End of an era: Notre Dame gave all it could, but it wasn't enough to extend Brey's tenure
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Everything about the events that had all unfolded out there on the basketball court still were swirling around his college basketball coaching head, so it would take some time to unpack what it all meant.
How did he feel? What did he feel? What’s next? How do you move on from something that's been such a massive part of your life? The game and the outcome and the possible plays that could’ve been made all were still too raw and right there to feel much of anything at that moment.
Last home game:One more night of magic for Notre Dame and Mike Brey at Purcell Pavilion
When he was in the moment, really in the moment, in those huddles deep into the second half of a first-round Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game against Virginia Tech that featured five ties and 16 lead changes, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey looked and sounded and acted like that guy who had the game by the you-know-what seven, eight years ago.
Remember those two seasons — first, in 2015 then again in 2016? Remember how much fun they were when Notre Dame was winning the first ACC tournament championship in school history and becoming the ONLY team in the country to make it to consecutive Elite Eights in that run? Those games. Those moments. Those arenas. Those players. Those wins. That rush.
Those were the times when seemingly nothing else in the college basketball universe mattered but being on some court in some arena, but in those huddles with those guys. His guys. Him as their coach.
That’s when Brey often shined. When everything about this sometimes-silly profession when your fate can be determined by a selection committee seemed to make the most sense.
It all made sense late Tuesday at Greensboro Coliseum. There in those huddles, spying Brey between the bodies and the legs and everything else sitting on one of those fold-out chairs. Arms going that way, some spit flying that way. Gyrating and talking and encouraging all at once before the buzzer sounded and it was time to go back to battle. His eyes were wild, but in a good way. A we’re-going-to-figure-this-out way.
That was Brey on Tuesday as Notre Dame looked to do what many figured couldn’t be done — extend its season one more night. Extend Brey’s time as the Irish head coach another day.
“It,” Brey said, “was kind of fun to be in one of those again with this group with more guys battling and swinging. I emptied the tank, too. It was great."
And it had to be close. Had to be. Bow out by barely showing up as Notre Dame did three nights earlier at Clemson? Not an option. Yeah, this one was going to be close, was going to swing on a handful of possessions/decisions.
“It was one of those," Brey said. "Certainly we haven’t had many of those this year, but we have had a lot in my career, where you’re just wheeling and dealing.”
When this one went final at 9:07 p.m. after a Nate Laszewski good look at a 3 didn’t drop — Virginia Tech 67, Notre Dame 64 - Brey clapped his hands once and headed to the handshake line. Another good race run, just not won. He had crossed the finish line a final time as the Notre Dame guy.
It was over. After 23 seasons. After 8,271 days. After 483 wins. After a ride that no one saw coming and one some wondered might never end, Brey the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach now is Brey the former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach. It’s surreal to write, still stranger to say out loud, even after Brey announced back in January that for everyone’s sake, this season would be his last.
After his final press conference, one in which he had no hesitation about ripping an officiating crew he felt was in over its collective heads for making what he felt was an unnecessary flagrant foul call on forward Matt Zona in the closing minutes, Brey climbed down a short set of stairs, went up another set, turned right, trekked down a hallway, took a left and settled into a corner, away from view of the Notre Dame traveling party. Away from view of his bosses — athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John Jenkins. Away from everybody.
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He needed a minute and stood with his back against a cinder-block wall for support. Alone really for the first time since everything ended, he exhaled. Then he smiled.
“I really thought we could get it,” he said. “It’s been a long winter, man. A long winter. What was it? Thirty-two days (between wins?)”
Another close game that the Irish cannot close
Through those 31 days between wins, through a losing streak that hit seven and a season that went off the rails worse than anyone could imagine, Brey smiled because everything about his final game really encapsulated many of his really good teams — and his/their best moments. There were the Irish, losers of a school record 17 league games swinging and scrambling out of a 12-point first-half hole. Notre Dame (11-21) would lead by five points with under five minutes remaining. It would lead by four with under four minutes remaining.
During one huddle, assistant coach Antoni Wyche barked that Virginia Tech big man Grant Basile was back in the game. That triggered something in the 63-year-old head coach.
“I said, ‘Woooooohooooo, Basile’s back,” Brey said. “We’re going at him. The guys were like, what? I said, keep taking it to him. We did a good job of that for a while.”
Six days earlier, back in Northern Indiana for his final home game, Brey wondered quietly to the basketball Gods if they could give him one more special night. Then he wouldn’t ask for another. Notre Dame then beat a ranked Pittsburgh team. Sitting alone on the Irish bench to start the second half, his head bowed, it was as if Brey was asking for another night. Just one more. Please.
