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Envisioning March ‘sadness’ without Coach Brey

Gary Caruso | Friday, March 3, 2006

Most of the Big East’s basketball teams eagerly prepare for “March Madness,” but Notre Dame is once more drifting in mediocrity, barely qualifying as the lowest tournament seed. Head basketball coach Mike Brey has become the University’s basketball equivalent of former head football coach Tyrone Willingham – unworthy to continue coaching at Notre Dame.

From all accounts, Brey is a wonderful person, great role model, stickler for academic excellence and a detail-oriented basketball tactician. Sadly, from the standards set recently by University President Father John Jenkins and the Board of Trustees, he has failed to maintain their bottom line – wins, losses, post-season appearances and financial gain. So who is the Charlie Weis of basketball lurching in the wings?

It matters not what this writer thinks of Brey’s coaching or recruiting talents. It matters not how the official Notre Dame athletic web site spins Brey’s virtues while sucking their thumbs and pouting in their patented self-righteous style that typically sours other universities against Notre Dame. The site sulks, “Notre Dame is the only team from one of the six major conferences (ACC, BIG EAST, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) to have a winning record in league play and not receive an NCAA bid in each of the last two seasons.”

Priorities at Notre Dame are dictated by the administration without regard to continuity nor righteousness. They mandate that academic “freedom” must give way to a “Catholic character” concept which is never wholly based on the ethical works of Jesus accepting others as much as based on a strictly controlled dogma that presents a University image for public consumption. Academic priorities that once stood above athletic competition fell when Weis replaced Willingham. Ironically, Weis, with a first year 9-3 record, failed to equal Willingham’s first-year 10-3 record, although the University did cash large BCS checks both years. Interestingly, Weis has yet to prove if he can win “the big one” in the college ranks.

Brey has little chance of weathering cries for his release if the administration holds true to its precedent. With 17 wins (9-7 in conference) two seasons running and the likelihood of 17 wins again this year (but a poor 6-10 conference record), Brey’s game clock is about to wind down. The uncertainty of his fate lies in how a rough shod riding athletic department and a “win, win, win” mentality among various trustees approach Brey’s demise.

Will the same bumbling athletic department receive blessings from administrators to unceremoniously and publicly bounce Brey like Willingham, or might they demonstrate discretion, professionalism and class by reaching an agreement with Brey behind closed doors? Offering a final year to coach – with or without the public’s knowledge of the agreement – would have been the principled way to treat Willingham. It is the only right-minded way to approach Brey.

Make no mistake. This writer could care less if Brey coaches longer than Digger Phelps. Of course we alumni want Notre Dame to win, and frankly we wonder why the athletic department cannot correctly investigate a coaching applicant’s resume. Well, actually we do understand that the “Good Ole Boy” culture still reins in the athletic world.

But some alumni definitely do not understand why Notre Dame cannot attract first class coaches who can sustain the winning consistency of Southern California in football and Duke in basketball. It worries others that the “Catholic character” dogma espoused by administrators actually limits coaching opportunities. Willingham’s treatment bolsters such thought.

Ara Parsegian’s non-Catholic background and knack of beating the Irish with lesser teams won him a coaching job based solely on merit. Many wonder how a high school coach and an assistant with no head coaching experience deserved past opportunities to guide football programs. Both, however, did possess the Catholic character aura Notre Dame likes to portray.

Academic governance should be as easily recognizable and consistent as our national freedoms. Yet University dogma tarnishes truth with its notion that freedom fit within its religious character. University leaders with pure hearts can function without worries about their public images. If the message is that academic excellence ranks over athletic national championships, then all coaches, regardless of whether or not a coach just happens to be the first minority head coach in University history, should not be evaluated by how much postseason money enters University coffers. The truth lies somewhere between academics and athletics, so the search for the perfect coach needs to be a measured, mutually agreed upon collaboration between University and coach.

One alumnus noted that Division I coaching is like traveling first class on an airplane. Athletic departments like Duke, and several Catholic universities without Catholic character hang-ups, hire the first class coaches – while Notre Dame upgrades its coaches to fit its image. Brey’s frequent flyer card is about to be canceled.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.