Former NFL head coach Bill Walsh once famously said that ten years in any position means that it is time to look elsewhere.
The college basketball world has seen this in full effect thus far this offseason. Former Pittsburgh head coach Jamie Dixon left the Panthers for his alma mater TCU after 13 seasons in the Steel City. He was replaced by Kevin Stallings, who left Vanderbilt after 17 seasons as the Commodores' head coach. Both Dixon and Stallings left their schools on their own terms, moving to similar jobs for a fresh start.
But take the case of Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey, who has just completed his 16th season in South Bend. Rather than the typical stress and staleness that comes with a decade-plus tenure, Brey has never been looked at more favorably, by both Irish fans and the national media, and his program has never been in better shape.
Let's be clear. Two years ago, this story would be an entirely different one. Many thought, following his worst season ever in South Bend, the end was inevitable for Brey at Notre Dame. After the previous 13 years of just one appearance in the Sweet 16 and zero in any conference tournament finals, the 2013-2014 Irish and their sub-.500 record may have been just about the breaking point.
What has happened since has been among the best two-year stretches in program history. The return of Jerian Grant. The rise of Demetrius Jackson. Pat Connaughton's leadership, Bonzie Colson's exuberance, Zach Auguste's intensity. Steve Vasturia from the corner in Greensboro. V.J. Beachem's perfect game against Michigan. Rex Pflueger and the tip.
All of this has resulted in a program-best 56 wins over two seasons, back-to-back Elite 8s, two ACC Tournament double-byes, two (soon to be three) NBA draft picks, and, of course, an ACC Championship. As his tenure was supposed to be coming to an end, Mike Brey has been too busy hanging banners and bringing home trophies.
What makes Mike Brey such an exception? For coaches of the blue bloods, Coaches Krzyzewski, Boeheim, Pitino, or Izzo, the answer is pretty easy. You win a championship at a place where you are given ample opportunity to do so. But for a coach like Brey at much less of a basketball destination, where tournament appearances and occasional draft picks are accomplishments, where your practice "facility" is aptly named The Pit, and where you aren't just playing second fiddle to football, you're barely in the same orchestra?
Of course Dixon and Stallings left. At some point, it becomes impossible to keep meeting ever-increasing standards, standards that you have raised by out-performing your school's historical norms. Brey faced this as well, as after 14 seasons, Brey's 9 tournament appearances were just not enough, despite the fact that Notre Dame missed the tournament for a full decade before his arrival.
But instead of changing jobs, Brey changed himself. The famous switch from mock-turtleneck to button-down portended a shift from Brey's tighter days earlier in his tenure to that of the "loosest coach in America", and his team has followed suit. He's funnier. He's more honest. His energy on the sidelines is different. In one game, you can find him tearing off his suit jacket, joking with the halftime reporter, pumping up the crowd, laughing off a bad stretch, and cheerleading his team coming back to the huddle.
Credit Jack Swarbrick for giving Brey a decade-long extension a few years ago to allow Brey to be more comfortable in his own skin. It's no coincidence that since that extension, Brey and Notre Dame have enjoyed nearly unprecedented accomplishments, and we need to look no further than his energy on the sidelines to figure out why.
Look at the Notre Dame bench when Steve Vasturia hits the game-tying three in last year's ACC Championship game - for my money, the greatest single play in program history. You don't often see a bench burst with that much sheer enthusiasm for a mid-second-half three, including and especially the head coach. You also don't often see a 24-2 run in a conference championship game to cut down the nets.
Or look at Brey laugh off a rough offensive first half against Wisconsin in this year's Sweet 16 match-up (around 1:14 in the video). A lesser coach would be screaming, lecturing, or grasping to find the right words. Not Brey. His calm, composure, and confidence permeated his locker room and stayed with them on the court, where Notre Dame's 8-0 run for the ages in the final minute earned them another Elite 8 appearance.
How about Mike Brey giggling and riling up his team as the ACC quarterfinal against Duke headed to overtime? It's no wonder his team came back from 16 down and dominated the overtime period. It's also no wonder his team has gone 13-2 in overtime games in the past five seasons, or that it has gone 5-1 against Duke and the much stiffer Coach K since joining the ACC.
The attitude of this team is just different than it ever has been. In 2013, Notre Dame collapsed under the weight of its own pressure after constantly talking about how important getting to the Sweet 16 was for them. They were, of course, thoroughly embarrassed by Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2011, the pressure to get to Saturday night in the Garden caused them to slip up in the second half against Louisville despite having dominated that game, tournament, and most of the season up until that point. They could never recover, and that season's eventual second round beating at the hands of Florida State has loomed large over any discussion of Brey's tenure.
You can tell similar stories of losses against Xavier, Winthrop, Old Dominion, or Washington State, a team so visibly rattled on the biggest stage that it became just a shell of its otherwise talented and accomplished self. But now, the culture inside Notre Dame basketball is an entirely different one. Now, we've seen wins all over Tobacco Road. An overtime win over Butler and second half dominance over Wichita State. The comeback kids against Michigan, Stephen F. Austin, and Wisconsin. Three nights in Greensboro that included convincing wins over Duke and North Carolina.
A guy that was an NCAA Tournament mainstay, at a program where that is already nearly impossible, managed to top himself and turn his team into a force come March, in a new conference no less. After 14 years, a coach just does not lead that kind of turnaround. Not unless it's a truly special coach that is willing to change himself in order to change his program for the better. Dixon and Stallings could not do that. Others like Leonard Hamilton, Thad Matta, John Thompson III, and Lorenzo Romar are reaching similar breaking points at their programs.
Unfortunately for fans of those programs, there is only one Mike Brey, and the Irish are lucky to have him.