Five questions the next Notre Dame men's basketball coach should ask about the program
SOUTH BEND — For the first time in more than two decades, Notre Dame men’s basketball program will embark this offseason and beyond into the great unknown.
Perhaps its greatest. In a world where college athletics looks nothing like it did even three years ago, let alone 23, Notre Dame men’s basketball will be challenged like never before. Not like it did when it jumped to the Big East in 1995. Not like it did when it moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013. How can the Irish reinvent and remain relevant?
Kind of intriguing, but also, a bit intimidating, no?
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What does the immediate and distant future look for the Irish? Who will lead this program? What can this program become? Under the direction of head coach Mike Brey for 23 seasons, we knew what to expect when it came to style of play and roster and makeup and its place in the Big East, then the ACC and in college basketball.
With Brey riding off into the college basketball coaching sunset after this season, everything we knew and assumed and presumed about Notre Dame men’s basketball goes up for grabs. First, Notre Dame needs a head coach. A new leader. A new direction.
Then, it gets interesting. Really interesting. Program-altering interesting.
Here are five questions any head coaching candidate who chooses to chase the opening might ask himself, and of the university, before proceeding.
1. Who's the boss?
It was no coincidence that Brey’s last contract extension (signed in April 2018) was targeted to take him through the 2024-25 season. That aligned with two of the most important campus leaders in terms of athletics — Brey’s boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and his boss, university president Rev. John Jenkins — whose contracts/leadership plans reportedly also run through the 2024-25 academic year.
The thinking inside the basketball office was that all three would kind of/sort of leave together. The ultimate package deal. Come 2025, it would be time across the board for new campus leadership, and the new leadership at the front end of the university would help to put in place a new leader for men’s basketball.
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Now what? Swarbrick may decide that he wants to work past the 2024-25 season, but what if he’s seen and done enough for his alma mater since taking the position in 2008? What if — after 20 years at that point — it’s time for Jenkins to pass the university’s presidency to someone else? Where would that leave the basketball coach, who would be finishing up only his second season?
In professional sports, the arrival of a new general manager often means the beginning of the end for the current manager or head coach of that team in that respect sport. The general manager wants their own hire in that spot. Same might hold true for a new athletic director, who basically is the general manager. Does a new AD (presuming there would be one) want to be tied to a head coach in arguably the second most important/visible sport on campus for the next X number of years?
Would the men’s basketball head coach feel comfortable reporting to someone who didn’t hire him? May not even know him? It’s an interesting/intriguing dynamic that may come into play.
2. What about the roster?
Three weeks after LSU launched Will Wade last spring amid ineffectiveness and inconsistencies and oh, by the way, an NCAA investigation into recruiting wrong-doing, it did not have a single scholarship player remaining on its roster. Not one. Everyone either was out of eligibility or scrambled into the transfer portal to find another hoops home.
Notre Dame likely won’t find itself in a similar situation (fingers crossed), but it might be close. Five Irish exhaust eligibility after the 2022-23 season. Guard Cormac Ryan likely will decide that a sixth year’s not for him. Freshmen Ven-Allen Lubin and J.J. Starling might lean the one-and-done route or seek a fresh start elsewhere. Fellow freshman Dom Campbell may also bounce after spending too much time on the bench and not enough time on the floor this season. Same for would-be seniors Tony Sanders and Matt Zona. Eventually, they want/have to play.
What happens with former South Bend Saint Joseph standout J.R. Konieczny? He hasn’t played in two years, and sat out this season to preserve a year of eligibility with the promise from Brey of a starting role next winter.
How will incoming freshmen guards Markus Burton, Brady Dunlap and Parker Friedrichsen be evaluated by the new staff? Needed? Expendable? We don’t know.
Where will that new staff concentrate its recruiting? The Midwest? The I-95 corridor? Wherever it can?
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Don’t hang your hat/hopes on the transfer portal. It’s no coincidence that since the portal turned college athletics into immediate free agency two years ago, the only two players Notre Dame has pulled from it were graduate students — Paul Atkinson (Yale) and Marcus Hammond (Niagara). Notre Dame’s not getting freshmen from the portal. Or sophomores. Or even juniors and seniors. The school won’t let it work that way. Will it relax its admissions standards some for the new guy?
