Far afield: The appreciation of Mike Brey

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

Among college basketball’s lifer-legends like Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun; among the earnest stewards of regal programs like Roy Williams, Bill Self and Ben Howland; among the slippery, the nomadic and the pugnacious, like John Calipari, Rick Pitino, and Tom Izzo, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey cuts a modest profile.

Brey’s the guy you hire to invest for the long haul. You take some losses, and progress feels slow at times, but years pass and the trajectory rises. It can be aggravating when the slick, aggressive types outperform the market. Or when the establishment whales continue to dominate, lulling you into doubts about slow and steady even competing, let alone winning the race.

Then a sudden stock surge, like the current Irish ascent into the top 10, prompts a closer look at the overall return on investment. After more than a decade at Notre Dame, Brey’s portfolio is impressive — surprisingly so. Especially so, measured against the program he inherited and the Big East competition he encounters night after slobberknocking night.

His tenure has now been long and successful enough — and strewn with enough regrets — that it’s easy to look back with more frustration than appreciation, to ignore the context of his accomplishments. Brey was named Big East Coach of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. In his first 10 seasons, Brey has taken the Irish to the NCAA tournament six times — soon to be seven in 11 years. In the 10 seasons before he arrived, Notre Dame did not receive a single NCAA bid.

Things descended to a post-Digger Phelps, pre-Big East nadir in the mid-90s, and the program hardly showed a hint of recovery before Matt Doherty blew in and out of town in 1999–2000. Losing him to North Carolina created a brief sense of deflation, but the spectacle of Doherty’s self-immolation there burnished Brey’s steady-burn approach.

Over time, though, that has been taken for granted, or dismissed as not ambitious enough. I did it myself from time to time in the South Bend Tribune, noting the talent Brey’s predecessors bequeathed, and his failure to build on the early success he conjured with it. Only one Sweet 16 in those NCAA appearances adds to the sense that the ceiling is lower than it should be. If Xavier and Butler can do it …

On the other hand, Notre Dame’s investment in men’s basketball doesn’t compare to programs in the same tony neighborhood. As a percentage of its football budget, Notre Dame spends less than any Big East team except Rutgers. Including the league’s basketball-only schools, the overall Irish men’s basketball budget ranks 12th out of 16, ahead of only Cincinnati, Rutgers, DePaul and South Florida. That’s despite an athletic department that ranks 13th in the nation in gross revenue. The closest Big East school to Notre Dame in that ranking is UConn, which stands at 40th.

Stretching a dollar might not be a sexy stat for a coach’s bio, but the college basketball arms race does not favor the frugal. Yet Brey has managed to go about his efficient business, compiling a solid bottom line with a consistency that’s unexpected in retrospect. Does it seem possible that, in 10 years, he has had only two losing conference records? This season Brey became just the sixth coach ever to win 100 regular-season Big East games. And behind Syracuse’s Boeheim and UConn’s Calhoun, he’s the league’s third longest-tenured coach.

Not so long ago, many people — present company included — would not have protested an early end to his tenure. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have done more with the resources at his disposal than Mike Brey.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.