Inside that locker room heavy-eyed Bulldog players were addressing the end of their season, a 67-64 overtime loss to Notre Dame on Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.
As my files uploaded Irish head coach Mike Brey climbed a short set of stairs to a nearby podium, where he would conduct a routine postgame press conference. But I hardly noticed.
“I feel like I should address at this time,” Brey said with gravity, suddenly grabbing my attention and that of anyone else in hearing distance. “I lost my mother this morning to a heart attack.”
It was an incredible revelation and a jarring message to an unsuspecting crowd, and soon the rest of the college basketball world.
In his own way Les Miles knows Brey’s pain.
“I was with my son, and then the phone rings and it says Coroner on the phone,” remembers the LSU football head coach. “I said ‘Hello.’ And he says ‘This is so and so, the Coroner.’ And I went ‘Yessir?’ And I’m thinking, oh my God, one of our players or just somebody else. I didn’t put it together. And then I hear ‘Your mom’s passed.’ Right then I went into a void.”
Miles’ mother Martha, 90, passed away on the evening of Oct. 24, 2014, around 9:15 p.m. It was a Friday night, and Miles was at the hospital when the call came, looking after his son, Ben, who had broken his ankle in a high school football game.
“I was supporting him and loving him,” Miles explains. “(Then I got the call) and there were some real issues. My boy Ben asked if I was okay. I went from consoling Ben to him consoling me.”
The following night, inside a 102,301-seat loud-house, Miles led LSU into Tiger Stadium for a date with No. 3 Ole Miss. Which is where his story and Brey’s collide, as both men emerged from the void to fill their emptiness in the type of high-stakes, high-intensity environments you’d least expect.
Back to Brey.
Hours before he sat on the bench in Pittsburgh, trying to guide Notre Dame to its first Sweet 16 since 2003, he received word that his mother Betty was dead from a heart attack.
That enough of his family was present to take care of all the business matters that accompany death, and each other, convinced Brey to proceed as planned, even if he initially operated under the type of haze alluded to by Miles.
“I don’t know if it’s really registered with me,” Brey continued after the game, “but my brother and sister are both in Orlando. That’s where my parents are now. My dad’s still alive. So there was great support down there. I talked to them a bunch throughout the day. I tell you, it sure kept my mind off the game. I’ll say that much.”
The game, which quickly became an afterthought in that work room, turned out to be a dandy.
Notre Dame weathered a second-half run by Butler, got to overtime via an incredible blocked three-pointer by Pat Connaughton at the end of regulation, and clawed its way to victory in the extra period to extend the season.
Brey felt he and the Irish weren’t alone.
“It was kind of a tribute to her. It was really a special night,” he reflected. “She was 84, former Olympic swimmer, an unbelievable woman, a woman ahead of her time and probably the real driving force behind everything I’ve done. So it was an interesting day to say the least and I felt I should at least address that. I think she was definitely with us down the stretch.”
He would make the trek to Orlando the following day on Sunday to be with his family and, as Brey said, “celebrate her life.” But, though the concept may seem foreign to some, staying to coach on Saturday was a must.
It was in her competitive DNA, Brey explained with a series of anecdotes.
“I’d talk to her during the season and very rarely did I get ‘Hey, Mike, how are you doing?’ It was like ‘You got them ready? Are they ready? Because I think we can beat Duke, Mike.’ It was unbelievable. She was intense,” Brey recalled with a smile.
“She had a great run. A woman ahead of her time, as I said. (She was) a ’56 Olympian, a world-record holder when the butterfly was first invented. She was one of the first,” he stated. “She always said the East German woman that was breaking her records was on steroids, even then. The ultimate competitor.”
So it comes as no shock that Brey, on the eve of his 56th birthday no less, honored his commitment and bellied up to the challenge.
Miles’ situation wasn’t a carbon copy of Brey’s, in a number of ways. For one, the former had an inclination of what was on the horizon.
“I anticipated with dementia at some point in time this was inevitable in the short term,” explains Miles, whose mother was in assisted living at Ollie Steele Burden Manor in Baton Rouge. “I was at least braced.”
Also unlike Brey, Miles had the chance to tend to his mother within minutes of getting the call from the coroner. “I went immediately to Ollie Steele and hugged her and had some moments with her. It’s obvious she had just passed because she was still warm.
“I had a nice grieving moment there. It allowed me to grieve. Sometimes when that doesn’t happen, you don’t get it right. You know what I mean? If you don’t grieve, something’s wrong. I got it done. But I don’t think I could’ve made it back from Ollie Steele to the hotel if I hadn’t had a (state) trooper (driving).”
Waiting back at the team hotel – LSU stays at the on-campus Cook Hotel for home games – was Miles’ football family, from coaches to players, all of whom were up to speed.
Miles, replaying the events of the night, says, “I have to be real honest with you, the players knew without me saying a word. We had planned to have a meeting, a full team meeting, that had nothing to do with my mom. The whole team was going to be there the night before the game with Ole Miss. There was no way I could address the team and not share that with them. None. It just was not possible.
“But they knew because I think some assistant coaches had told them. It was widespread knowledge on the team. The coroner had to go through a police department to get to me (with the news). The police department and the Governor were all alerted, so there was a lot of information getting out pretty quickly. So I wasn’t going to hold that from my team in any way.
“I basically put the team to bed, and I went home with my family. But thank God I was able to see her and that I had family to support me. Then, game day was game day. You know what I mean? It’s just what we had to do.”
Similar to Brey, there was never really any thought to relinquishing his game-day duties, which for Miles began with a morning appearance on ESPN’s College Gameday and ended with a draining 10-7 slugfest of a win captured in the final minutes.
“No,” responds Miles to the idea of not coaching. “My mom and my family, they knew what we are and who we are as people, and they would expect that we would do the things that we would do . . . So I knew that coaching the game was the right thing to do. There was nobody that needed my assistance more than my team.”
While Miles, in the familiar setting of the place he lives and a mere miles from campus, shared his news and pain with the LSU football team, Brey, 375 miles from South Bend, opted for non-disclosure.
That applied to all the players, trusted assistant coaches, virtually everyone in the inner circle of Notre Dame basketball.
It wasn’t until the game was over that Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick informed the locker room, right around the time Brey was dispensing the same information to the rest of us.
When I relay this portion of the story to Miles, his reply is perfect and rolls off the tongue only as a coach’s could.
“Did they win?” he asks in high suspense about a game 72 hours old.
“That’s great. That’s huge,” exclaims Miles with genuine joy. “So for me, I think he made a great call for his team and I suspect his family. The decision about it all had to be uniform. All the different groups of people in his life that he was going to come across, it had to be the same.
“The great thing about this is it’s a very personal decision for the team. In other words, ‘Do I think this team can handle this?’ Yeah, yeah, I did. And I felt like they needed to know, period. But I’m for Mike Brey. I think his decision is a great decision. He knew his team best, obviously.”
Their approaches were different – Miles admits “I’m a little more transparent maybe than a lot of people” – although their plight was the same.
And, through forces in the world hard to saddle with words, both made it through the other side of emotional days all the better for having participated.
“I think it absolutely helped me deal with it, without question,” Miles acknowledges.
It’s funny, but even amid a sad theme, common experiences have a way of bonding strangers. So when the Irish take on Wichita State in Cleveland Thursday night, despite Miles and LSU dropping a recent bowl game to the Golden Domers, my guess is you can add one more to the masses rooting for Mike Brey.
He’ll be the one in the white hat. You’ve probably seen it before.