Mike Brey reportedly lands coaching job at USF before Notre Dame introduces his successor

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

(Editor's note: According to an ESPN report on March 21, Mike Brey never received a contract offer to coach at USF. He plans on taking the 2023-24 season off from coaching, and possibly working in a role of college basketball television analyst. That news broke after this column was published).

He just couldn’t do it. Any of it. 

He couldn’t see himself walking the Florida beaches every afternoon with his grandchildren and son and daughter-in-law nearby. He couldn’t see himself parachuting into television, where he’d crush it but also have to offer opinions on others he once considered colleagues. He couldn’t see himself working as a coaching consultant or joining up with old Duke friends Danny Ferry and Quin Snyder as a special advisor with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. 

Former Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey couldn’t see himself doing any of that after leaving behind the job he held for the last 23 years. After nearly four decades in the college game, the 64-year-old Brey (his birthday was March 22) couldn’t see himself not still in it. 

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Coaches coach. Coaches all believe they have that one more move left in them. Brey just made his. Thirteen days after he coached his last game at Notre Dame, Brey already is back after reportedly having agreed to become the head coach at the University of South Florida in Tampa. 

Published reports indicated that he could be introduced as early as Tuesday. Brey told those closest to him at Notre Dame late last week that he was taking the USF job. 

The move fits. Kind of. Son Kyle and his wife and their three kids live in nearby Bradenton. His brother, Shane and sister, Brenda, both are Florida residents. Brey planned to split his “retirement” time between Florida and Washington anyway. He’s already moved out of his Rolfs Hall office and his home in Niles, Michigan recently sold. 

Mar 1, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey enters the Purcell Pavilion before the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good time to get to Florida, roll up the sleeves and get back to doing what he believes he was long born to do. Coach. Teach. Educate. Be around young kids today and help shape their lives of tomorrow. 

Brey talked often in his final days at Notre Dame about remaining around the program and the university in some way. He'd help athletic director Jack Swarbrick find his replacement. He’d be a program advisor. He'd even return to campus on fall football weekends to tailgate. He’d be around. Yeah, sure. 

He’s going to Florida, and he’s not coming back. Seldom. Maybe ever. South Florida fits Brey, even more so than the job at Georgetown, where he was said to be on the short list to replace Hoya legend Patrick Ewing. It seemed too perfect — Brey returning to his DMV roots and coaching a team in the center of a city he loves. But the more he thought on it, the more he didn’t want it. Couldn’t do it. 

Don’t let me take the Georgetown job, he told those close to him. On Monday, that job went to former Providence coach Ed Cooley.

End of an era:End of an era: Notre Dame gave all it could, but it wasn't enough to extend Brey's tenure

Thinking of coaching at Georgetown rekindled memories of those trips he often made home when Notre Dame was a Big East colleague. It was hard to focus on the game with so many family members and friends and familiar faces scattered about the then-Verizon Center stands. Games at Georgetown meant renting out an arena suite at $3,000 a pop. It meant having his mentor, legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, seated behind the Irish bench. It meant trying to concentrate on the game, but not always being able to with so many distractions. 

Afterward, Brey couldn’t get back on the team bus and out to Reagan National Airport fast enough. Back then, the Irish traveled commercially, and there was that early-evening USAir flight to catch, then a connection in Pittsburgh. Every time he left all that behind and landed back in South Bend, he was glad he had to do it only once a season. 

Take the Georgetown job and that would happen every single home game. Hey, Mike, remember me from DeMatha? Hey, Mike, went to school with you at George Washington. Hey, Mike, can I get some tickets? Hey, Mike... 

Coaching at Georgetown would’ve divided too much of his attention. Down in Tampa, he can just be the coach. 

He just couldn't leave it behind

USF also was once a Big East colleague. Brey enjoyed success on those trips to the old Sun Dome, now known as the Yuengling Center. Notre Dame usually would play on a Saturday and usually return to snowy South Bend with a nice league road win. On many of those trips, Brey’s parents, who have since passed, would drive down from their home in The Villages and be seated in the front row behind the Irish bench. Florida has long felt like a second home to Brey. 

When the notion of coaching at USF got rolling early last week, Brey reminded athletic director Michael Kelly, also a D.C. area native, that he went a career 10-1 against USF. He won his last eight against the Bulls, four in Tampa. He considered the opportunity “intriguing.” 

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey sings the alma mater with the Notre Dame Leprechaun, Dane Goodwin (23), and Nate Laszewski (14) after the team's win over Pittsburgh inan NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Caterina)

It’s not that great of a job. Maybe not even a good one. Or average one. Does the guy who carved an identity in the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conference have enough in him to go and do all that again? 

The Bulls are coming off a 14-18 season, 7-11 in the American Athletic Conference. It was the last of six years for coach Brian Gregory. USF has staggered through four straight losing seasons and 11 of the last 12. Five times in that stretch, the program failed to win at least 10 games. It’s never had a winning league record in 10 years in the American. It hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2012. 

Brey’s coaching reboot means a program rebuild. He insisted as early as mid-February that he wasn’t done coaching. Even then, he wasn’t truly convinced. Just trying to keep his name out there, he would tell those around him. Coaching, at least at that time, maybe meant coaching up his grandchildren in their youth leagues. College coaching? Maybe not then. Maybe not ever. 

Two days in Greensboro earlier this month for the ACC tournament showed both sides of how Brey bounced between walking away and staying engaged. 

On that off-day Monday, barely 24 hours before he coached his last game at Notre Dame, Brey was anything but the “loosest coach in America” as he often described himself. During the team’s open practice at Greensboro Coliseum, Brey paced the court like someone who realized the end of his Irish run was near. There was little energy and even less enthusiasm. He seemed a man resigned to leaving everything behind and walking off into the college basketball sunset. 

He looked like he wanted nothing more to do with coaching. He’d end 17 wins shy of 500 wins at Notre Dame, 18 away from 600 overall. That was OK. 

Until the next night, when he was in huddles deep into the second half of a close contest against Virginia Tech. For much of the previous month, heck, for much of all season, Brey seemed like someone whose energy tank had hit empty. He had so little of it left

That night in Greensboro, he tapped back into it. He was animated in those huddles. He spoke excitedly. He couldn’t sit still on the bench for even a possession. He coaxed his guys to keep believing. Notre Dame nearly pulled off a first-round tournament upset. 

When it was over, Brey seemed at peace in a way, knowing/believing that he still had something to give to the game. 

USF now gets it. 

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