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An Open Letter to Mike Brey: Everyone’s Friend, Even If He Didn’t Know Them

It’s sentimentality season and I’m getting in on it

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round San Diego Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

[The all-time winningest coach in Notre Dame history is going to hang it up after this season. Following his announcement, numerous individuals have offered anecdotes about how Mike Brey positively impacted their careers and lives. So here’s my open letter to Brey.]

I covered Notre Dame sports for three years with the student-newspaper, The Observer. Covering collegiate sports — especially men’s basketball — is an intimidating proposition for any student journalist. And, at least in my case, that feeling never really went away. I mean, how could I not have an inferiority complex when comparing myself to professional media members whose livelihoods are built on the thing I did as an extracurricular?

But you helped alleviate that, Mike. You weren’t unique in the fact that you treated student journalists like any other media member; I’m sure there are plenty of coaches in every sport who show equal respect across the board. But more than others, you were friendly about it, and I experienced that firsthand.

My senior year coincided with the 2020-21 season, a.k.a. the Covid year of college sports. Notre Dame was travelling to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky, the hometown team that I grew up rooting for. Suffice to say it was a big deal for me, and I took the opportunity to bring up my connections during your pregame media availability (fast-forward to the 6:45 mark of the video below to see it).

The first words out of your mouth were, “So, Hayden you’re in Lexington, huh? You’re right there. I did not know that.”

Of course you didn’t know that! Why would you? We had no relationship. I was a lowly student journalist. I didn’t have deep connections inside the program, and I certainly didn’t get enough reads on my columns for them to come across your desk.

Hell, I probably asked you a total of three questions through my first two years covering the men’s basketball program. One of those was this hard-hitting inquiry into whether you would take your shirt off again like you did after winning the Maui Invitational in 2017 (25:45 mark below).

You didn’t care. You talked to me like we were old pals sitting on the back porch, because you were never one to let a lack of familiarity get in the way of being jovial. Kindness is hard to come by in most walks of life but you brought it in spades.

If anyone ever asks me, “who was Mike Brey,” I’d be hard-pressed to say anything other than, “he’s the winningest coach in Notre Dame history” or “he was the loosest coach in America.” But beyond that, I’d say something to the effect of, “he was everybody’s friend, even if he didn’t know them.”

Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams called you his hero, and for good reason. As far as men’s college basketball coaches go, you’re my hero, too. And I feel supremely confident saying you always will be, because no one is ever going to replicate your combination of character and class.

So, Mike, on behalf of every aspiring sportswriter blindly groping his or her way forward, thank you for illuminating the way. Your light has always been brighter than most. Take it easy.

That kid from Lexington who asked you about taking your shirt off