Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
I’ll preface this entire article by stating, in plain language, that I am an ACC guy. When I’m being a fan, I watch college basketball through an ACC-tinted lense (“That guy is good, but he wouldn’t thrive in ACC pro-style offenses!”). It impacts everything I see, and when I move my primary viewing experience to the Big Ten (and I’ve already been watching plenty of it over the past two years in preparation), there will be an adjustment period.
Still, my mother is an Irish Catholic woman, and as a result I feel some odd, intangible connection to Notre Dame. Kind of like a cousin that you’ve met once at a family reunion, became Facebook friends, and that is the foundation of your relationship. I don’t pull for them, per se, but I do keep moderate tabs on their performance. And while I may not tell anyone about it, I still feel a slight tinge of warmth when something good happens to them. That’s my relationship with Notre Dame.
Fortunately for you folks, it means I’m very familiar with their basketball team, and in particular, their head coach Mike Brey. As the title suggests, you can’t really talk Notre Dame basketball without understanding who Mike Brey is. Just like you couldn’t talk Terps hoops in the 90’s and 00’s without mentioning Gary Williams, such is the case with Brey. As Maryland fans, you should probably know who Brey is as well, because he’s a DMV guy.
Brey grew up in Bethesda, Maryland and played for some powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School teams in the late 70’s under one of the best hoops coaches of all time, Morgan Wooten. Obviously, that kind of coach rubs off on everyone he meets, and it’s no surprise then that Brey entered the coaching game after college; first, as an assistant at DeMatha under Wooten, then as an assistant under Coach K at Duke in the late 80’s. Brey got a chance to learn from the best before taking on his first coaching job at Delaware in ’95, and subsequently guided them to two NCAA tournament berths and three straight 20+ win seasons.
They haven’t sniffed the tournament since he left.
Brey brought that success to Notre Dame and hasn’t really looked back. In the 443 games he’s coached the Fighting Irish, the team has won 67% of their games (295) while playing in one of the tougher conferences, the Big East. They’ve made the tournament 9 of the 13 season’s he’s coached there (excluding this year, so far), and while the haven’t advanced too far, that kind of continuity bodes well for the future. Brey puts a product on the court, year in and year out, that wins games. But why? What has made him so successful at Notre Dame?
Well, if you’re looking for a comparable coach in style, most seem to be alright with the Phil Jackson comparison. No, he’ll probably never have two fistfuls worth of rings, but in terms of attitude the comparison is apt. Brey is as laid back as they come. He’s not a Gary Williams possession-by-possession game manager as much as he’s a personality manager. There are stories of Brey just letting other players hold one another accountable during practice after a mistake, rather than even saying anything. Brey cracks jokes in practice, and his ego is left at the door.
His teams tend to reflect his loose, flexible style on the court as well. They tend to be mature groups that don’t make freshman mistakes even when they’re freshman laden, and rarely will you see the team play dumb ball. Sure, you could describe his teams as running a motion offense, but the reality is that they just don’t run an offense. Brey tends to want his players to utilize their innate abilities and refine them. If you’re good at posting up, then find time to post up. If you can shoot the basketball, then hang around the perimeter. As long as your game play is team oriented, Brey will ensure your role is understood and you can thrive in it.
Though Brey doesn’t get the acclaim that a lot of coaches get, especially since his Notre Dame teams are notorious for not advancing past the second round in the tournament, he is still well-regarded among peers. Ask Coach K what he thinks about Wooten, and he’ll tell you he’s a great coach and an even better educator of men. Brey’s learned from the best in that regard, and when he faces Maryland coach Mark Turgeon Wednesday night, the two will be coming from entirely different backgrounds.
While Brey has taken his lumps thus far adjusting to ACC basketball, there’s no doubting that will eventually find success. Hopefully it just isn’t against Maryland.