In the early ‘80s, a wide-eyed 12-year-old aspiring basketball player looked at the 23-year-old DeMatha Catholic assistant coach with reverence, soaking in every word and applying it to his developing game.
A few years later, the DeMatha assistant was coaching the now-established high school player, who helped lead the Stags to an 84-16 record.
In 2000, after a successful stint as head coach at Delaware landed him the job to succeed Matt Doherty at Notre Dame, Mike Brey brought in young Colgate assistant coach Rod Balanis to serve as the coordinator of operations for the Irish. Three years after that, Balanis ascended to a full-time assistant’s position.
Now, after 16 years, Balanis is the last man standing side-by-side with Brey following Martin Ingelsby’s hiring by Delaware as head coach and Anthony Solomon’s move as an assistant to Georgetown.
“I first met Mike Brey in basketball school at St. John’s High School in DC,” said Balanis, 46. “He was Morgan Wootten’s assistant. He would have a fundamental session after lunch, either him or Jack Bruen, and I was just enamored with those two, as well as Pete Strickland.
“They were such great teachers and communicators. Mike would be doing something like stationary moves, and I thought he was such a great speaker. It’s been a dream come true that I’ve had a chance to reconnect with him and be with him for the last 16 years.”
If you’re not familiar with Balanis, it’s not surprising. He’s the unassuming guy that has been sitting on the Notre Dame bench since 2000. Rarely is he seen. He’s heard publicly even less.
But when season No. 17 of the Brey era commences this winter, Balanis will be at the forefront of Notre Dame’s scouting reports and game preparation as young coaches Ryan Ayers and Ryan Humphrey continue advancement in their early stages of the profession.
“It’s been neat to see a guy – when he’s kind of been the third guy behind Slo (Solomon) and Martin – to take over,” said Brey of Balanis’ expanded role in the transition. “He’s been here the whole time. He’s equipped to do it.
“I’ve been really impressed with how he’s changed with the new role. Rod’s taken the ball and run with it. He and (coordinator of basketball operations Harold) Swanagan have been fabulous in the transition.
“Rod’s mentored the two new guys and showed them how we do things. Rod kind of becomes an associate head coach in so many words. It gets him more ready to be a head coach a year from now.”
It’s a new challenge for Balanis, who played college basketball at Georgia Tech, followed by a stint professionally in Greece.
He became a volunteer assistant for Bruen at Colgate, and then a full-time assistant for Bruen and his successor, Emmett Davis, before joining Brey in South Bend.
“I’ve been coaching the guys we brought back,” said Balanis of Ayers and Humphrey. “It’s great to have them back. They’re going to add a lot to the mix. As long as we give them a sense of direction, they’ll be great.
“They know I’ve always had a big interest in them as players and people. I’m going to have the same interest in them as coaches and help develop them.”
Balanis will take a lead role in formulating opponent game plans. Ayers, as a two-year assistant at Bucknell, has a jump on Humphrey, who served the last two seasons as Northwestern’s director of player development.
Balanis will put Ayers and Humphrey through some pre-season tests this summer. They’ll watch film of an opponent or two from last year and work through the ins and outs of formulating a game plan for the team.
With Balanis and Solomon from the Virginia/Washington D.C. area, and Ingelsby from Philadelphia, Notre Dame’s recruiting paths often overlapped.
Balanis would like to organize a broader scope. Humphrey, hailing from Oklahoma, will dip into the Southwest with Ayers, also from the Philadelphia area, picking up the slack in New Jersey as well as Ohio, where his father, Randy, was head coach at Ohio State.
Balanis will focus his attention on the mid-Atlantic region and further South, dipping into Georgia, his old stomping grounds.
“To be honest, we probably could have been a little better organized (recruiting-wise) with the staff we had before,” Balanis said. “We have a good plan in place. I’ve been encouraged working with these guys. They’re hungry and ready to get after it.
“They’ve come to me with a lot of questions. They want to learn. They want to be really good. They grew up in our family and Coach Brey has called them to come home. They’re excited to be here.”
Balanis is excited to have ascended to the most veteran spot on the Irish assistant coaching staff. But don’t look for histrionics coming from the bench area. He’s a role player.
“I’ve always been a guy that kind of just puts his head down and works,” Balanis said. “All that other stuff, it’s never been important to me. I’ve never been a guy that looks to take credit.
“I’ve known Mike Brey for more than three decades. I’m a big believer in him; he’s always been a big believer in me. I think it’s worked. It’s been very successful.
“He’s always preached about having each other’s back. I’ve always had his; he’s always had mine. I know at the end of the day he’ll take care of me. I just want to put forth my best effort for him.”