In an increasingly complicated and demanding profession, Mike Brey kept his coaching philosophy simple and unwavering. “Go to class and don’t spin the ball, and we’ll get along just fine,” the mantra went. He ran a clean program and preferred clean basketball, and Notre Dame has benefited greatly from his 23-year tenure.
On Thursday afternoon, the school announced that Brey will be stepping down at the end of the season. When that time comes, Notre Dame’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach will have nearly 500 wins at the school, about 100 more wins than runner-up Digger Phelps. He has been a great fit for a long time, in a sport where homecomings tend to dry up quickly.
But barring an absurd miracle led by Brey’s lackluster final team, Phelps will still have the only Final Four appearance in Fighting Irish history, and that was 45 years ago. It’s an enduring mystery why Notre Dame has failed to rise to the top echelon of the sport for more than an occasional blink in time.
Catholic schools have had an immense historical impact on men’s varsity hoops. The list of national champions is long: Villanova three times; San Francisco twice; Georgetown, Marquette, Loyola Chicago, La Salle and Holy Cross once each. Several others have advanced to the NCAA tournament title game: Gonzaga (twice), Seton Hall, Dayton, Seattle, St. John’s.
Notre Dame? Never. The most ambitious and athletically successful of all Catholic schools reached that Final Four in 1978 and lost to Duke, who then lost to Kentucky for the title. And the Irish haven’t been back since.
That could have something to do with priorities, of course. Of the dozen or so schools listed above that have won a basketball title or played for one, none participate in football in a big way. Notre Dame pretty much invented football in a big way. That has always been the top sport under the Golden Dome.
However, that shouldn’t stop the Irish from being better at men’s basketball. It is not an either-or proposition. The women’s program has won two national championships, played in five title games and been to nine Final Fours, so it’s not like there’s anything at Purcell Pavilion holding Notre Dame back from greatness.
The boys’ program needs to find its own Muffet McGraw, a great coach who wanted to be at the school. Brey was that guy, philosophically aligned and willing to work within the restrictions of Notre Dame, but without the titles or the Final Four. His best break came in 2015, when that March came painfully close to being the greatest month in the history of the Fighting Irish men’s show.
Notre Dame entered Greensboro, the traditional heart of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and won the league tournament by beating Duke and Notre Carolina on successive nights. Given a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Irish beat Northeastern in the first round, outlasted Butler in overtime in the second, and then edged out Wichita State in the Sweet 16.
What stood between Brey and the Final Four was 37-0 Kentucky, an absolute juggernaut rife with NBA talent. The Irish played a smart, steely game, controlling the pace and battling against the bigger Wildcats on the inside, with neither team leading by more than six points. Following Brey’s credo, Notre Dame turned the ball over just once in the second half and led most of the final six minutes.
But star players Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton each missed a free throw during that final stretch, and Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison broke the tie by making two free throws with six seconds remaining. Grant’s three on the buzzer missed, and the chance to score an upset befitting the most famous victory in school history, breaking UCLA’s record of 88 game wins in 1974, had passed.
Brey brought Notre Dame back to the Elite Eight the following year as a No. 6 seed, but the Irish underdogs were blown out in the second half by North Carolina. From that moment on, the magic dissipated. Only two of Brey’s next six teams made it to the NCAA, and none of them advanced past the second round.
Last season felt like a goodbye. Brey coaxed a veteran cast plus freshman Blake Wesley (who would be a first-round pick) into the tournament as a No. 11 seed, then beat Rutgers in the First Four and stunned Alabama in the round of 64. Notre Dame had Texas Tech on the ropes late, but let it slip, and speculation of Brey’s retirement ran rampant at the time.
Instead, he returned, as did that team’s veteran core plus five-star freshman JJ Starling, but the results have been dismal. The Irish are 9-10 overall, just 1-7 in the ACC. When a 5-13 Florida State team came to South Bend Tuesday night and took a 29-8 lead en route to an easy win, everyone had seen enough.
There aren’t many trainers in the profession as highly regarded as Brey. If he has enemies, no one knows who he is. He is witty and never takes himself too seriously. He has assumed leadership positions within the coaching fraternity and has been an enthusiastic participant in discussions about the direction of the sport, both on and off the field. He, too, has been willing to talk about the pain points of the sport, while many of his colleagues have steered clear of the topic.
Brey was also everything Notre Dame hoped she would be. When he arrived after beginning his head coaching career at Delaware, the Irishman hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in a decade. Coming out of him, he’ll have at least 13 NCAA berths on his resume.
The only thing missing is what every Notre Dame coach who came before him has lacked: a national championship.