It wasn’t to be. As had been the case so many times this winter, Notre Dame couldn’t close. The Irish couldn’t do this. They couldn’t do that. They turned it over when they couldn’t afford to turn it over. They gave up a crusher corner 3 — and from freshman Rodney Rice who, like Brey, is a DeMatha Catholic (Md.) High School guy. Virginia Tech made all the plays and the shots down the stretch.
Notre Dame couldn’t make enough. That was the story of this last season. The Irish wanted to win, they tried to win, they often gave everything they could to win, but they often didn’t win.
“Man, it’s been hard for us to close,” Brey said. “We were sniffing around it, but …”
Brey couldn’t help but smile and think of this run, now over. He’d head back to the team hotel on the team bus, then spend a quiet night at the Sheraton Four Seasons with staff and program support personnel. He planned to smoke a cigar. Maybe toast those 23 seasons and all those moments so few of us did see.
"You need time to decompress," Brey said. "When you're in the season, you're just grinding every day. We'll take a couple deep breaths. Tonight, we're just going to lay low."
On Wednesday, he’d wake for the first time since July 13, 2000 as just a basketball coach. Not the Notre Dame basketball coach. Brey didn’t travel back to Indiana with the team on Wednesday. He planned to spend a few days out East visiting his daughter, then work his way back to Notre Dame. A bit of business awaited his return.
“I gotta get my office cleaned out by Friday,” he insisted, then explained that the timetable's all his. “I gotta get out of there. I don’t think I need to be in there every day. We’re working on everything.”
Cleaning out his office at Rolfs Hall might be when the reality really sets in. It didn’t late Tuesday, or likely early Wednesday. It will take a few days. Might take a few weeks. We've all known this day has been coming since January. Still, when it's here, it hits differently.
It's really all over. Yes, it's time to go. Brey knows it. His bosses know it. We know it. Still, it's sad. Not because it ended Tuesday on Tobacco Road, because everything eventually ends. Sad because the foundation of culture and winning and consistency that Brey built has been reduced to rubble. This program soon won't be recognizable. In some ways, it already is.
For a long time, winning again at the level Brey won might be only a rumor. That's a column for another spring day.
Tuesday was the third and final game of the first day of the tournament. Barely an hour after the buzzer, everything about the Coliseum had gone quiet — the media room, the parking lot, the traffic flow around the area. Everything. Brey was back on the team bus for one more ride.
Nine years earlier, in Notre Dame’s first run through an ACC season, the Irish lost their first tournament game on a Tuesday. Two more games that day followed. No games followed this one, and that was fitting. An end of a basketball day, an end to a Notre Dame coaching career.
“What Coach has done for the program and to basically wear the jersey and have Notre Dame basketball mean something is special,” senior guard Cormac Ryan said as he wrestled with his emotions. “We're extremely grateful to have been a part of that. Notre Dame is a heck of an institution in so many ways.
"To bring basketball to the forefront of that is not easy."
Brey made it look easy. Now it gets hard.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
VIRGINIA TECH 67, NOTRE DAME 64
NOTRE DAME (64): Laszewski 2-8 0-0 4, Goodwin 2-7 1-1 6, Hammond 9-16 3-4 23, Ryan 7-14 2-2 18, Wertz 1-7 2-2 4, Zona 3-4 0-1 9, Lubin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-56 8-10 64.
VIRGINIA TECH (67): Basile 7-11 4-5 20, Mutts 8-14 2-4 18, Cattoor 3-6 2-2 11, Collins 1-5 0-0 2, Pedulla 4-9 4-6 13, Rice 1-3 0-0 3, Poteat 0-1 0-2 0, Kidd 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-50 12-19 67.
Halftime: Virginia Tech 33-32. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 8-21 (Zona 3-4, Hammond 2-5, Ryan 2-6, Goodwin 1-2, Laszewski 0-2, Wertz 0-2), Virginia Tech 7-19 (Cattoor 3-4, Basile 2-5, Rice 1-2, Pedulla 1-4, Mutts 0-1, Collins 0-3). Fouled Out: Zona. Rebounds: Notre Dame 27 (Laszewski 6), Virginia Tech 29 (Mutts 13). Assists: Notre Dame 8 (Wertz 4), Virginia Tech 10 (Mutts 4). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 18, Virginia Tech 15. A_7,231 (23,500).