Can He Coach Football???


(with credit to CRAIG KELM)

Okay, admit it. We’ve all been wondering. Can Mike Brey coach football?

With approximately ¾ of his inaugural season under his belt, Brey has shown signs of being the next savior. And this is for BASKETBALL? Notre Dame has long been recognized for the tradition and great prowess of their football teams, but the average college basketball fan doesn’t immediately think of the Irish when considering the elite programs. Sure there have been occasional flashes of prominence, we’ve had some NCAA appearances, even a Final Four appearance once, and lots of NIT success. (if you count the NIT as a success in the first place).

Coach Mike Brey has brought back the passion for Notre Dame basketball. Or maybe it was coach Muffet McGraw. The success of the Notre Dame women has spurred the men’s team on to greater heights. Since the Lady Irish knocked off then #1 Connecticut before a sold-out Joyce Center on January 15th, neither the men’s or women’s team has lost a game! Of course, the lady Irish hadn’t lost a game before that either.

If not for the return of passion, (and make no mistake, the passion of the fans comes from winning) Coach Brey must be given credit for the improvement of the basketball team. Early in the season before conference games started, the team could coast to victories over the likes of Loyola, Sacred Heart, Canisius, Vermont, and Long Island. ND could simply "out-score" their opponents to win. Before you trash the Notre Dame schedule makers for putting these teams on the schedule, consider what non-conference foes the other major conferences schedule. And with only 27 regular season games total, you need some of these games to assess you have. But I would consider these to be "non-coaching" games, in which the team goes out and plays, and the coach really need only observe and hopefully learn more about his team. Coach Brey learned plenty in those games. Remember this is his first year at Notre Dame and also that he is the third coach in three years for these kids.

Other early contests over more formidable opponents illustrated that offense only won’t get the job done. A great defensive effort launched the Irish to an impressive victory over Cincinnati. An impressive win at Vanderbilt gave fans hope for what this Irish team may be able to do. The pollsters had Notre Dame in the top 10 after that sequence. Home losses to Indiana and Miami of Ohio brought everyone back to reality.

Of the Notre Dame losses this year, the only double-digit loss (82-71) was at Kentucky. ND is not getting blown out by anyone. The Irish have been in every game they have played. There have been times where it looked as though the wheels had come off, but the Irish team almost always remained poised and fought through it. Coach Brey gives the credit to Troy Murphy, Martin Inglesby, and the others. But I believe the team’s demeanor ultimately comes down from the head coach. Brey was not ready to jump off any bridges, abandon any plans or goals, or point fingers when they lost 3 out of 4, culminating with the loss to Kentucky and a 9-5 (1-2 in Big East) record. Neither was he ready to make his Final Four plans when the Irish won their next 4 games including back-to-back wins over top 10 teams Syracuse and Georgetown. Brey keeps an even keel, tries to keep things in perspective, and continues to do his job.

This past weekend, the Irish traveled to West Virginia. The Mountaineer faithful were definitely up for the game. Trying to avenge a defeat at the Joyce Center in January, they had their largest crowd of the season.

The first half saw the Mountaineers nailing 3 pointers, and destroying the Irish in rebounding and second chance points. An 8 point half time lead, with the capacity crowd behind them, put West Virginia in excellent position for the upset. As Irish fans would hope, Coach Brey identified the weaknesses and had the team correct them in the second half. Murphy and Ryan Humphrey did a much better job cleaning up the defensive boards in the second half, and the 3 point shots of West Virginia were contested and no longer a factor. The Irish hung around, but did not recapture the lead until late in the game. And to WVA’s credit, they didn’t fold either, but wrestled the lead back from ND. Anyone could have been satisfied with the ND comeback, adjustments, and effort in this game at that point. A very close loss against a revenge-motivated team, on the road, with their arena packed, the home team showing great composure, and playing near the top of their game, would have been a moral victory for the Irish, and shown how far the basketball program had come. But moral victories are for someone else’s team. Coach Brey’s team came down to the wire, took the lead, and held off a furious Mountaineer effort to hit a tying 3 pointer three times in the final few seconds. To underscore the effort and dedication of Coach Brey’s players, Humphrey blocked the first 3 point attempt, while rolling his ankle. In obvious pain, he limped the final few seconds, contesting shooters and finally coming down with the rebound on the last errant WVA shot. He exploded in joy, firing the ball to the ceiling when time expired, before giving in to the pain from his ankle.

