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End of an Era: Mike Brey's Final Lap At Notre Dame

By: Mike Stacey | Writer | Twitter: @MikeStaceyIT


Credit: Yahoo Sports


News broke yesterday that Notre Dame Head Basketball Coach Mike Brey would be stepping down at the end of the season. This came a couple days after a brutal loss to Florida State. A team that was winless on the road this season coming into Purcell Pavillion. It was another gut wrenching loss in a season that has been full of them. Notre Dame is coming off a year that saw them make it back to the Big Dance for the first time after a four year drought. This season, with this group of seniors and some talented incoming freshmen, the expectation was supposed to be similar results, if not better. Instead, it has been one head scratching performance after another. This isn't the first time that a Mike Brey lead team has struggled, but it is the first time that a team with this many seniors, with this type of experience, have seemingly no answers or fight. Each game we are left waiting for the Mike Brey magic to kick in and things to turn around like it has happened so many times before. Instead? Blown leads in the second half and awful losses to inferior teams that has lead to an abysmal 9-10 record and 1-7 in the ACC.


After their most recent loss to Florida State, I had a feeling that it may have been the last straw. I remember the game ending and for the first time in the Brey Era, I felt like there was no hope. This team was done, lifeless, and showed no hope of recovering. I immediately began to think about the very real possibility that this was Brey's last year. I did not think Notre Dame would ever fire him during the season, but I was confident that a change after the season was imminent. After thinking this over for a few minutes I became very intrigued with how his press conference would go. What would he say? How would he say it? Would he be the same old upbeat Brey and try to put a positive spin on this game, this season? Or would he seem as defeated as I felt as a fan. I got my answer in short order. I have seen Mike Brey upset before, (we all remember his post game that got him fined, ironically, after a Florida State game.) but this press conference was different. It was not simply him being upset, it was him being defeated. You could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, and feel it in his actions. He was a guy who knew the end was coming, and it was eating him up. The emotions that he did such a great job of keeping under control during his remarkable 23 year career at Notre Dame were beginning to spill out. He seemed unraveled as he talked about spoiling people, slapped the table several times, mimicked himself all while seemingly trying to do it in a funny way, although it was apparent there was no humor inside of him. This man, who had given so much to this program, knew he was approaching the end and it hurt.


Credit: Kenosha News


Mike Brey came to Notre Dame in 2000 and lead the Irish to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990. In fact, Brey lead the Irish to the Tourney in his first 3 seasons, including a trip to the sweet 16 in year 3. (Featuring one of my all time favorite Notre Dame players, Chris Thomas) After 3 straight years of making the tourney, he went 3 straight without making it. Brey rebounded by making the tournament 6 out of the next 8 years, however the Irish never made it past the 2nd round. What were great regular seasons in the Big East seemingly took a lot out of the Irish come post season. The Irish were no longer a pushover program, they were competing with the top teams in the top conference in college basketball all year long. However, come tourney time they were an easy and quick out. Just when I was wondering if Brey had taken the Irish as far as he could, the 2014-15 season came along...


Credit: Chicago Tribune


The 2014-15 season was something I will never forget. Lead by a starting lineup consisting of Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste and Steve "The Baby Faced Assassin" Vasturia, (Not to mention Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem off the bench). This team was the perfect blend of talent, selflessness, and heart. After finishing the season 3rd in the ACC, the Irish entered the ACC tournament as a bit of a dark horse. At this time, it was assumed either Duke, Louisville, or North Carolina would be the team to come out victorious. After all, Notre Dame had been nothing but a regular season team who couldn't hack it at the end of the year, but the Irish had other plans. Notre Dame began the tournament by knocking off Miami in the quarterfinals. Up next was a huge test, the #2 overall ranked Duke Blue Devils in their home state. Everybody and their mother had Duke to come out on top of this one, but Brey and his squad not only beat Duke but beat them by double digits. The Irish walked away with a 10 point victory and an appointment with North Carolina for the Championship.


