Feb. 3, 2003
Irish head coach Mike Brey granted access along with three other college coaches to author Brian Curtis to follow him and his team for the 2001-02 season. Brey, along with UCLA’s Steve Lavin, Illinois’ Bill Self and Iowa’s Steve Alford, are the subject of Curtis’ book, The Men of March: A Season Inside the Lives of College Basketball Coaches, which follows each coach through their season.
Brian Curtis is a journalist, coach, educator and fan. Most recently, he was a sports reporter and broadcaster for Fox Sports Net based in Los Angeles, primarily covering college basketball and college football. He was nominated for two Los Angeles Emmy Awards in 2001. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and holds a Masters Degree in Sports Administration from Ohio University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government from the University of Virginia. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, Tamara.
The following is an expert from The Men of March: A Season Inside the Lives of College Basketball Coaches which is currently available in bookstores nationwide:
THE NOTRE DAME COACHES GATHERED IN THE BASKETBALL CONFERENCE ROOM FOR their daily staff meeting on Thursday, November 29.The major topic of concern was preparing for DePaul, whom they would face on Saturday in Chicago at the inaugural Dell Classic 4 Kids. The coaches previewed a two-minute “hustle tape” of Irish players diving on the floor for loose balls against Army. Assistant Sean Kearney, who had watched tape of the DePaul-Syracuse game as part of his scouting preparations, briefed the staff on key DePaul players. Mike Brey had already been thinking for days about how to beat DePaul-the press. He pointed out to his assistants that in a teleconference with reporters earlier in the week, DePaul coach Pat Kennedy said, in a polite manner, that the Notre Dame guards were slow. Perhaps DePaul would press, Brey conjured up, and certainly would play David Graves and Matt Carroll tight. What better way to prove Kennedy wrong about his guards’ speed than to press DePaul back?
The staff went over the itinerary for the Chicago trip, including team attire, departure, meal times, and ticket information. At the conclusion of the 25-minute meeting, Brey repeated his theme from the night before in the Army postgame locker room. “We are poor and there is no money in the bank.”
At the start of practice, Brey showed the players the hustle tape and the team seemed to enjoy watching themselves and their teammates hit the floor. Practice this day was relatively light, as Ryan Humphrey took it easy on a sore ankle, as did Harold Swanagan with tendonitis in his right forearm. Brey introduced the team to the “32” defense, a full-court, trapping press that he thought they could use effectively against DePaul.The coach walked the players through the general concepts and player positioning in the press, and then had them scrimmage five-on-five, with both teams employing “32.” After some shooting drills, broken up into bigs and perimeters, Brey put an end to practice, but instructed the players to hit the weight room.The coach joined them; not to bulk up, but to ride the exercise bike.
The team arrived at the Wyndham Plaza Hotel in downtown Chicago around 7:15 P.M. on Friday, November 30, and many of the players headed out to famed Michigan Avenue to walk around or shop, dressed in their Notre Dame sweats. Brey retreated to his hotel room to make some phone calls, while Anthony Solomon and Kearney watched the Arkansas-Oklahoma game in their room. Solomon made a few calls, including one to the high school coach of one of the Irish’s big recruits coming in the following year. The team met in a second-floor banquet room at 9:00 P.M. for Mass (see chapter 7) and adjourned next door for a late meal of sandwiches, ice cream, and sodas. As the meal concluded, Brey gathered the team in a huddle and asked them to get focused. On road trips, Brey has very few team rules, no curfews, and no problems. He treats his players like men and in return, they act like men. Maybe it is the type of young man who goes to Notre Dame or maybe it’s the buildup of trust between coach and players.
On the road trips, the managers handle the per diem food money, game tickets for coaches and players, as well as the travel plans. The student-managers are the best of the best at Notre Dame, having gone through an intensive two-year Managers’ Program. Managers must go through a mandatory two-year assignment with the football program, and then, if so inclined, they can apply to work for other teams. It is a highly structured and competitive program.
