By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — When Mike Brey came to South Bend in 2000, he inherited a basketball program literally standing in the shadows of Notre Dame Stadium, one which had gone a decade without dancing in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Brey is entering his 16th season with the Fighting Irish and has built the program into something special.
“Notre Dame is kind of a force now,” said three-time All-American forward Luke Harangody, one of Brey’s most decorated alums.
Since Brey took over, Notre Dame has reached the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the span of 15 years, that following a decade drought from the big dance. Last season, the Fighting Irish finished 32-6, won the ACC Tournament in their second year with the conference and came a shot away from an upset of the then-undefeated Kentucky Wildcats to reach the Final Four.
Now, Notre Dame loses star guard Jerian Grant to the New York Knicks and forward Pat Connaughton to the Portland Trail Blazers, the same way it parted with greats like Harangody, Chris Quinn and so many more.
What’s made Brey’s program sustain success is the way he keeps reloading with the same kind of player.
“Our pool to pick from is small,” Brey said. “I’ve never tricked anybody into coming to Notre Dame. Up front, (I’ll say) the school is hard. So, if you’re not interested in that, it’s not going to work. But the kids we’ve gotten have wanted to compete in the classroom as much as the basketball court. They’ve been steady, stable, solid guys. And that’s helped us stay together as a team and a program from year to year.”
In the day of one-and-done success in college basketball — even Brey’s mentor, all-time wins leader Mike Krzyzewski, is doing it now — Notre Dame has won with player development. He demands that a player stays dedicated in school, works diligently on the court and trust the teaching.
On the recruiting trip where Brey walked into Harangody’s living room in Schererville, Ind., he told the gawky forward something that still stands out today.
Dream big dreams.
Brey believed he could develop the hard-nosed kid into a pro, and he did. The same message was passed on to Grant in recruiting, and he even returned to Notre Dame after a season-long suspension for academic matters and became a first-round draft selection with Brey’s teaching.
“We built a relationship that will last forever,” Grant said of Brey.
In an industry of used-car-salesman types, Brey’s as open and honest as they come. He enjoys the engaging side of his job — taking photos for 90 minutes at an Under Armour store on Michigan Avenue on Thursday — the same way he does building a program.
Mike Brey can just be Mike Brey. Players see the genuine side, too.
“He wanted to win and wanted to help me get better,” said senior forward Zach Auguste, a leader for the 2015-16 Fighting Irish.
There are few in college basketball like Brey, who got his chance at a program he loves, enjoyed success and never changed along the way.
Even at an international brand like Notre Dame, Brey can just be himself. That’s why he loves coaching there — and why he never wants to leave.
“That was the goal,” Brey said. “When I was hired about 15 years ago to the day, one of my comments was I hope I do a good enough job that I can retire here. Well, it’s kind of looking like I can pull that off. I’ve been here 15 seasons. I’m honored to be at Notre Dame. ”
Notre Dame could become a national power under Brey. It was successful in the Big East with players like Harangody, but winning the ACC amid competition like that of Duke and North Carolina is something to behold.
As Brey posed for those pictures and talked with fans on Thursday at the Under Armour haven, his greatest accomplishment stood behind him. It was the championship trophy and a giant ACC banner, something to celebrate for years of sustained success.
But looking back on the banner and trophy directly behind, Brey didn’t hide his greater aspirations for Notre Dame — a Final Four appearance and national championship.
“I got another 10 years in me, and we got good momentum,” Brey said.
The Fighting Irish have come a long way with Brey’s consistent leadership. Harangody is right — Notre Dame is kind of a force.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.