Once again, Notre Dame was the underdog, facing another blue blood in their home state in a tournament they had plenty of experience winning. The game started off well for the Irish who went into half with the lead, but North Carolina came out hot to start the second half and built a lead that went as high as 9 points. The Irish refused to go down easy and with just under 8 minutes left in the game the Irish took the lead and never looked back, running away to an 8 point win and their first ever conference tournament championship under Mike Brey. This, in only their second season in the ACC. The Irish celebration was short lived as they had to prepare for the NCAA tourney, the same one that had been such a hinderance for them in years past. The good news was the Irish had a TON of momentum going into it, but would they have enough left in the tank to perform? Would they get bounced out early like back in the Big East Days? Fortunately, they had plenty left to give, and refused to let history repeat itself.


This was the first time since Brey's sweet 16 appearance in year 3 that he had made it back to the Sweet 16, but the Irish were not done there. After knocking off Wichita State, next up was a matchup with the juggernaut Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite 8. Kentucky was not only the overall #1 seed in the tourney, but they were a remarkable 37-0 going into the game. This was a lineup that included Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Tyler Ulis....coming off the bench! This game had all the makings of a David vs Goliath matchup, and staying true to their nickname, the Irish gave a David like performance. Notre Dame fought hard the entire game and showed they belonged on the same court as the mighty Wildcats. In the end, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kentucky proved to be just one possesion better after a Jerian Grant desperation 3 from the corner missed to end the Irish season. Even though it was a heartbreaking loss, the momentum for the program was very, very real.


Credit: Notre Dame Magazine


The following season started without Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton who were off to the NBA. Although there were high expectations, no one was expecting the Irish to replicate what they did the season before. With the emergence of Bonzie Colson, the Irish found themselves back in the Big Dance. After big wins over Michigan, a miracle tip in by Rex Pfleuger against Stephen F. Austin, and a 5 point victory over Wisconsin (who made it to the finals the year prior after giving Kentucky their only loss of the year) the Irish were back in the Elite 8. An incredible feat for Brey and his program. Unfortunately, once again, the Irish fell short of the Final Four. This loss was much more convincing than the past years, but the buzz around Mike Brey and his program could not have been any louder. The Irish were turning into a national presence in college hoops for the first time since the Digger days. Any doubt I had in coach Brey fell to the wayside, and I was ready for this to be the new normal in South Bend.


Unfortunately, Notre Dame could never sustain that momentum. The following year the Irish got bounced from the tournament in the second round. The next year, key injuries to Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell (Matt announced his retirement from basketball yesterday, before the Brey news broke) left the Irish as the first team out of the tournament. There was some hope, as next year's class would include Mike Brey's highest rated recruiting class in his career. However, this class, which still has some players playing today (Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski) never panned out. The Irish went 4 straight seasons of not making the NCAA Tournament (Covid canceled one of those post seasons, but the Irish were not going anyway) before finally making their return last season. The Irish played very well and made a drastic turn around from the previous year, finishing 2nd in the ACC. The Irish went on to win their play-in game and knock off a very tough Alabama team before falling just short against Texas Tech in the second round. Last year, once again, brought back some momentum to the Irish, but this year it did not carry over. Instead, this season has been nothing short of a disaster. A typical Mike Brey "old guys" team who is supposed to be the cream of the crop in his program, has played some of the worst basketball we have ever seen from a Brey team. So here we are....


Credit: IndyStar


Although Mike Brey is one of my favorite coaches of all time, I feel like it is time. At some point, all great rides need to come to an end, and it's time to take the keys away. Although all Irish fans would have loved to see Coach Brey exit on top, this should not diminish what he has done for this program. I remember the days of Notre Dame basketball before he got there. They were horrendous to put it honestly. He inherited a basketball program at a football school and made it not only respectable, but competitive at a national level for many years. He will end his career with the most wins in Notre Dame history and a .641 winning percentage over 23 years. That includes an incredible .805 winning percentage at home, the place where Mike Brey shined the most. Whether it be on the sidelines or up in the crowd with the students, the Mike Brey magic was palpable inside the Joyce Center/Purcell Pavillion. This is how I will remember him most. The loose coach in casual attire with a big smile on the sideline, willing an underdog team to pull one out in a game they have no business winning, urging the crowd to get even louder than they already are. This is where he was at his best. So as this year comes to a close and along with it, an era, I will be grateful for everything that Mike Brey has done for this program. And who knows, maybe he has a little bit of his old magic left in the tank for the finish. One last midseason turn around, one last trip into the crowd after a win, one last hilarious post conference before he says goodbye to the game for good. Thanks for the memories, coach.





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