University of Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey last week walked into a room mostly full of men in suits, sports coats and ties.
Brey? Not so much.
He wore a Notre Dame zip-up pullover and a pair of Under Armour shoes.
And why not? His loose, casual approach has become his hallmark.
The occasion was the annual Sports Business Journal Intercollegiate Athletics Forum at the Crowne Plaza Times Square in midtown Manhattan.
Brey quickly explained his game plan in regard to wardrobe:
“I wear a tie to funerals and my players’ weddings. Now when you’re at a place 20 years like I’ve been I’ve got a lot of players getting married, so I’m having to break the tie out every now and then.
“I only have maybe two in stock in the closet.”
And Brey takes that approach one step further with his team.
“There’s a big sign in our locker room and I boiled my team meetings down to that. ‘Don’t skip class, don’t throw the ball away–and you and I will get along just fine.’ We try to keep it simple.
“You try to get guys to play with a free mind, not looking over at the bench worried about if they make a mistake they’re going to be pulled out of the game or jumped on.
“That’s been something we tried to evolve into. One of the things I really tried to evolve into the last 10 years is really be a confidence-giver with these young people. How can you give confidence?
“Certainly I’m challenged with this current group because I’ve got a lot of young guys. Sometimes you’re trying to find silver linings on performance when there aren’t many, but you’ve still got to find them with young guys. You’ve still got to find them.”
Brey kidded in his one-on-one conversation with Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde that his long-term business relationship with Notre Dame makes his approach a sensible one.
“I have a pretty good contract, so that’s one of the reasons I’m a little looser. Believe me, my first two or three years trying to get that first extension, you’re a little different.
“I think there has been a little shift in our profession where guys are letting young people play. Maybe that’s evolving down from the NBA and really good players are going to only go to programs where they’re allowed to flow a little bit on the offensive end and not be coached robotically.
“That’s an interesting dynamic in the midst of winning and wanting be to keep your job and wanting to please and yet being good with your guys and not uptight around them and not letting them feel it.
“That’s the great challenge as the leader. Last night (in an 85-80 loss to Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden) I was very anxious. I wanted our young guys to really do well on Broadway. We didn’t win, but we did some things I think we can build on.
“The generation of players coming along now, between all the TV they watch, all the NBA they watch, all the stuff they pull up on the computer–they know the scouting report on a team we’re going to play before we talk about it.
“So there is a basketball IQ and intelligence with this generation of kids where I think you’ve got to give them a little credit and let them play a little bit–and then certainly let them kind of take ownership of their team.”
And Brey loves the players he is able to recruit to South Bend and the way they fit that model.
“I’ve been really blessed where I’ve coached. I’ve been there 20 years with Notre Dame and am honored to be there. We get a pretty sharp guy out there, a guy with a really high bar who wants to be a great player and he doesn’t want to get a B. And so I’ve sometimes got to say, ‘Would you relax a little bit? You got a C minus? You missed two shots in a row? Can you relax a little bit?
“I think a lot of this generation is like that–they just want it so bad. They’ve had parents that maybe are more demanding than in the past. They’ve got trainers that they go home to in the summer. So they’re answering to a lot of people. I think what I’ve tried to get them to do is this: Can you enjoy the journey with this thing?”
Brey also understands he is going to see more parents with a vested interest in their son’s progress.
“I do know that my next coaching job is going to be at an orphanage,” he says. “There is a very engaged parent now. There is no question about it. They are watching film. They are comparing.
“That is a big part of the equation and how we manage that. I try to make sure the staff checks in with the parents every two weeks. Let’s make a phone call and touch base. And certainly sometimes the parents call you.
“But I think it’s a big part of wanting to know how to manage the young man–knowing maybe what’s being heard from home and what the tone is coming from the house. I think it’s all part of the growth of the kid.
“In the recruiting process certainly you develop a great relationship with the parents. In a lot of the ways at our institution, the parents see Notre Dame as the option maybe a little bit before the kid does. We certainly use that to our advantage to try and close the deal out.
“After we get them, then I’ve got to wean myself off a little bit and let the assistants handle them. But I think there has to be communication because that voice is there with that young man maybe almost daily by way of text. There is just heavy communication there. It’s all part of the development of them.”
Brey also has succeeded in selling the Irish system that features free-flowing spacing and a comfort level on offense.
“I had a young man by the name of Rob Kurz from Philadelphia who was the first stretch‑four man who could step out and face the bucket. It opened the floor up and really gave us great spacing.
“That’s really kind of how we’ve tried to play since then, going back maybe 12, 13 years ago. We’ve had good success with it.
“This group being younger is really trying to find itself offensively right now, but it’s a fun way to play. I think it’s an efficient way to play. It’s a great system to recruit to. Kids want to play this way.
“When you’re recruiting, kids want to see the style of play and know how we are going to play. That floor being open and good spacing and kids being able to drive it and shoot it and play with a free mind I think is a selling point.
“I think it’s an attractive style of play for your fans. Fans want to see the ball move and the ball go in the hole. And I think our kids get better because they’re able to do a little more every year and there is a little freedom to play in that system. Just keep the floor spaced.”
