Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be coaching in the ACC for the University of Notre Dame. That is how crazy league expansion is. — Mike Brey, Notre Dame’s men’s basketball coach, March 14, 2015, after his team won the ACC Tournament Championship.
In September 2012, about a month after I assumed the position of chief communications executive for Notre Dame, we were trying to keep the lid on a big secret: Notre Dame was hoping to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports but football and hockey. We did a pretty good job of it right up through ACC meetings in North Carolina on the evening of September 11. The plan was that if the ACC presidents approved our entry, as expected, that night, Father John Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., University president, and Jack Swarbrick ’76, director of athletics, would fly down to Chapel Hill for a press conference first thing the next morning. We had chartered an executive jet with internet capability so we could track coverage and comments in the media. I would fly with them for that purpose, and to update our press releases.
When word came that our membership was a “go,” Swarbrick mobilized his plan to give word to his coaches early on the morning of the 12th. So far as I could tell, the secret had held both internally and externally, although within minutes of Swarbrick’s telling the coaches, we began getting press calls. Coaches are wise to keep a few friends in the media.
From all appearances, the person most excited by the news was Mike Brey. He had been an assistant coach at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski from 1987 to 1995, and he grew up in Maryland, which till recently, was prime ACC territory. (The University of Maryland has now joined the Big Ten.) So when Father Jenkins and I walked out the back of the Main Building to jump in Jack Swarbrick’s SUV to go to the airport, there was a surprise passenger – our men’s basketball coach, smiling like a kid on Christmas morning. To say he was ebullient (and chatty) would be toning down the story. Mike seemed to have soured a bit on the Big East, the conference ND would be leaving, and greatly admired the ACC.
Mike was so excited that when we got to Atlantic Aviation, the executive terminal at South Bend Regional Airport, a problem developed. In his rush to join in the ride down south, Mike had forgotten his wallet with his photo ID. The pilots of the rented aircraft had no idea who he was and required identification. Just as I was opening my laptop to show them a photo of Brey on the Notre Dame athletics web site, one of the employees of Atlantic Aviation convinced them that he was, in fact, Mike Brey, the Notre Dame coach. The pilots nodded approval and off we went.
It was a great trip to Chapel Hill where Mike saw many old friends, including Nathan Hatch, former Notre Dame provost, now president of Wake Forest (and a strong supporter of ND’s application for conference membership) and Bubba Cunningham ’84, ’88MBA, athletic director at UNC-Chapel Hill. Mike’s visible excitement lasted all day, including on the flight back, where he made a pretty good dent in the plane’s snack supply. Last season, ND’s first in the conference, was a rude initiation for Notre Dame with a league record of 6 wins and 12 losses.
But two and a half years after he hitchhiked our flight on a Wednesday morning in September, there he was, the happy warrior on late Saturday night, cutting down the nets in Greensboro after conquering Tobacco Road basketball powers, Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights. He was sitting atop the ACC basketball world, though from a distance at least, he still seemed pretty surprised by it all. He might not want to show his face in North Carolina right now, but for sure he wouldn’t need his ID.
Matt Storin is a retired journalist and a former director of communications at Notre Dame.