Notre Dame head men's basketball coach Mike Brey

Mike Brey: Things I Know, Part II

March 9, 2011

By John Heisler

What do I do to relax? I’m a workout guy. I’m actually thinking about trying a sprint triathlon or two. I’ll swim, I’ll cross-train, I’ll bike. I’ll run, lift a little bit. That’s the way I stay fresh. I’ve been swimming since August and my mom is so proud of me. My mom tried to make swimmers out of me and my brother, but we snuck out of practice andwent to basketball camp. I’m into swimming and biking right now.

There are no TV shows I watch right now. I was a big “Sopranos” guy. And I was a big “Boardwalk Empire” guy on HBO. I’ll watch some HBO specials. I was a history teacher, so history stuff, leadership books, military leaders, that’s the stuff that really interests me. I’m really intrigued right now with different ways of leading, different ways of motivating your group. And right now I’m tired of listening to coaches, football or basketball. I’m interested in politicians, CEOs. One of the best shows I’ve seen lately was Fareed Zakaria – about a month ago he had a special with Christie Whitman, Tony Blair and a couple of other people on leadership.

The book I read right before the season started was “Outliers” (by Malcolm Gladwell). It reaffirmed some things and it made me confident in doing what I do at a high level. I recommended it to (assistant coaches) Rod (Balanis) and Martin (Ingelsby) because they are sons of coaches. It kind of convinces you it’s your destiny and you’re really prepared.

I was there at Duke when Mike (Krzyzewski) physically wore himself out and missed a season. So I think I’ve learned to physically pace myself through a year, through a season, when to shut it down.

Right now it’s hard for me to watch a live BIG EAST game because I’ve watched so much basketball by now. The guys will say so and so are playing tonight, but you get to know systems and styles after this long in the league. The biggest thing is staying fresh for your group so you have energy to teach. I’ve learned that through longevity – to have your energy high.

I got into wearing the mock turtleneck at Delaware because it’s a bus league and it was about comfort. After the second or third year, I thought, we’re gonna play Boston University and then it’s a six-hour ride back to Newark, Delaware. I’m just gonna do this. Now it’s evolved into an identity. There are a couple of assistants in the BIG EAST doing it now. I wear ties to funerals and weddings and when I do I’ll get 20 comments.

John Gordon was my point guard at Delaware. He has a landscaping business in Rehoboth Beach (Delaware). Tony Kornheiser (longtime Washington Post sports columnist and now on PTI on ESPN) has a place in Rehoboth two blocks from me. John does Tony’s yard and last summer Tony found out he had played for me and he told him, “You’ve got to get him in a tie, he looks like some kind of prep school guy.” So sometimes it’s larger than life.

Digger (Phelps) has been a good friend and a mentor. He was a little bit distant from the program when I got here and my goal was to get him and some of our former players to feel good enough about our program that they’d want to come back and reconnect. It was my fourth year and I said to him, “How about coming to a game next week?” – and he said, “Al McGuire told me never to come back.” So I didn’t touch it. But now he’ll come to games again.

The one thing about Digger, when we talk privately and alone, is that he sat in this chair. Nobody else sat in that seat.

I listened to the broadcast of one of our games from a few weeks back and one of the things Jay Bilas says is Mike can really connect with kids because he was a high school teacher. That means a lot to me because that’s the basis of my ability, to communicate.

Be a confidence-giver. That’s a theme I talk to our staff about. I think that’s what I try to do. That comes from coaching and teaching at the high school level and having young people who aren’t sure of themselves. So you have to do that more on a daily basis with a fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year old. And nothing has changed.

The lessons I learned being a classroom high school teacher for five years, I use them every day as a college basketball coach. Giving young people confidence – when you do it, it’s amazing what can be achieved.

I used to watch some video at home but not much any more. It’s the law of diminishing return. I stopped bringing video home because I think it wears you down a little bit. You’re doing so much here so you’ve got to get away.

One thing I learned from Tony Blair is that most leaders don’t take the time or have the energy for strategic thought. You can get so wrapped up in the day to day. That’s what I’ve tried to do, not getting in here at nine in the morning. I may not get in until 11. I’ve been doing my practice plans while I’m swimming — my head’s under water because nobody can talk to me. So at night I’ll read something or watch something different. You’ve got to find a way to decompress because our profession is really susceptible to burnout. You have to pace yourself through a year and through a career.

In those first few minutes after a game ends, as I’m walking to the tunnel, I’m trying to figure out what I’m gonna say and how I can frame it for the next win. It’s been good for this particular team to see my emotion. I chest-bump with (walk-on guard Tom) Kopko. I call `em men, and they see me excited about what we do together because they do it so well. I think through emotion better the longer I coach. They need to see that I’m wired. I hope they’re thinking, “He was excited about how we played together.”

Ben (Hansbrough) is a unique psyche. Guys like him don’t come around much. The only other one I’ve been around like him is Christian Laettner. That’s the ultimate compliment to Ben. The daily drive, the daily competitiveness, the daily pushing his teammates, even pushing them too far at times and ruffling feathers. It makes everyone believe, including his coach. Laettner made coaches believe, too, and this guy is unique that way. My only hope is that our young guys understandwhat this feels like and smells like because I want this to be a lasting legacy after he leaves.

This team, as a whole – they are energizing to be around. It’s the class I love to teach every day. I wish I could go four hours with them. It’s their personalities, their togetherness, their maturity, their intelligence. They’ve got a great vibe about them. As I’ve told them behind closed doors, I’m like a proud dad. Other coaches tell me, “I love your team, I love how they play.” I need our guys to know how proud I am of that.

— ND —