48 Hours With the Most Underrated Coach in College Basketball

Sporting the look of a guy who just dominated a rec league game, Mike Brey sits decked out in running shoes, jogging pants, and a long-sleeve waffle T-shirt. He appears impossibly relaxed for a guy riding a four-game losing streak and sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble in early February. Facing the entrance of his regular breakfast spot near campus, he takes stock of his usual order: three poached eggs, a side of blueberries, and bacon — extra crispy. He drinks iced tea that’s brewed extra strong and stored in a special pitcher just for him. Between sips, he flashes the full-toothed smile that regularly makes appearances during the most critical moments of high-profile games. It’s earned him the title of “loosest coach in America.”

Notre Dame’s most recent loss came to 12th-ranked North Carolina. In the moments before tipoff, star forward Bonzie Colson realized he needed to relieve himself at a urinal. He returned to the huddle, Brey stared him down and asked: “Did you wipe?”

But it’s more than just good humor that sets Brey apart: His in-game coaching style is more laid back than anyone else’s you’ll see, evidenced most clearly during a five-overtime win over Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad four years ago. He treated the extra 25 minutes like they were a joy ride in a Lamborghini, while a joyless Pitino stalked the sidelines unleashing a barrage of profanity even a novice lip-reader could decipher. “They tie themself up in knots,” Brey says of his players. “It’s my job to untie the knots.”

His unorthodox style has guided Notre Dame to Elite 8 appearances in each of the last two years, a feat no other school in the country managed to match. The Irish won the 2015 ACC Tournament, beating bluebloods Duke and North Carolina in the final two rounds. Before Notre Dame’s move to the ACC in 2013, Brey won Big East Coach of the Year three times, and he took every major national Coach of the Year award in 2012. Yet the third-longest-tenured coach in major college basketball remains the most underrated in his sport — and maybe even all of American sports.

As Brey finishes his breakfast, he rarely mentions Notre Dame’s game against Wake Forest later that night, or the mounting pressure to turn things around. He’s confident in a game plan he expects will derail the Demon Deacons’ two-game winning streak. Instead he banters with the restaurant owner, who asks how he is doing. “Good, man,” Brey responds, “Just trying to bounce back.”

“I haven’t been following,” replies the owner. “Have we lost a couple?”

They have. And despite Brey’s reputation for rolling with the punches, it’s wearing on him.

*****

Twenty-four hours earlier, nearly to the minute, Brey is inconsolably agitated. He sits glued to a desk chair at the head of a stout wooden table. He’s surrounded by file cabinets, which appear to be unused, in a space that could otherwise be mistaken as a conference room for rent if it weren’t for game tape rolling on a screen in the center of the room. To his right, there are three white boards full of proprietary information concerning the Wake Forest game.

“At this time of year, you spend so much time in that little conference room, those walls start creeping in on you, man,” Brey tells me. “I usually have about an hour in there, [then] I gotta get out.”

But that room serves as central command for the program’s brain trust, including a five-man staff that has known its chief executive more than a combined 80 years. Each of them played for Brey.

The group is negotiating an unusual and inconvenient set of circumstances. Their previous game, the loss to North Carolina, was scheduled for Saturday but moved back a day, to Super Bowl Sunday, because a water main broke near the Tar Heels’ campus in Chapel Hill, leaving the Irish only one full day to prepare for its Tuesday affair with the Demon Deacons. The ACC schedules two days, at minimum, between games, and that extra day is vital for Brey, who plays his starters heavy minutes.

Brey runs his hands through his hair, thinking aloud: “We can’t push them too hard today, can we?” He’s certain of it, but seeks affirmation from a staff that’s clearly paid, in part, to dissent at the appropriate time. But they shake their heads in unison. The team arrived in South Bend sometime after the first quarter of the Super Bowl. Brey had pizza and wings ready for them in the team room, and he told the training staff to immediately start the ice baths.

Through the team’s early afternoon film session the next day, into practice, before mass, and at team dinner, Brey ponders how he’ll shut down one of the conference’s most potent offenses. It causes Brey’s stream of consciousness to take sharp turns. He’ll begin discussing one way of defending Wake Forest — there are about six methods he considers — then appears dissatisfied and brings up an entirely new topic to recalibrate his thoughts. Like the need to vary team dinners by February. Or he’ll head to the buffet for seconds. On this particular Monday night, it’s almond-crusted chicken, an assortment of vegetables, pasta, and salad bar.

Such conundrums can easily plague a coach into the late hours of the night. Brey is asleep by 9:30.

