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Men’s Basketball

Adams: Does Mike Brey die a hero or live to become the villain?

| Friday, March 5, 2021

To be absolutely clear, I mean Mike Brey no harm by the title of this piece. If you didn’t pick up on it, it’s a reference to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” film.

Note: if you haven’t seen “The Dark Knight,” what the hell is wrong with you? It’s a *chef’s kiss* masterpiece. Get on it already.

For those not indoctrinated into the church of Nolan, in the movie District Attorney Harvey Dent talks about how the Batman (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne) is performing a public service for Gotham à la what would happen in the Roman Empire in times of crisis. When Dent’s girlfriend brings up Julius Caesar as a counterpoint to someone refusing to relinquish power, he says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

It’s a remarkably poignant commentary on how power and responsibility can corrupt and/or destroy. That’s kind of how I feel about the head coach of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team right now.

In case you’ve been in a coma for the last several years (which may be why you haven’t seen “The Dark Knight”) then you may not be aware of the downward spiral the Irish men’s basketball program is caught in right now. Since exiting in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament with a loss to West Virginia, Notre Dame has:

  • Failed to return to The Big Dance
  • Lost in the second round of the 2018 NIT
  • Posted a losing record in two of the last three seasons (as they’re all but certain to do it this year barring a miraculous postseason run)
  • Gone 1,198 days and 28 consecutive games without a win over a ranked team (1,482 days since beating a ranked team at home).

Mike Brey is, in many ways, a savior of the Notre Dame program. Consider where the program had been for over a decade before he got there, from the end of the Digger Phelps run through the NCAA Tournament-less John MacLeod years. And, he did it in arguably the two toughest basketball conferences in America: the original Big East (that, at various times, included Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Louisville) and the ACC.

However, it’s looking like he may, despite the best of intentions, be tearing down everything that he built. It’s not that he’s been corrupted by power so much as he’s falling victim to what so many coaches in so many sports fall victim to: an inability to recognize and adapt to the reality that the times they are a-changin’. Because of that, we have to ask ourselves a troubling question:

If Mike Brey stays just one more year at Notre Dame, will he leave a hero, or be painted a villain?

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey instructs his team during a timeout as Notre Dame beat Duke 93-89 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 9. Brey, the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, is the only former Mike Krzyzewski player or assistant to ever defeat Coach K as a head coach.

Brey’s seat has been getting warmer and warmer the last couple of years. That seems fair given the gross inconsistency and drop-off from where the program was just five years prior after making its second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

Everything seemed to come to a fever pitch Wednesday night after a lackluster showing that resulted in an 80-69 loss to North Carolina State in Notre Dame’s penultimate regular-season game. Apparently, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, a small group of Notre Dame students — in the first instance that they have been allowed in Purcell Pavilion all season due to COVID-19 restrictions — started a chant calling for Brey to be fired.

Here was his response to the chant:

“That was well warranted by our students because that was a poor performance. They should have been on me.”

For the record, I find it hilarious that this controversy became a serious headline because a handful of college kids who just got to witness their first in-person basketball game in nearly a year started a chant and a reporter asked the head coach about it. Not that it wasn’t legitimate before, because this topic had been discussed, including by The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton back in January who said:

“I’d argue Notre Dame is in a decent position to take a long look at the program and craft a plan that honors what Brey has done for the school while also addressing a reality that threatens taking this thing past the point of no return competitively… Men’s basketball health isn’t guaranteed at Notre Dame. Better to forthrightly discuss the best path forward before the program’s pulse is too faint to detect.”

What is the best path forward? If we’re being honest with ourselves, what Brey has done in his Notre Dame tenure is remarkable. He’s posted 15 20-win seasons, reached the NCAA Tournament 12 times, made two Elite Eights and become the winningest coach in school history.

You can argue that they should have done more, but the fact of the matter is that Brey built Notre Dame into a team to be feared. As someone who watched that 2015 Elite Eight game between 37-0 Kentucky and 32-win Notre Dame and was rooting for the team in blue and white, I knew absolutely nothing about Brey or his team going in.

By the final possession of that game, Demetrius Jackson, Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste had induced more terror in me than I had ever anticipated.

Those days are gone. The Notre Dame men’s basketball program is broken, possibly in numerous places. Any reasonable person has a tough time seeing the light at the end of this tunnel despite the depth of talent and experience the Irish would bring back next season in addition to two top-150 high school recruits joining the fold.

This current group of juniors (minus Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan and Santa Clara transfer Trey Wertz) was Brey’s highest-rated recruiting class. Prentiss Hubb is close to eclipsing 1,000 career points in three seasons and Nate Laszewski looks like the clear-cut ACC Most Improved Player. Those are about the only redeeming aspects of the three seasons they’ve been in South Bend as they stare down the barrel of missing out on yet another postseason tournament.

We have to ask ourselves if one more year of Mike Brey would result in an NCAA Tournament appearance. The answer to that question seems to correspond to how Brey will be viewed by the current generation of Notre Dame fans: as a hero or a villain.

Of course, we shouldn’t always put a lot of stock in perceptions. Again, these were just college kids starting a chant. And if there’s one thing people should understand about college kids, to quote Alfred Pennyworth, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Let’s just hope that, either way, the men’s basketball program doesn’t get caught in the blaze.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden