For years, a string of Notre Dame football coaches has tried to duplicate the sustained success of the program’s glory days.
Notre Dame’s basketball program, meanwhile, doesn’t have that problem.
Mike Brey has seen to that.
The Bethesda native and former DeMatha point guard, now in his 18th season as head coach of the Irish, became the all-time winningest coach in Notre Dame basketball history on Wednesday night, thanks to an 88-58 victory over North Carolina State. That triumph gave him 394 victories at Notre Dame, pushing him past the 393 wins accumulated by Richard “Digger” Phelps, who coached at the school from 1971-91.
In a nice gesture, Phelps was even on hand in South Bend the other night to hand Brey the game ball after the final buzzer.
Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, the brassy, bombastic Phelps made Notre Dame basketball almost as a big a deal as Notre Dame football. The program, which then competed as an independent, appeared on network television almost every week, it seemed.
Playing one of the toughest schedules in the country (“America is our conference,” he would boast) Phelps won consistently. He enjoyed 14 20-win seasons, 14 trips to the NCAA Tournament, four trips to the Sweet 16, one to the Elite 8 and one trip (in 1978) to the Final Four.
But in the decade following Phelps’ retirement, Notre Dame couldn’t recapture that kind of magic. John McLeod, who replaced Phelps, couldn’t do any better than 106-24 in nine seasons. Former North Carolina player Matt Doherty went 22-15 in his lone season at the helm in 199-2000, but the Irish failed to make the NCAA Tournament for a 10th straight season. After that year ended, Doherty left town to take over the Tar Heels.
That’s the situation Brey inherited when he took over at Notre Dame. He turned the program around almost immediately. In his first season, the Irish (then members of the Big East) went 20-10 overall, 11-5 in the league, and ended the program’s 10-year NCAA Tournament drought. In fact, Brey won at least 20 games and took Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons at the school.
He hasn’t stopped since. In 18-plus years, he’s had just one losing season (15-17 in 2013-14). And, as his victory total at Notre Dame confirms, he’s virtually duplicated the success that Phelps enjoyed.
Brey’s Notre Dame teams have compiled 13 20-win seasons and made a dozen NCAA Tournament appearances. They’ve been to three Sweet 16s and have reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three years.
Brey, 58, hasn’t yet reached the Final Four like Phelps did. But he does have one unique claim to fame as a coach. He owns the first (and so far only) conference championship for any Notre Dame basketball team, having won the Atlantic Coast Conference title in 2015. His squad went 32-6 that season and knocked off Duke in the semifinals en route to the championship.
In fact, Brey and Phelps didn’t have much in common at all, other than their sustained success and the place where they plied their trade. Phelps was a bit of a “wonder boy” as a coach. He landed his dream job in South Bend by the time he was 30, having served as an assistant at Penn for a couple of years before making a name for himself in one year as the head coach at Fordham.
Brey, meanwhile, was more of a grinder. He did an eight-year apprenticeship on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke, helping the Blue Devils to back-to-back national titles. He didn’t land his first head coaching job until he was in his mid-30s. After five years at Delaware (during which he went 55-9), Brey finally landed the Notre Dame job at age 41.
There were other differences, too. Phelps was a master promoter of himself, his program and the Notre Dame brand. He wanted to make sure everyone understood that Notre Dame basketball was important, and was always resplendent on the sidelines in a three-piece suit and a carnation in his lapel.
Brey, on the other hand, is more down to earth. He usually eschews a tie on the sidelines and “self important” is the last phrase you’d use to describe him.
“I just don’t have that mean look,” he told the Chicago Tribune recently. “As coaches, we take ourselves a little too seriously. We all could take a couple of deep breaths and relax a little bit.”