The new coach won’t exactly walk into a stable roster situation, but that’s college basketball today, where change is constant.
3. Do you really want to follow Mike Brey?
Brey’s not a legend in terms of having to follow Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams, but he is the winningest coach in program history. He did stuff that few before him around these parts did. He went to multiple Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights and won the school’s only league tournament championship. He was good in the Big East. He was good in the ACC. He won more than he lost and he garnered a lot of favor around town in the process.
That means something. A fan base that gets disgruntled easily (it’s not the 1970s and early 80s anymore) was ready for change. It’s the old be-careful-what-you-wish-for adage. There will be a time or two as this program moves forward when you look at a move or a moment or a loss and think, yeah, that Brey guy would’ve done this or that and figured it out. Happens with every coaching change. It will happen with this one.
Brey won (yeah, not as much as many liked, but whatever) in ways a coach at Notre Dame shouldn’t have won. It’s a really hard job. It will be hard from someone to follow him. Harder than anyone wants to admit. Watch.
4. Can you check your ego at the Golden Dome?
This was something that Brey did better than anyone, and did more than any coach (they all have egos) could have or would have and honestly, should have.
He knew where Notre Dame men’s basketball stood in the university’s athletic pecking order, and rarely did he do anything to shake that status quo. At Notre Dame, the men’s basketball coach and his program aren’t going to get the breaks/leeway as they do in football. They just aren’t. They didn’t.
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The university accommodates football in ways it has no plans of ever doing for men’s basketball. Rolfs Hall is among the finest stand-alone practice facilities in the league, let alone the country. Trouble is, it might be TOO big in this way — there's too much empty space and not enough able/working bodies to fill it.
For years, Brey pushed and sometimes pleaded for ways to extend the basketball support staff. More administrators. More analysts. More help to do all that needs to be done when you play in one of the land’s most demanding leagues. Notre Dame never budged. It long as been a coaching staff, a minimal support staff and the roster. It remains three assistant coaches, a director of basketball operations, a video coordinator and that’s it.
It’s a way that too few programs — really good, borderline elite programs — operate. Last March, when Notre Dame played a second-round NCAA tournament game against Texas Tech, the Red Raiders’ team photo featured 47 individuals. There were coaches and players and trainers and support staff stacked atop support staff. That’s what perennial power programs look like today — a whole lot of help and resources and knowledgeable basketball people ready to assist. Not at Notre Dame, where staffing is stalled in the stone age. The program did it one way in the 1970s and 80s and in many ways, does it the same way today.
Brey was OK with being the second and sometimes third most important athletic act on campus. The next guy has to know/accept that.
5. How serious is Notre Dame about men's basketball?
As recently as 2018, the men’s basketball program was one without an offseason home. It didn’t have a dedicated gym to call its own, chased out of Purcell Pavilion and its basement practice facility every summer by something called America Youth on Parade.
That rarely bothered Brey, until he was almost smacked in the head with a baton while walking through the hall. Think that happens at a top 25, top 50, top 75 program?
Brey was asked Friday during his this-is-it presser about what he would tell his successor.
“This is a great basketball job,” he said. “It’s got everything it needs.”
Not quite. This is the part where Irish basketball loyalists will want to stick their fingers in their ears and respond with something along the lines of “la, la, la, la, we can’t hear you!!!” but the Notre Dame men’s basketball program is closer in an average year (and sometimes the above-average year) to being Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
It has/had nothing to do with the head coach.
In this NIL and transfer portal and one-and-done age, this is not an easy job. In the ACC, Notre Dame is expected to challenge the likes of Duke and North Carolina and Virginia and even Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech, but operate with the student-athlete emphasis on student like Boston College and Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
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You’re not getting many — if any — five-star guys. You’re getting really good students who can be good at basketball.
Why did Brey last for so long even when times got tough? Because the administration admired how he ran a clean program with good kids who went to class, graduated, represented the university and, oh, by the way, won enough to get to the occasional NCAA tournament.
That wasn’t enough for fans, but it was for the university hierarchy.
In many ways, it’s an average program expected to accomplish the above-average. That’s near impossible today, but the previous head coach made it all look possible. Good luck on the new guy doing the same. And more.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.