*****

Brey played three seasons of college basketball at Northwestern Louisiana State before using his final year of eligibility at George Washington, where he was asked to return as a graduate assistant. But instead, he went back to coach at his other alma mater, DeMatha High School, after his former coach convinced him it’d be more beneficial for his career. There Brey was exposed to networking opportunities that would make a LinkedIn fanatic blush: North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Virginia’s Terry Holland, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were regulars at DeMatha practices, recruiting players at what had become a national powerhouse. During the 1984–'85 season those practices became the battleground of one of the most notorious recruitments in college history. The prize: DeMatha’s Danny Ferry, who ultimately decided on Duke and played a decade in the NBA. For Brey, it was a de facto interview for the most prestigious apprenticeship in the history of the game.

In 1987 Brey made the jump from DeMatha to Duke, where he would sit on the bench for one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. In his eight years as an assistant, Duke went to six Final Fours, winning back-to-back national championships in 1991 and 1992. In 1995, Brey, 36, got his first job as a head coach at Delaware.

“[Krzyzewski] really did prepare me,” Brey says. “I got my hands on everything at Duke. Eight seasons and I was really prepared, and then Delaware was just a great fit. It was back in the mid-Atlantic. It was back kind of in my home region.”

*****

The phenomenon that directly resulted in Brey’s hiring at Notre Dame is referred to, in industry circles, as the “Domino Effect of 2000.” A little more than a year earlier, in the spring of 1999, Brey interviewed for the job, recently vacated by John MacLeod. He was rejected. The Irish gave the job to the then up-and-coming Matt Doherty.

Brey returned to Delaware and, given he was a hot commodity, knew he would have to consider other high-major offers in the next few off-seasons. He figured the Notre Dame job was cashed. Doherty would be given plenty of runway to rebuild a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1990 and hadn’t played in a Sweet 16 since 1987. But on June 30, 2000 North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge unexpectedly resigned. The timing was strange given that coaches were about a week away from hitting the road to recruit. It left North Carolina scrambling. Wanting someone with ties to the program, the Tar Heels offered the job to then Kansas head coach Roy Williams. He rejected it outright, though later assumed the post in 2003. Overtures were made to alums George Karl, Larry Brown, and Eddie Fogler — none of which panned out. So, North Carolina turned to Doherty, another alum, who proceeded to leave the Irish after a year.

A new regime in the Irish athletics department re-interviewed Brey in Washington, D.C. P.J. Carlesimo was also considered a serious candidate after officials flew to Italy to interview him on his honeymoon. But Brey eventually won the job, having an immediate impact on the program by taking it to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including the Sweet 16 in 2003. “My first four years… I was just hoping I wouldn’t get fired,” Brey says.

A three-year absence from the NCAA Tournament followed, and it was the only time Brey seriously considered leaving South Bend. “I was thinking, 'Maybe it’s good business to reinvent [myself], because if I go to a fourth NIT or nearly miss, they’re going to be really on my ass,” he says. Krzyzewski’s influence was critical to Brey’s return. “Don’t do something crazy,” Brey recounts as the takeaway from a conversation they’d had. Coach K advised him to walk around campus and remember what he was trying to build. He needed time to recruit and develop players — and get those players to buy into his process. The hallmark of the Brey era in South Bend has been the development of talent over a four-year period. The Irish returned to the tournament in 2007 and have missed it only twice since then.

Recently Brey has developed many of his upperclassmen into NBA prospects. Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson, and Pat Connaughton were all drafted in the last two years. Current seniors Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem are NBA prospects, as is Colson, a junior and first-team All-ACC selection.

Notre Dame, though, has strict limitations on its recruiting. While other ACC schools can blindly offer scholarships, Brey has to examine transcripts before he looks at game tape. The admissions department looks over the grades of every potential recruit and ensures they’ve challenged themselves in their high school studies. Brey doesn’t complain. He actually champions the university’s mission, mentioning three times in a 24-hour period that eight of his 12 players are in Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business, ranked second by Bloomberg News in 2016, and their team GPA was a 3.1 last semester. Playing in the ACC with those restrictions, though, is like hanging onto the wing of a jet in flight.

Brey specifically targets a four-hour stretch of I-95 that runs from Washington, D.C., north to New York. He says you can find a pick-up game on any exit, which breeds what he calls the “I-95 edge.” Notre Dame starts three players from the area — Vasturia, Colson, and Matt Farrell, a junior, who has seen his scoring increase more in the past year than any other ACC player. At 6-foot-5, Colson plays power forward for the Irish and leads the conference in rebounding. Three of the top-five in the category are 6-10 and another 6-9. He has made inroads recruiting local players as well. Beachem is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and spurned the eponymous state school and Purdue for Brey’s Irish. Notre Dame was once considered a third-rate program in an area of Big Ten zealots. But during Brey’s tenure, Indiana and Purdue have dissipated as national powers. It’s Notre Dame where recruits think they have the best shot at a national title.

“He’s done a great job of building the Notre Dame brand in the state,” Beachem says.

