One more time in Cameron Indoor Stadium for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey
Good times. Good memories. Good-bye.
DURHAM, N.C. — Set aside the simplicity of the structure, which looks like just another academic building, and ignore the crazies who call the lower bleacher sections their home every college basketball season.
Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University was the ultimate basketball laboratory for someone who wanted to learn all aspects of the college coaching game. For eight years, Mike Brey did just that beside one of the game’s legends, Mike Krzyzewski.
Hired with no previous college coaching experience — hired right there at a table in the old S & J Bar/Restaurant down the road from DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland where he was a history teacher/varsity assistant coach — Brey had his hands in everything Duke after he arrived in 1987.
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He crafted scouting reports and practice plans and recruiting road maps. He suggested a few plays. He ran practices. He spent many a long night after games — win or lose — watching tape at Krzyzewski’s home until the sun came up. Sometimes, until after it already was up.
Spend the last 10 years in the Atlantic Coast Conference as Notre Dame has, and road trips — particularly to Tobacco Road — begin to blur. It’s the bus, the plane, another bus, the hotel, another bus, the gym, another bus, another plane and done. Rinse and repeat. One trip begins to feel like another and another and another.
This one this week for Notre Dame feels differently for Brey. On Tuesday, the 63-year-old will step back into Cameron Indoor Stadium one final time and coach the Irish after announcing last month that this year — his 23rd at Notre Dame — is his last.
Brey has worked at Cameron, Brey has won at Cameron. Brey has lost at Cameron. Brey has laughed and cried at Cameron. A lot of the college head coach that Brey became was because of Cameron. So yeah, this road trip in a season that cannot end soon enough for the Irish means a little more to him.
It’s another “last” along Brey’s final coaching days at Notre Dame. The last home game is coming. The last game (likely early in the ACC tournament) is coming. The last trip to a place he called his office for eight seasons as an assistant is here.
It’s special, no matter where the Irish (10-15 overall; 2-12 ACC) currently reside in the league standings.
“That decision, that Mike hired me as a high school coach (36) years ago, it opened up everything for me,” said Brey, who was 28 years old when he arrived at Duke. “The move that I made to Durham set me up for the rest of my career.”
This road trip and all it encompasses — a charter flight, a shoot-around, a scouting session, pre-game Mass — also is scheduled to include some time together for Brey and Krzyzewski, who retired last season after 42 years and five national championships at Duke. Sometime Tuesday, teacher and former pupil plan to sit and laugh and share stories of the days they spent together in Durham. In Cameron. In college basketball.
“I'm going to touch base and get with Mike; I want to catch him,” Brey said. “I would love to pick his brain on advice.”
The two haven’t talked since Brey announced last month that he was done when this season is over. There’s a lot to touch on. Brey joked that the two might even again team up, albeit on another kind of court with nets.
“We’ll probably be Pickleball teammates in a 60-and over league,” Brey joked. “We’ll probably play at the Final Four this April.”
He was kidding.
Wins in that building carry a little more meaning
Joking aside, this game, this week, mean more to Brey than he’ll let on. Just another game? No way.
When he steps back into Cameron this week, he cannot help but think of those eight seasons, where Duke averaged 26.8 wins, went to six Final Fours and won two national championships. He'll also think about that time in January 2016 when he watched Notre Dame walk out with its first-ever victory there, 95-91. It was the first of two career wins that Brey has in the building. It was the first time a former Krzyzewski assistant beat a Krzyzewski-coached team at Cameron.
Brey’s won a lot in a lot of places over his 23 seasons in South Bend, but that win that Saturday afternoon likely ranks near the top in terms of regular-season road wins. The win at Marquette to close the 2010 season and basically clinch an NCAA tournament trip (Brey: "It's over baby; it's a lock.") ranks up there. So does the Big Monday win at Pittsburgh (Ben Hansbrough going all Ben Hansbrough) in 2011. That regular-season finale win at Connecticut (the Tyrone Nash free throws game), also in 2011. Don’t forget 2015 when Notre Dame won for the first time eight miles down the road from Durham in Chapel Hill.
They’re all there. So is that one when Bonzie Colson came off the bench to burn the Blue Devils for 31 points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes and guards Demetrius Jackson (24 points, four assists) and Steve Vasturia (22 points, six rebounds, four assists) each logged 40 minutes. When then-freshman guard Rex Pflueger beat the shot clock with a crusher 3-pointer from out top with 3:10 to play, it sucked the remaining life/hope out of Cameron, which fell eerily silent. It was an Irish exclamation point on the day.
For Brey, there was no better program moment than when Notre Dame beat Duke.
“Anytime we were able to beat them, especially when Mike was there, it gave our program great credibility,” he said. “To win one in there when the place was rocking was unbelievable. That’s one of the greats. You talk about the things you remember in your career here, that was awesome.”
Notre Dame also won at Duke in 2021, but that one was different. Weird. That was the year college basketball patched together a regular season during a pandemic. That afternoon, there were no fans in Cameron. The arena was empty of them, and empty even of media as Irish guard Cormac Ryan scored a then-career high 28 points in a 93-89 victory.
There will be fans in the building Tuesday. There will be memories. There will be emotions. There will be an expectation that Notre Dame will lose just as it’s lost three straight and seven of eight and 10 of 12.
Brey will coach his guys up and maybe even get them to believe that they can win. He'll also take a look around before the game or during media timeouts or walking off the floor at halftime and again after the final horn and remember what it was like the first time he set foot in the place as an eager college assistant coach, and the last time he walks out of it, worn down by the grind that has become college coaching.
“I’m glad our guys get to compete in there,” Brey said. “It's a great opportunity; it’s a great experience.”
Good times. Good memories. Good-bye.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.