Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey talks with local media before the 58th Calumet Region Sportsmanship Dinner at Villa Cesare in Schererville Monday evening. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 15, 2012 9:45AM
SOUTH BEND — This is nothing new to Mike Brey. Not because he grew up in the shadow of Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse. Not because he spent eight years as an assistant coach at Duke, recruiting up and down Tobacco Road. And not because he’s built the Notre Dame men’s basketball program largely on East Coast kids.
No, moving to the ACC — whether it’s next year, as he seems to suspect and athletic director Jack Swarbrick seems to hope, or a year or two later — is nothing new to Brey because he’s been the oddball before.
He’s been the geographical curiosity. He’s been the newcomer in a tradition-rich, talent-laden league.
And he did just fine the first time, thank you very much.
“When we joined the Big East (in 1995), we were the lone outpost out here,” Brey said. “There wasn’t Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Louisville. Now, we’re kind of the lone outpost again. I kind of like that. Any school south of Maryland, when they come in January and February, we will not be shoveling the parking lot or the driveways.”
This is just one more challenge for a guy who craves challenges. One more bar to raise, then hurdle over. After all, the ACC — with Syracuse and Pittsburgh and now Notre Dame waiting in the wings — is the new Big East, the new land of eight, nine, maybe 10 NCAA Tournament bids. And the Irish have been a top-tier team in the top-tier conference for several years now, a seventh-seed or higher in five of the last six NCAA Tournaments. And while the Irish’s performances in those tournaments haven’t been great, you don’t get those kinds of seeds without doing awfully well in an awfully tough league.
So the ACC? With Duke and North Carolina? With Florida State and N.C. State? With Syracuse and Pitt? Bring it on.
“Man, that league, that depth — wait a minute, have you seen what I’ve been dealing with the last four or five years?” Brey said. “I told our guys, fellas, we’re going into a tough league. But it’s not like we haven’t dealt with this before, this unbelievable depth. I’m mentally prepared for that. You’re just going to different places.”
That might be the biggest difference of all. The recruiting circles are largely the same — Brey said that back when rumors were swirling months ago that he and women’s coach Muffet McGraw practically begged Swarbrick to choose either the Big East or the ACC, not the Big 12, so they could retain their East Coast presence. The quality of play is largely the same. Heck, with all the conference realignment, a lot of the schools are the same. But the ACC is known for raucous, on-campus arenas, and playing St. John’s at Madison Square Garden isn’t quite the same as playing Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I think it’s tougher to win on the road in that league,” Brey said. “In the Big East, you have some of those NBA arenas and our people have been able to get tickets and get in there and help us.”
The pending move also makes Brey’s desire for a dedicated practice facility even more urgent. He needs a place that his players can come to at all hours to hone their skills and work with coaches and improve as athletes and basketball players. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt that such a place could be a major recruiting tool as Brey tries to lure more of those East Coast kids a little farther from home than his rivals.
Swarbrick, who’s had the magic touch since taking over at Notre Dame — “I told Father John (Jenkins) that he’s the best hire you ever made,” Brey said — didn’t seem to think that was a problem.
“Across the board this represents a heightened challenge that all of our sports are going to face, a new and energizing competitive challenge,” Swarbrick said. “In the case of basketball, we do have to make sure we equip those teams with what they need, and I do hope a practice facility is part of that. It was already a priority; today it becomes more of a priority.”
Brey’s been in the loop throughout the negotiations, of course, but he still doesn’t know all the details. He doesn’t know if the ACC will continue with an 18-game conference schedule. He doesn’t know what the tournament format will be, or where it will be. He doesn’t know exactly when the conference schedule comes out, only that it’s earlier than the Big East does it.
But he knows that Notre Dame basketball is on the upswing, has been for years. And he knows he’s about to face maybe the biggest challenge he’s faced as a coach — instead of settling in as the Big East’s longest-tenured coach in the wake of Jim Calhoun’s pending retirement and Jim Boeheim’s pending move to the ACC, Brey is the new guy again, a stranger in a strange, yet strangely familiar, land.
And he can’t wait.
“It’s a neat challenge for me at this time of my career,” he said. “We’ve had unbelievable momentum and great consistency in the Big East. Well, let’s go do it in this league now.”