But Brey remains overshadowed by a cadre of Hall of Famers actively coaching in the ACC: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, plus Williams, Pitino, and Krzyzewski. Each has Final Four appearances and national championships to his name, the glaring holes cynics point to on Brey’s resume.

*****

Maybe the most eventful day of Brey’s life began on the hillside campus of Duquesne University, overlooking metropolitan Pittsburgh, where the Irish were slated to play a third-round NCAA Tournament game against Butler. Sunday, March 22, 2015 was also Brey’s 55th birthday. The Irish had just finished a shoot-around when Brey got a text from his brother: “Hey man, I know it’s a game day. But call me.” He did, and he learned that his mom, Betty, a swimmer who competed for the United States in the 1956 Summer Olympics, had died from a heart attack.

The suddenness of it all was tempered by the fact that Brey knew she was in need of a heart valve. He remained stoic, sitting in the front of a coach bus, and sent a text to one of Notre Dame’s associate athletic directors. Immediately Brey said he would coach that night. The Irish staffer, meanwhile, made under-the-radar plans for Brey to take a private jet to Orlando the next day, to be with his family. But the coach withheld the news from everyone else. Their 67-64 win later that day was the start of their most recent mini-run over the last two tournaments.

Postgame, though, the news of that morning needed to be addressed. Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the team while Brey headed to a press conference. He was met outside the presser by Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. “I felt guilty,” Brey says. “I wanted them to be smiling. We’re going to the Sweet 16. They’re like my sons.”

Notre Dame won its next game, a Sweet 16 matchup against Wichita State. What followed, a game against Kentucky, was one of the best tournament games in recent memory. The Irish lost 68-66. A three-point attempt by Grant at the buzzer went long, and John Calipari’s Wildcats narrowly escaped Brey, who has become an assassin of the game’s biggest names. How many other coaches can say they’ve beaten Krzyzewski six of the last seven times they’ve met? Gone 4-3 in their last seven against Pitino? Even 4-3 against Roy Williams and Kansas?

After the Kentucky game, Brey was zapped. He wanted to unplug from the basketball universe, so he went to Miami, a favorite getaway spot, to re-energize. He worked out but mostly spent time on the beach. Brey says he can keep a low profile there. A particular conversation on that trip caught his attention. He awoke from a nap when he overheard a nearby family talking basketball — specifically about the ACC. He attempted to ignore the conversation but was intrigued by the specificity of their knowledge. He saw a couple teenage kids head for the ocean some minutes later and decided to peak over his shoulder.

No further than the distance between two tables in a restaurant, Brey estimates, was Boeheim. Brey wrapped a towel around his neck, pulled his hat as low as he could, and fell asleep.

*****

Game day brings tension to Notre Dame’s campus. Two days earlier, Tom Brady won his fifth Super Bowl. After an improbable comeback, national conversation gives Brady the nod as the all-time greatest quarterback over Joe Montana, the patron saint of Notre Dame football — an institution whose importance at the school is of course rivaled only by that of the Catholic Church.

An ongoing construction project to Notre Dame Stadium casts a literal cloud of dust over one of the most historic athletic complexes in the country. The basketball team may have had a new facility by now, but the football project pushed back those plans that now have the Irish practicing in a state-of-the-art complex by 2019. “Football pays a lot of bills here, and sometimes it marginalizes us,” Brey says. “I know what I signed up for. I know where I’m at. I’m a big football fan, because when football is rolling, everybody is in a better mood.”

Tucked inside the shadow of the famous mural Touchdown Jesus sits the Purcell Pavilion, home to Notre Dame basketball. Inside, Brey is chucking half-court shots with his players at the end of a mid-afternoon shoot-around that features blaring rap music and a review of the game plan the Irish coach had changed overnight.

“He’s a cool dude and brings that humor during times when we’re down and we feel like everything is against us,” Bonzie Colson says.

To say that Colson and the Irish feel as if everything is against them isn’t an exaggeration. They say as much to one another in the locker room in the moments before tip-off. Brey walks in seconds later. He has a habit of beginning to talk just a split second before anyone can even see him. It adds an air of seriousness to the proceedings, and it is not lost on his players. He ends his pregame chat with simple instructions, referring to the North Carolina game from just 48 hours ago: “What we did in the second half, let’s do that for 40.”

Notre Dame wins the game 88-81. Beachem scores 19, and the “edge” guys come up huge. Vasturia nets 17, despite taking only seven shots, Farrell adds 16, and Colson has one of the signature games of the season: 27 points, 16 rebounds, and five blocks.

Brey enters the postgame press conference and, before sitting down, screams: “Man we needed that!” He mimics the Incredible Hulk, fists pointed down, flexing. He growls, “We needed that, baby!”

So, were you really that loose?

“It was a total show.”