On game day, the team ate breakfast at 9:30 A.M., a meal of French toast, eggs, and bacon.Trainer Skip Meyer checked on the status of Humphrey’s ankle and Swanagan’s forearm off to the side in the breakfast room.They both seemed able to play, but would be watched closely throughout the game.The team gathered in the lobby of the Wyndam and got on the bus at 11:30 A.M. for the 20-minute ride to the United Center, the home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks.
The visiting hockey team’s locker room at the United Center doubled as a basketball locker room on this day and is typical of most new arenas. Pine lockers, close to three feet wide, surround the room, each with a small wooden seat and a place to hang clothes. One wall of the locker room has a large wipeboard, and a 19-inch television set is configured above the board. A red LCD game clock is mounted just above the television. An adjacent training room/bathroom area is large by visiting room standards, with three sinks, three urinals, three toilets, and a large shower area. And this is where Mike Brey stood just a few minutes before tip-off against DePaul.
Dressed in his typical maroon mock turtleneck with black pants, the coach had his arms crossed and stood in the shower area under the spigots. But there was no water. He had found the pregame solitude that he so craves, away from the media, assistant coaches, and his team. It was his time to think. As personable as Brey is at any given moment, he is untouchable before tip-off. The players dressed in the locker room, with the CD “Fabulous” blaring dirty lyrics throughout the room.The Notre Dame priest assigned to this road trip seemed not to notice. He was wrapped up in conversation with one of the old team doctors, a stately gentleman whose appearance only on game day was not lost on the players.
As the game clock from the opening game of the doubleheader,Texas and Stanford, counted down from 00:35, the music blasted as the players discussed among themselves intensity and hard work. David Graves watched the clock intensely, knowing that 00:00 meant game time. “I guess we’ll know if it goes overtime if they reset the clock to 5:00,” the senior captain noted, aware from the team managers that the opening game was tight as the end neared.The game buzzer sounded faintly in the locker room as the clock hit 00:00.Three seconds later it read 5:00. So another delay and another dry shower for Brey. He had poked his head out from the bathroom area as the clock wound down, as if to prep himself for his entrance. But as the first game headed into overtime, he disappeared yet again. Finally, Texas completed its upset win over the ranked Cardinal, and the Irish players grabbed folding chairs, arranged them in a semicircle and awaited their coach. Brey had been isolated for more than 40 minutes, enough time to concoct a pregame speech worthy of Vince Lombardi to his 6-0 team.
“Let’s play hard and methodical. Continue our good start and begin a tough three-game stretch well. Let’s go.”The coach clapped his hands three times and the players bolted out of their seats to form a human swarm with their arms raised together. They recited a two-line prayer (this is Notre Dame) followed by the team chant of “Together.” The whole pregame speech, prayer, and chant took a whopping 27 seconds.
There are some coaches who live for the spotlight, and a few that shine that light on their players. Taking advantage of every moment to espouse encouragement or rehash information before games, some coaches talk incessantly. From the moment a team dresses for a game until the moment they leave the locker room for the floor, attention is commanded, and given, to the man in charge. Brey is not one of those guys.
“The longer I coach, the less I coach. I am afraid of overcoaching. I used to say there are guys in our business who coach every dribble. Like before the game, I like to stay away so they can talk amongst themselves until I come in and set the tone.”The coach continues, “Look, a kid can only remember so much. I try to hit them with the highlights, as I like to say. One or two key things about the opponents and about our game plan. I don’t want to inundate them with information before a game.”
Having honed his coaching philosophy from his years with Morgan Wootten and Mike Krzyzewski, Brey developed his “hands-off” approach by his third year at Delaware. He came to realize that his teams responded better when they were given space, and the coach stepped out of the spotlight before games. Brey’s approach is atypical in today’s college game, but his successes at Delaware and Notre Dame have validated the approach. The routine in Chicago was no different than during most Notre Dame pregames.
