The Bright Lights Are For Brey

NEW YORK – Mike Brey stood in a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt, surrounded by the best and brightest of the Big East Conference, past and present. It is the 25th Anniversary of the Big East Tournament being held in Gotham, and a particularly large crowd had shown up for the annual conference awards ceremony.

Brey, surveying the scene in an impeccable blue suit and his trademark mock turtleneck, started to reminisce.

"I guess I've come a long way from the JV head coaching job at DeMatha High School when I use to drive the vans, sweep the floor, and do all that for (head coach) Morgan (Wooten)," Brey said. "You think about all the hours over 25 years of coaching and then you pause and enjoy it."

Brey had good reason to stop and proverbially smell the roses on this bone-chilling night in midtown Manhattan. He was voted by his peers as the Big East Conference Coach of the Year, the first time a Notre Dame coach was so honored since John MacLeod in 1996-97. MacLeod's squad that year went 16-14 overall, a significant improvement from a 9-18 washout the season previously.

This year under Brey, Notre Dame is an outstanding 23-6 – to date its best regular-season winning percentage since 1985-86 – and achieved a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. All of that with two freshmen starting on a team that was picked to finish 11th in the conference pre-season poll.

Though the Big East does not disclose voting totals, it is believed that Brey's closest competitors for the award were Louisville's Rick Pitino and Georgetown's John Thompson III. Both would have been worthy choices, also, but this was Brey's time. He has handled the sidelines beautifully this year, but was even more masterful in the other elements of running a program.

"One of the things I learned (as an assistant coach at Duke) with Mike Krzyzewski was to compete every day," Brey said. "Certainly that happens this time of year, but also in May and August. Recruiting, public relations, player development, all the elements. I think that was a great theme to be indoctrinated to as a young assistant."

One example of competing every day: The recruitment of freshman point guard Tory Jackson.

"(Assistant) Coach (Lewis) Preston was on me early, and I was really looking forward to working with him for four years," said Jackson, referring to Brey's former assistant who left the program last April and took a spot on Billy Donovan's bench at the University of Florida. "When he left, that was tough news. But coach Brey really took over, came to our house, earned the trust of my parents. He won them over and made all of us feel good about choosing Notre Dame."

Another example: The handling of the Kyle McAlarney suspension.

"My role is to be a teacher and an educator, that is why I am a good fit at Notre Dame," Brey said. "The whole Kyle McAlarney thing had to be handled outside of basketball. We did that, I'm thrilled that he will come back and graduate."

A third example: Developing leaders. A good example is Colin Falls, who grew out of being a three-point shooting novelty into a true "glue guy," who led by example on and off the floor.

Brey is so effusive in his praise of Falls these days you would think he will engrave the senior's name on the big trophy he received from Big East Commissioner Mike Trenches. "He set the tone this year," Brey said. "He made this whole season possible."

Another person Brey truly credits is a name that may not be familiar to you – strength and conditioning coach Tony Rolinski.

"We came into this year with eight freshmen and sophomores," said Brey. "In the summer, they are taking one or two classes, playing a little pick-up, and the freshmen may think, ‘Hey this is pretty good.'

"I thought we needed to hit them in the face a little bit, but I can't coach them in the summer," Brey continued. "But Tony Rolinski beat them up, got them into a running program, and it really helped. Because Tony did that, we got those two wins (Maryland and Alabama) in December. If not, it may have been January before we got there."

Siena coach Fran McCaffery, an 11-year assistant coach at Notre Dame, feels Brey was an absolutely worthy choice.

"Mike is one of my favorite people in the business," McCaffery told IrishEyes Monday night at the Metro Atlantic final in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "I am a very good friend with Sean Kearney, his associate head coach, and I recruited Martin Ingelsby there. So I have a big interest in the Irish and Mike has done a great job. Look at how he brought those freshmen along this year. Look at (Russell) Carter's development; he went from being pretty good to being one of the best in the league."

Brey also credited his new assistant, Gene Cross, for helping him look at things from a different perspective this year. "You may evaluate a kid one way, then a new guy comes in and has another view," Brey said. "That was refreshing this year."

Shrugging off talk that he was on the hot seat prior to this season, Brey proudly noted that Notre Dame has had a winning Big East record in six of his seven seasons.

"I've always been very confident in my body of work," he said. "When I got here, we hadn't seen a whole lot of juice in a while. No-one was more disappointed (of falling shot of an NCAA bid) than me the last three years, but we weren't miles away. You just stay the course and keep plugging."

And that plugging led Notre Dame to a remarkable season and a Big East bye. Now Brey can relax and enjoy Manhattan on Wednesday while the Hall of Fame Jims (Calhoun and Boeheim) battle for the right to match wits with the former DeMatha assistant.

On this night, those bright lights of Broadway shine for Mike Brey.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories