Shameless plug (and piece of context): back in my heyday as Observer sports editor, I wrote a column during the 2020-21 Notre Dame men’s basketball season, right after some students at Purcell Pavilion started chanting for Mike Brey to be fired.
The crux of the piece was to ask how Brey would be remembered for his time at Notre Dame. Would it be for all the good he did after a decade of irrelevance before he was hired — and for doing it in two historically difficult conferences, no less? Or would it be for the way the program fell into disarray at the end of his tenure?
I wrote that back when the Irish were in the midst of a second losing season in a three-year span. Now it’s been three losing seasons and only one NCAA Tournament appearance in five years. And the real gut-punch is that on top of the six graduate students Notre Dame was already going to lose after this season, two of their three high school recruits have decommitted and now J.J. Starling, Robby Carmody and Dom Campbell have entered the transfer portal.
So what do you think? If you had to choose, is Mike Brey a Notre Dame hero or villain?
Is Mike Brey a Notre Dame hero or villain?
As inconceivably atrocious a decline it has been for Notre Dame — from just one season ago to this latest campaign — I’m personally inclined to still view Mike Brey in a positive light. Granted, he’s torn down most of what was built, but keep in mind that he was the one who built it.
Before Brey (and his one-year predecessor Matt Doherty), John MacLeod never posted a single 20-win season — let alone made any NCAA Tournaments — and had a sub-.500 record in five of his eight years, including three of his last four. Brey recorded at least 20 wins in 16 of his 23 years in South Bend and made 13 NCAA Tournaments, three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights.
Obviously, college basketball isn’t a zero-sum game. Brey was compensated handsomely for what he did, so he shouldn’t be praised just for doing a few good things and leaving the program largely where he found it (if not in a worse position). Part of hiring coaches is hoping that they will elevate a program’s athletic standards so that they or their successor can take it to new heights.
But, to be fair, the University of Notre Dame’s expectations for men’s basketball have always been lower than historical pedigree indicates they should be. That’s probably why Brey lasted as long as he did (and became the winningest coach in school history in the process).
That means there’s blame to go around here: to Brey for dereliction of duty, to Jack Swarbrick for failing to adequately supervise the program, and to university administrators for being content with lackluster recruiting because it comported better with Notre Dame’s approach to admission of athletes.
Maybe when it’s all said and done, my view of Brey is colored by my preference to look back fondly on the good memories, especially the ones that no other coach could have left: partying with his shirt off after Maui; screaming “Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Baby” after a win; and having enough humility to stand on dining hall tables and rally fans for games. The list goes on.
There are many better coaches than Brey. None could have ever been as fun or personable. But I’ll admit that heroes aren’t held in such high esteem simply because they were good people. It’s because they are entrusted with a duty and they don’t disappoint.
I think Brey gets the benefit of the doubt. What say you?