Home or away, the players relax as they stretch and dress, listening to the latest hard-core rap on a CD player. The assistant coaches walk around the locker room, reminding individuals of the specifics of the man they will be guarding. As in Chicago, Brey is nowhere to be seen. At home games, he stays in the coaches’ locker room, a long walk away from the team, spending time by himself, collecting his thoughts. It is only when the team comes off the floor 30 minutes before tip-off does Brey usually appear. He wants his players to talk with one another, encourage each other and motivate each other. With a veteran team but uptight seniors, Brey wants them to be as loose as possible before games. Graves will often throw out encouragement, punctuated by the deep bass voice of Humphrey, who will remind the team to have fun. There is certainly chatter in a Notre Dame locker room, exactly what Brey wants.
Notre Dame and DePaul had not faced off since 1994, and what was once a heated national rivalry, was not anymore.The Irish came into the game 6-0, but still unranked, while Pat Kennedy’s team struggled to get back to an elite level. Thirty minutes before tip-off, Brey had given the team a two-minute scouting report on DePaul’s top players. He reminded his team to play hard-nosed defense and methodical basketball. Just five days after Iowa lost to Duke in the same building, Brey and his assistants followed their team onto the floor of the United Center. After the coach emerged from the tunnel, his daughter, Callie, screamed, “Dad! Dad!,” as she leaned over the railing five rows up. Her father stopped and leaned over, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and continued to walk to the court.
Brey told his team to “set the tone early” immediately before the tip, and the game started off well for the Irish. Point guard Chris Thomas controlled the tempo running the offensive sets called out by his coach. On defense, the sets are 12 + 21, variations of zone and man-to-man.The Irish opened with the “32” press, used to slow down the offense, which DePaul was not expecting, and it forced the Blue Demons into early turnovers. By the time the first media timeout came at 15:45, Notre Dame was crushing DePaul, 14-4. “Sometimes it can be too easy,” Brey warned his team in the timeout huddle. “You can see that we can pretty much do what we want tonight. Let’s go out there and play methodically.”
Since everything about Brey is short, including his timeouts, the team broke the huddle and then milled around on the floor by the bench, waiting for the horn. Out of the timeout, Notre Dame continued to play well, though Brey was not thrilled with some poor shot selections. Midway through the half, Graves missed a bad three and was quickly replaced by Carroll who was getting some rest on the bench.Thomas launched an awkward runner, earning him a seat on the bench, and was replaced by Chris Markwood. In a rather comical and sly move, Thomas originally took a seat in the middle of the bench, but at every available moment, made his way down closer to the coaches’ end, one seat at a time, encouraging them to put him back in.
At halftime, with a comfortable 41-26 lead, Brey didn’t have much to say. “I think we both know we should be up by 25, you know that. Just keep playing methodical basketball.” He warned the squad to expect DePaul to come out hard in the second half.
DePaul did play more physical in the second stanza, but Notre Dame was simply too much, increasing the lead to 19 with just over 17 minutes remaining. Frustration set in for DePaul and the play turned from rough to cheap. On one play, with under seven minutes remaining, DePaul guard Imari Sawyer sucker-punched Graves in the groin, sending the Irish captain to the floor writhing in pain. Irish assistant Anthony Solomon leaped out of his chair and screamed at the officials, who apparently did not see the play. Graves got helped off of the court as Humphrey challenged a DePaul player, chest to chest. In the ensuing timeout, Brey pleaded with his players to keep their composure. “Let’s be men out there, don’t go after anyone. DePaul is frustrated. And please, let me yell at the refs, not you.We need everyone for Indiana so don’t be stupid.”
The game was over well before the final horn, and in the last timeouts, Brey again reminded his players to keep cool in the closing minutes and in the postgame handshakes. They followed his wishes. The final score was 82-55, and Notre Dame was 7-0 for the first time since 1979. Humphrey scored 18 points and grabbed 16 boards, Swanagan added 16, and Graves had 14. Back in the locker room, as the team celebrated, Brey praised them for the constant effort and for keeping their cool. “Now we focus on Indiana,” he told the team and, before letting them talk to the media, reminded the players to talk up DePaul in the press.