I am not a Notre Dame basketball fan, but I do love the sport and watch it constantly. It is the one sport I can still sit down and watch a game where one of my favorites teams isn’t playing and I don’t have money on the game. As a fan of the game, I have been a big fan of Mike Brey for the past 22 seasons at the helm of the Irish. I think he might be the most underrated college basketball coach in the game, but like almost every coach and player at the end of their career, the rumors and pressure that he might no longer be the best guy to keep leading the program have been growing louder and louder.
Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and John Wooden, are names in coaching that bring up clear associations with teams and programs. They are names that are synonymous with winning, and these are all guys who walked away from the game they loved and the coaching profession while they were still highly successful. They are the rarity in sports, more importantly in college sports. Typically the grind of recruiting and possibly the change in generational attitudes usually will cause once highly successful coaches to fade from glory until they are pressured by their schools to resign or retire.
Bobby Knight’s last 12 seasons coaching at two different schools saw him advance to just one Sweet 16 and win double digit conference games in only half those seasons. Not a horrible resume, but far from the precedent he had established. Gene Keady’s fall from grace at Purdue was even worse. His final six seasons after reaching an elite eight saw him make just one NCAA tournament with that same season being the only time he reached double digit conference wins. By comparison, Digger Phelps, who is long considered to be the best basketball coach in Notre Dame history, retired at the age of 50 after Notre Dame had their first losing season in nearly a decade under his leadership. It was another decade after his retirement before Notre Dame returned to the NCAA tournament, in Mike Brey’s first season as coach.
The problem with having an all-time program great in charge for the administration is deciding when to pull the plug. After all, the reason they are an all-time great is because of what they have done for your school and the program in the past. However, there is the delicate balance between honoring past success without sabotaging future teams. The further an administration allows a program’s profile to fall, the more difficult it can be get good coaches to take over and attract high level recruits. Matt Painter only won 9 games in his initial season as coach at Purdue, but he was able to quickly re-establish the program. Following Bob Knight’s departure, Indiana has endured a roller coaster of seasons. They managed to reach a Final Four not long after his removal and climb to number 1 in the rankings in 2013, but the once nationally prominent program has missed the NCAA tournament more times than they have made it since he was fired in 2000.
Entering this season, it seemed that Notre Dame basketball under Mike Brey was at the same crossroads. Brey is the program’s all-time winningest coach with 452 wins, but the recent trend has not been up to the standards he had established following back to back elite eight appearances in 2016 and 2017. In the five full seasons since those tournament runs, Notre Dame has only made one tournament and has experienced two losing seasons, one more than Brey had experienced since taking over the dormant program.
Entering Saturday’s game against Kentucky at 4-4, it felt like this was Mike Brey’s last stand at Notre Dame. It was Notre Dame’s last chance to notch a resume building win for the NCAA tournament out of conference. The ACC seems like a place to compile a lot of wins this year, but not the kind that will provide much boost for tournament hopefuls. The game also felt like it was a tipping point for this current team. Win this game and it gives you a jolt heading into another rivalry game against Indiana next week. Lose, and Brey ran the risk of seeing this senior laden team start to check out and put him in an even more precarious situation regarding his job status as the season meandered through the winter months.
Those that follow college basketball and have had the chance to be around the Notre Dame program know what a great guy Mike Brey has been over the years and what a great job he has done. Under Brey’s tenure, Notre Dame has transitioned from the Big East to the ACC with perennial powers Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, and Syracuse all making annual appearances on the schedule. Despite struggling to fill its newly renovated arena to half capacity for the majority of their early season games, Brey has managed to attract good talent from across the country to play for his program. Notre Dame’s entertaining style of basketball attracts recruits, but struggles to attract football crazed fans. Early season non-conference games take on a high school feel, often times with local high school bands and cheerleaders filling in for the college students that follow the football team. It is not uncommon to have so few fans in the stands that you can hear individual fan yelling at the refs or coaches calling out instructions during the game. Despite all of this, Mike Brey had developed Notre Dame into a top tier ACC program.
Unfortunately, during recent seasons the program has endured more on-court struggles than they ever have during Brey’s tenure. Notre Dame’s athletic department seemed to be staring down the barrel of having to make a tough decision on its winningest coach of all time. The even bigger problem for Notre Dame is trying to size up how attractive this job might be for a proven coach if Brey were to be dismissed. It cannot be an easy sales pitch to convince top recruits to come to a school that plays in front of a few thousand fans until January rolls around, and even then the local sports talk is more consumed with the football team’s recruiting class than the basketball team’s on-court performance. However, does the athletic department allow the program to keep sinking to the days after Digger Phelps resigned and risk enduring a decade of irrelevance?
For those reasons, it felt like Saturday versus Kentucky was Brey’s last stand, for now, as the head coach at Notre Dame. It’s why fans of college basketball were thrilled to see him get the win over the Kentucky Wildcats, who simply need to contact top recruits to draw their attention. Mike Brey deserves to go out on his own terms at Notre Dame, but even he knows he must produce results. Even though I’m not a Notre Dame fan, I will be rooting for him and for his success. I am a Mike Brey fan, and I want to see him regain the level of success he had a few years ago at Notre Dame. It’s not likely, but it doesn’t mean we can’t root for him. As the world of sports goes, he bought himself a week of good vibes. Another win over Indiana on Sunday could go a long way towards catapulting this team towards NCAA tournament consideration in March. I’m sure Brey will face more criticism and tests regarding his coaching future at Notre Dame in the coming months, and possibly years, but as a fan I’m really glad he came out victorious in what felt like his first, last stand.