As in many of the Irish games the past 5 weeks, the Irish had turned up the defense and did all the little things that Brey has been trying to get them to buy into. A 26-2 and 39-10 run over St. John’s earlier in the week showed what the Irish could do on defense. The Irish are becoming known for these types of runs. Other recent examples include the first WVA game, the game at Georgetown, and the game at Pittsburgh. These runs cannot happen without defense. Taking charges, diving for loose balls, getting rebounds, setting screens are some of the other things Coach Brey has emphasized to his team. It seems that he has also got the message across to his players that playing good fundamental defense is paramount to success. The early games for the Irish did not show the defensive intensity and hustle that are fast becoming this Irish team’s trademark. Last year’s successful Dougherty team played a passive zone defense that seemed as though it’s main focus was in hoping the other team would miss. As of late, there are few shots against the Irish that go up uncontested.

Mike Brey was a head coach at Delaware before coming to Notre Dame. He came in with experience and a solid philosophy. This is the job he had trained for. His short list of teams to coach had only 2 names on it. Notre Dame, and Notre Dame.

Coach Brey let the players play their game at the start of the season, evaluating them and learning about them. He was not in a hurry to change everything and put the Mike Brey stamp on the program. After all, things weren’t really broken. Coach Brey used the ND zone, but started mixing in a man-to-man defense. The Irish use both defenses now depending on the situation, and are often changing just to upset the opponent's rhythm, which they have been fairly successful in doing. The Irish zone is also more aggressive, and their help defense is better.

Mike Brey seems to be able to connect with the players. They respond to him. The now familiar turtleneck was his wife’s idea, thinking that a suit was too stuffy and removed him too far from the kids. Coach Brey rewarded Harold Swanagan, who will never be an All-American on sheer talent and physical ability alone, with a starting spot and extra playing time. This is because Harold was willing to do Coach Brey’s dirty work. It also sent a message to the team. We know what it takes to win, and I’m rewarding that. We are all going to hustle.

Coach Brey also seems to be getting the maximum from his players. He has used his bench only sparingly, but has relied on the starters and pushed them harder than they’ve been pushed in the past. Inglesby routinely plays 40 minutes, as does Troy Murphy. Both players excel at their respective roles.

Although Murphy’s scoring numbers may be down from last year, his impact is greater, and the Irish are playing better as a result. Murphy doesn’t always have to carry the scoring load because he knows his teammates will step up. When Murphy fouled out at Georgetown with 4 minutes to go and the Irish behind, the Irish went on a run to finish the game and secure the upset.

Inglesby was bounced from a starting role last year for Dougherty’s Irish, but now is among the national leaders in Assist-to-Turnover ratio while never getting any relief.

Brey has challenged his players on occasion, and has also kept them informed of where he thinks they are in development. He has told his players they are getting better, but not completely there yet. He has told them they could possibly become something special. He has them (and me) believing it. The WVA win is a game ND would have lost last year, maybe by a lot. It was a game that a good ND team could have lost this year and still held their heads high. It was also a game that a "special" team wins.

I’m not caught up in the moment so much, or so naïve that I think Notre Dame will not lose again. But it is nice to look at the schedule and know that whoever is there, we will be competitive against them. I’d bet right here and now that Coach Brey’s first Irish team will never lose a basketball game by 32 points, as Bob Davie’s fourth Irish team did in the Fiesta Bowl. Normally you couldn’t even compare point margins in football and basketball, but such is the state of Notre Dame athletics at present. Maybe if Brey had coached in the Fiesta Bowl, the margin there would have been smaller also.

Back to the premise of this piece. Being a good basketball coach (if you are even willing to consider Mike Brey as such so early in his career) may not necessarily translate into being a good football coach. But Coach Brey has so many traits that would translate into success anywhere, including on the football field. They’ve all been covered above, so we’ll only list them here. When you read the list and think of the examples, ask yourself if another coach, say Bob Davie for example, possesses these traits. I submit that former coach Lou Holtz did for Notre Dame and still does for South Carolina. (a winner this past New Year's Day)

  1. Experience and training
  2. A consistent philosophy
  3. A plan to implement his philosophy
  4. A rapport with his players, and respect from his players
  5. An openness with his players, the press, and the fans
  6. A calm demeanor, always knowing where they are at, and keeping perspective
  7. A willingness to accept responsibility
  8. The perception to see what is happening in a game and why, and knowing what to do to correct it before it's too late - the ability to make game adjustments
  9. A dedication and love for Notre Dame over all other institutions

I think the basketball program is in good, capable hands. And this is without a major network televising every game, and the tradition and all the recruiting advantages that the football team enjoys.

Do I think Coach Brey could coach football? I think I’d be happy to see him try.


Let's look on the bright side. Maybe in the future, the Irish basketball team will become so good that they’ll be awarded a network TV contract. And maybe, just maybe, as part of the deal, the network will agree to show a few ND football games once in a while just to make sure they get the basketball rights…

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