Here comes one more home game/good-bye for Notre Dame coach Mike Brey

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

On a steamy summer afternoon — the second Friday in July 2000 to be exact — he walked in the back door of the old building and down the northeast corner tunnel for the first time as the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach. 

The third coach in as many years for a program that needed a shot of something — a direction, a determination, a voice, a vision — wore a sport coat and a tie and the wide/confident smile of someone who couldn’t wait to get started at what he considered his dream job. 

If he did the job long enough and did it right despite all the obstacles, real or imagined, the program could become known around college basketball as HIS program. It would have his fingerprints all over it. It also would win. In November and December. In January and February. And especially in March, a month when the program never did for a good decade before he arrived. 

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Feb 11, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey waves to fans after the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

He followed a route that day to his introductory press conference that would become routine over the next two-plus decades. Through the heavy back door by arena receiving, then in the side door that house the team’s lounge on the other side. Many nights, first in the Big East and then, the last 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, he would have in his hand a Starbucks – venti black ice tea with three sweet and low sugars and no water – and the weight of the game on his shoulders. 

He’d be so consumed by what the Irish would have to do to win against Connecticut or Georgetown or Duke or North Carolina, that he couldn’t immediately recall the keypad code to open the door. What was it again? Could someone punch the proper numbers for him?

Eventually, he’d get into the player lounge, sit alone with thoughts and the game notes and his Starbucks, and then make that familiar trek — out the door, quick right turn, down the tunnel and out onto the basketball court of Purcell Pavilion. 

There, in Section 12, would be his then-wife and kids. His daughter would lean over the railing after games to give her father a high-five. Across the way was the Notre Dame bench. To the far right, the Notre Dame student section and the band, belting out the fight song. So often, the place would be packed, like that run when Notre Dame somehow won 45 consecutive home games as Purcell Pavilion became one of the toughest places in the country to play, right there alongside Rupp and the Phog and Cameron. 

True. Notre Dame once went a staggering 1,064 days between home losses.

For 390 home games over 23 seasons, he made that trek from the tunnel to the court to the bench, where he coached and coaxed his teams to beat the beasts of the Big East, then the elite of the ACC. On Wednesday, he’ll take that trip from the tunnel to the court to the bench for the 391st time. The final time. 

Senior Nights are emotional for many reasons when you’re the head coach. But this one’s different, because it’s HIS Senior Night. It’s the end.

Forty-one days have passed since Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey determined that this season would be his last on that sideline. His last with a program that is his. He’s leaving at season’s end and the finish line is getting really big out the front windshield of this college basketball journey. When Brey announced that it was time for him to leave, time for a new voice, time, that last home game against now first-place and No. 25 Pittsburgh seemed so distant. So did the end of a season that cannot end soon enough for a Notre Dame team (10-19; 2-16 ACC) that hasn't won a game in 31 days. 

We’re really at the series of “lasts” for the 63-year-old head coach, the winningest in program history. Monday was Brey’s last ACC coaches Zoom media call. Tuesday, his last gaggle with local media. Wednesday, his last home game. Saturday, his last road game (Clemson). Sometime next week in Greensboro, North Carolina, his last game as Irish coach. 

Then it will be time to go. To clean out the office. To sell his home. To move on to his next chapter, wherever it might lead. The Notre Dame book will be closed.

While everything changed, he remained the constant

Feb 11, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; A fan holds a sign thanking Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey during the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at the Purcell Pavilion. Brey announced he is stepping down from coaching at Notre Dame at the end of the season. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

How does Brey process all that he has to process after all those home games, all those wins (314), those losses (76), all those seasons and do it one more time? 

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “A lot of friends and people are coming to town. I’m looking forward to that. I’m trying not to concentrate on how good Pittsburgh is. 

“I made my mind up (Sunday) I’m going to enjoy it win, lose or draw.” 

Brey made a dry run at what this “last” business means last month in Durham, where he spent eight seasons as an assistant coach at Duke. Valentine’s Day night marked the last trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and it took a lot out of him. It was emotional beyond what he ever expected. After a game the Irish had a chance to win, he looked and sounded exhausted. He was glad to have that game and that moment in the rear-view. 

It allowed him to understand how to better embrace this final moment in Purcell. It’s not about winning the final Irish home game (though that would be fitting) as it is his chance to soak it in — the Victory March, the ambiance, the everything. A night to offer the coach thanks for all he’s done, and he did a lot. He did stuff for Notre Dame that nobody could’ve duplicated. Nobody. 

If you know college basketball, you know.  

As many as 30-plus former Irish players plan to be in the stands. Guys he’s long considered like sons will be there to send him off and say thanks, to spend some time with their old coach afterward and telling tall tales of the good, old days. Guys like Jordan Cornette, scheduled to call the game as an ESPN analyst. Guys like David Graves, who will make the trip from his home in Lexington, Kentucky. Tory Jackson plans to drive down from Michigan. Same for a group who now call Chicago home. There are whispers of a possible appearance by Troy Murphy, the first of three Irish to leave school early under Brey and still the last NBA lottery pick from Notre Dame. 

As Brey worked through his 10 allotted minutes on Monday’s Zoom call, he looked and sounded like someone at peace over what the next two weeks will bring. Those 23 seasons are down to days. In a quiet moment, there might be a few tears for all he did, might be some sadness for how it's ending. For now, for Brey, there’s a sense of gratitude. For the chance to spend 23 college basketball seasons in South Bend. For the chance to coach in two of the most cutthroat/competitive leagues in the country. For everything. 

“I’ve thought back a lot, reflected a lot through all the different things,” he said. “I’m really excited about the next phase, too.” 

Change around the Notre Dame athletic program was constant during Brey’s days. He was one of the few consistents. He coached over 70 players. He worked with a half-dozen assistant coaches. Everybody from the trainer to the athletic department administrator to the DOBO (director of basketball operations) to the SID (sports information director) turned over, sometimes more than once, since that July day in 2000. 

Brey worked for two athletic directors. One (Dr. Kevin White) hired him and another (Jack Swarbrick) said he could stay on as coach for as long as he wanted. Almost every one of the school’s 19 other sports (except men’s lacrosse) had at least one head coaching change. There were six different football coaches (if you count George O’Leary). Notre Dame basketball established an identity in two different leagues. The arena looks completely different than that day Brey walked in. So does the program.

He stayed. He succeeded. Now, though, it’s time to go. And he’s good with it. All of it. 

One more trip down the tunnel. One more game. One more walk out to the court and back. The ride's about over. 

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