No current Notre Dame basketball player was alive the last time the program reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament (1978). The Fighting Irish last advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2003.
Even with lackluster postseason performances in head coach Mike Brey’s 12 years, it was the sweat that went into simply being in the mix again that made Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick confident that a breakthrough is brewing.
“We’re in business to win NCAA championships,” Swarbrick said Tuesday when he announced Brey agreed to a 10-year contract extension. “If I didn’t think Mike Brey could win an NCAA championship in basketball we wouldn’t be sitting here today. I believe he can. I believe this program can. Mike touched on the ‘program’ word a lot and that really is it. It is so hard to establish the culture of a successful collegiate program in NCAA sports. And when you get it, and when you get it as right as this one is, you really want to embrace it.”
Brey inherited a program that hadn’t been invited to the NCAAs in a decade and was set back after former coach Matt Doherty left South Bend after one season (1999-2000) to take the head job at North Carolina. Stabilization was Brey’s first priority. Once that was accomplished, consistency became the focus.
“In some ways, relative to winning a national championship, which is going to be our goal, Mike has done all the hard work. He just has to win six games in March now. The hard stuff is building the foundation. We’re the national champions in graduation rate in college basketball; we’re teaching young men in extraordinary ways. We’re competing in the best conference in basketball. We got all the hard stuff done; we’ll go the last mile now.”
The job security with which Brey now operates (the contract runs through the 2021-22 campaign) has emboldened the coach.
“We talk about giving confidence to our players here and our program,” Brey said. “That’s a theme and I think we do a pretty darn good job at that. That gives me confidence as a coach. I think it makes you more fearless as a coach. Our profession is not the most secure, but when you know you have that kind of support I think you want to go for it even more. It’s an honor [at] a place like this. The coaches that have come through — not just basketball — but the coaches that have come through this university ... to be committed to like this university has with me is kind of humbling.
“We hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years and we just needed to get bids. And we needed to get a couple bids in a row to look like we belonged again, and we did that. We hit our three NITs in a row and we were searching again. Then we got into another gear since then. ... Playing deep into the NCAA Tournament, going back to the Final Four. It’s been a long time. ... That’s what we shoot for.”