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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Quietly, Brey makes his mark in Big East

By Matt Fortuna

SOUTH BEND, IND. -- Mike Brey remembers being introduced to more than 200 Notre Dame alumni and fans 11 years ago at the Joyce Center, telling the gathering that he had been in love with two coaching jobs in his five previous years at Delaware.

"That's Notre Dame twice," he said, referring to his run at the job a year earlier, when he lost out to Matt Doherty. "I'll be very clear, Notre Dame twice, and I'm happy I'm here."

That moment dawned upon Brey last week when asked if he had felt like this was really his 12th go-round with the Irish, who are coming off a 27-win season that helped him notch his third conference coach of the year award in the past five seasons.

Brey
Mike Brey is about to start his 12th season as the coach of Notre Dame and he may soon find himself as the Big East's elder statesman.
"Everybody was, 'Well how long are you gonna stay?' Brey said. "And I said, 'My goal would be to stay here and do a good enough job that you'd let me retire here.' And everybody's like, 'Ah, yeah right.'

"My track record's pretty good after 12 years," he added with a laugh. "Here I am man, what else?"

Don't look now, but the Big East, barring extinction, may soon have a new elder statesman.

Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are on their way out, and the futures of both Jim Calhoun and Connecticut are cloudy at best. Enter Brey, who has ever-so-quietly rebuilt Notre Dame basketball over the past decade, amassing seven NCAA tournament berths and 238 wins through 11 seasons.

Rick Pitino may be more decorated, Bob Huggins may be older and John Thompson may have the better family name, but none have coached in the Big East as long as Brey, who trails just Boeheim and Calhoun.

"I do start thinking, in the league meetings now I do," Brey said of his longevity. "I remember when Jim [Boeheim] and Jim [Calhoun] took me under their wing 10 years ago, and they were great; they never needed to do that but they did. And they gave us younger guys, like Jay Wright and myself, advice. But now I thought about that at the meetings and I said, 'God, if Calhoun leaves the league, I'm the oldest guy.' So the the officials better start reporting to me on every dead ball."

A 10-year NCAA tournament drought preceded Brey at Notre Dame, which then made the Big Dance in his first three years, accelerating expectations and making the ensuing three campaigns -- each ending in the NIT -- all the more disappointing.

The Irish won at least 21 games (and at least 10 Big East games) in four of the next five years.

"To think that's the norm now, that we're pissed when we don't get a bid, I'm really proud of that," Brey said. "And it's not negotiable; it's something we wanna chase down. And I like the fact that people have said about us, 'You guys will find a way.' ... It's good to firmly kind of have your stamp on a program. And it takes a while to do that. That's why when you think about taking other jobs, to reinvent, it takes a lot of energy to reinvent and rebuild."

Which would explain why the Maryland native never made a serious run at a certain job opening in College Park when Gary Williams stepped down this past May.

The expectations at Notre Dame, enlarged as they may have become under Brey, are not those of Maryland's, nor will they likely ever be. After all, the Irish have reached just one Sweet 16 under Brey, and they have never made the Big East tournament final.

"I've said to our guys, 'I wonder what it would be like to cut the nets down in the Garden on Saturday night,' " Brey said, later adding, "So I guess deeper in the tournaments is the thing I think about."

Doing more with less has become Brey's trademark. Lacking the resources many of his conference brethren possess, he has become a rare breed in churning out many five-year players, who must adhere to a higher academic standard than most.

"The core expectation is that he's gonna maximize the talent each and every year, and I think he does that as well, if not better, than any coach in America," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "The old Bum Phillips line just applies to him directly: 'He'll take his'n and beat your'n, then he'll take your'n and beat his'n.' "

Swarbrick, who has been at the school for the past three basketball seasons, marvels at how many other administrators seek him out to compliment his coach, one who took on a bigger role in the game this past year as chairman of the NCAA Rules Committee.

"He's just become a guy that a lot of people look to in the industry," Swarbrick said. "And beyond being a great coach, he cares so much about the game and college athletics that he's sort of accepted that mantle. People just want to know what he thinks on key issues, how the game is played. And that's a tribute to him and it's a great thing for Notre Dame."

The 52-year-old Brey laughs when talking about coaches such as Marquette's Buzz Williams asking him for advice, as he recognizes that he has slowly but surely moved up the Big East totem pole.

And he knows that, soon enough, there will be no more 60-somethings like Boeheim and Calhoun to look up to. There will be him, tasked with ushering in a new wave of Big East coaches looking to set the standard for the conference.

"Those are the guys that have been the Mount Rushmore of it," Brey said. "I guess myself and Jay and Jamie [Dixon] are the next wave, and John. We're kind of that next wave of guys with it. But you feel a responsibility to help the guys. You feel a responsibility to carry the flag for the league, just like you carry the flag for Notre Dame.

"So it is hard to believe you can be one of the elder statesmen in this thing, and I look at the career wins and everything, and you look at the guys you're with -- that's pretty good territory. We're doing OK here I guess, last time I checked."