Dame lost at home to Marshall in September, that room post-game felt two-ton heavy. When it lost to Stanford, again, the room again felt heavy. 

It felt Irish-lose-a-football-home-game heavy late Friday morning as the room began to fill in with media and Brey’s coaching staff, with current Irish and various campus leaders. For what seemed like an hour, everyone just kind of sat there. Nobody said much. Nobody did much. Having arrived five minutes ahead of the planned 11 a.m. start — typical for him to be early — Brey lingered outside, inside the stadium and stood against an old brick wall. When it was time to go in, Brey had to be pointed in the right direction of what door to enter. 

Players and colleagues listen as Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey speaks to the media Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, upon the announcement he’s stepping down at the end of the season after 23 years as head coach of the men’s basketball team.

Then, in classic Brey fashion, he opened with a joke to loosen up the room. 

“I gotta step down to get the football press conference room?” he said. “That’s unbelievable. I finally got over here.” 

He joked, just like he often does, yet he also seemed unburdened from it all, more than he has in the last few months as the job consumed him. The losing consumed him. Thursday’s news may have set Brey — and set his team — free from it all. 

Brey didn’t get choked up. He didn’t fight off tears. He didn’t pause for extended time to collect himself or his thoughts. He sat and he talked honestly and openly about knowing that it’s just time. Time for him to get out of Michiana — 23 South Bend winters were enough — and relocate. 

More:How did it go so wrong for Mike Brey and Notre Dame men's basketball this season?

Where? Likely to a home in Florida, close to his grandchildren, and another not too far from his D.C. roots. He floated the idea of coaching, doing like so many other outgoing coaches at every level do and leaving that door open. But when this season ends, wherever it ends, whenever it ends, however it ends, Brey will have coached his last game at this level. Period. 

“I’m excited about my next chapter,” he said. “I have no idea what the hell it’s going to be.” 

Brey never actively chased another job in his time at Notre Dame. He instead put his stamp on this program. It's his, and will be until somebody can come in and come close to doing what he did. But coaching today is a different game, far different than the one the former U.S. history teacher jumped in with both feet back as the junior varsity head coach at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School. It’s not just about X’s and O’s and taking care of the ball, but Name Image and Likeness and collectives and roster management. 

It’s not a game Brey will want to play anytime soon. Make that, at all. 

“I always felt this would be the last job,” he said. “It obviously is.” 

Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey speaks to the media Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, upon the announcement he’s stepping down at the end of the season after 23 years as head coach of the men’s basketball team.

Twenty-four years ago this July, Brey walked in the back door of the old Joyce Center for his hiring press conference on a Friday. For his I’m-leaving-at-season's-end presser, Brey walked in a side door of Notre Dame Stadium, also on a Friday. 

The circle’s complete. In the coming weeks, so will be Brey’s time at Notre Dame. 

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