Notre Dame’s head coach has become one of the national spokesmen for the state of college basketball over the last year and a half—and he doesn’t shy away from the issues.
“We are still digging ourselves out of a hole,” he says. “We’ve taken a big punch. We’re actively now talking about and moving in the direction to try and help some things. We’ve always had this ‘underworld’ in our sport. We all know it in this room.
“It has now been thoroughly thrown out there and there’s more to come, and I think it’s good. My feeling is, let’s get it all out, flush it all out. But in the midst of this, can we be supportive of some of the movement here to try and fix some things?
“We are not going to do it in a year or two. This is going to happen over time. But I feel we’re talking about some things that can really improve the situation. We’re not going to know it in the short‑term, but I think down the road we’re going to see some changes.
“In the midst of it obviously we still have ongoing trials. We still have the NCAA to get involved. For our sport, let’s just get it all out, let’s take our medicine, take it like a man, and move on and try and work with some of these things that Condoleezza Rice’s commission has suggested by way of the NABC. Let’s move in that direction and try and improve some things.
“The one thing that hopefully can help us is I do believe the shoe companies are backing up a little bit, and they have agreed to some transparency with us as suggested by Condoleezza’s commission. If we can get them to just back it up a little bit and help us, I think maybe it’s a start.
“I think the climate is changing. I really do. We’ve got to keep the heat on with some of the rules and some of the different things that Rice’s commission has suggested.
“And some of them are going to be trial and error, too, I think. We are going to have to try them for a year or two and say, ‘I don’t know if we like that. Let’s adjust.’ I think we’ll be in that window maybe for the next five to 10 years to do that.
“I do think one of the key pieces of Rice’s commission was stronger enforcement and really stronger penalties. When some of those hard hits come, I think that’s going to help across the board.
“Certainly we have read all the implications and accusations, but we don’t have all the information on what’s going on. So I think we all understand we’re going to have to be pretty patient with this. It’s going to take time to level penalties, and then it’s going to take time for us to figure out what is the new template for recruiting.
“We’re going to try some stuff this spring and summer. Is it going to be the end‑all, be‑all in five years? Maybe not. But I think we’ve started something here that’s going to be interesting. It’s going to help.”
One issue Brey knows must be addressed is the age at which players can enter the professional basketball world.
“These young phenoms, if they’re good enough to go, let them go,” he says. “I think that’s a good thing. That’s not a big number of young people. So the majority of the coaches don’t deal with it.
“If you have a young freak of nature phenom that can go, just go. They talk about the baseball rule, but we’re not going to get that.
“And if you could have a young man two years on a campus, that certainly would be an improvement. You can get a lot done with a young man in two years on campus.”
Brey also understand there’s a big world out there full of agents and advisers who want to “influence” the better college players.
“It’s just the climate and the dynamic, the dream of getting to the league, somebody else in their ear.
“The whole aspect of getting the agents in the room where we can at least look them in the eye and there is some communication I really think is the step in the right direction. All that has been in hiding before that.”
The Irish coach also suggested there is more to come in the name, likeness and image debate:
“I think that is a step in the right direction, I do. Now, I don’t know how the heck we do this thing. This still sounds really complicated and it’s probably a good question for (NCAA president) Mark Emmert. So I don’t know how we do it, but I do think that would be another way of helping a young person out financially.
“And they’re doing pretty good right now. Guys are in summer school and they’ve got their room and board check and it’s great. It’s awesome. It should be like that.
“We can give them more than bagels now.”
Brey also had a chance to reminisce about his eight seasons as a Mike Krzyzewski assistant coach at Duke.
“Philosophically when I was there, it was four‑year guys. It’s hard to believe that a Grant Hill or a Bobby Hurley stayed all four years. If it was now they wouldn’t, but they did back then.
“Mike has been great about evolving and changing with the times. I think the biggest thing–what was great when I went down there–he let me get my hands on everything. And that really prepared me for being a head coach when I went to Delaware in 1995.
“The whole theme was about competing every day, even in the off‑season with recruiting and marketing and how you sell your program.”
Brey had a chance to identify his best Notre Dame team and the best team his squad has faced:
“That 2015 team that won the ACC championship was a neat group. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton were two seniors who kind of helped me run the team and took ownership of the group.
“To win an ACC championship on Tobacco Road, going through Duke and Carolina to win it, was a great memory for us and a great achievement for our program.
“I’ve almost always had these older groups–a bunch of juniors and seniors that have helped me run the team and taken ownership of the group. That is so fun to witness as the leader, when your captains are managing the locker room and managing the young guys. It’s really a neat thing to see.
“The best team we’ve played against?
“Well, maybe the regional final in 2015 with Kentucky in Cleveland. I saw some clips the other day on ESPN of that Kentucky team and the bodies they had. Obviously, they’re all playing in the NBA now, but we played them right to the wire in Cleveland. That was an amazingly gifted group to play against.
“We were older. We controlled the tempo. We were smart.
“That team was a smart team, an old team–and we had nothing to lose.
“We just couldn’t quite finish it.”