Beyond The Status Quo At ND

For the past six years, the Notre Dame basketball program under head coach Mike Brey is pretty much everything the Irish football program has not been.

Notre Dame men's basketball is dominant at home. Can football do the same?

• Whereas football always seems to deliver less than expected, basketball consistently produces more (at least in the regular season). That’s why Brey has been Big East Coach of the Year in three of those years, and National Coach of the Year in 2011.

In football the past five years, when you realistically expect 10-2, you get 8-4. When you project 8-4, it’s 6-6. And when you tamp down hope enough to anticipate 6-6, it’s 3-9.

Granted, part of that is the historical background. The standard for a “fair to good” season at Notre Dame in football is a top-20 finish, and a “great” one is a top-5 placement, complete with a BCS win (preferably a national title). In basketball, there remains an inferiority complex based on history. Since 1959, the Irish have won back-to-back games in the NCAA Tournament only four times: 1978, 1979, 1987 and 2003.

Whereas in football there always seem to be BCS dreams no matter how poor the track record has been in recent years, in basketball there is more of an underlying, tacit belief that “Sweet 16 is as good as it gets in today’s landscape.”

• Football recruiting has taken on a life of its own, making the actual games in the fall almost ancillary — a sideshow recruits can be entertained by on visits. Prior to last year’s game with USC, there seemed to be more discussion about Notre Dame’s “big recruiting weekend” than the actual game. With basketball, it’s more about, “We’re not going to get the elite players, but you know Brey will put together a cohesive, strong unit with high basketball IQs.”

• The football program is 17-16 at home the past five years, while the basketball program is 100-7 on its home floor the past six. In three of the last six seasons, basketball has not lost at home. Football has finished unbeaten at home once in the last 22 seasons, and none in a record 13 years. Since 2006-07, the .935 winning percentage at home in basketball is the third best in the country, behind only Kansas (106-4, .964) and Utah State (94-6, .940). Most impressive is the 46-7 (.887) Big East ledger at home is the best in the 16-team league.

Meanwhile, the football team is losing to maligned Big East programs such as 2-8 Syracuse in 2008, Connecticut (which just joined the FBS at the turn of the century) and South Florida (2011), which didn’t even have a program until Lou Holtz’s final season at Notre Dame. We won’t get into Tulsa and Navy (twice).

• The basketball program takes care of business against the bottom tier of the Big East. Over the past six years, it has one loss at home (in overtime to St. John’s) against the sextet of DePaul, Providence, Rutgers, Seton Hall, South Florida and St. John’s.

Besides the mandatory graduation rate excellence, there is one common trait shared by both programs for more than a decade: the lack of post-season success (including the Big East Tournament). The football program set an NCAA record with nine straight bowl losses from 1994 through 2006, and is 2-10 overall since then, with zero wins in the BCS format, which was introduced in 1998. Twenty-nine other schools have won a BCS bowl since 1998, and Notre Dame is the only one in top-10 all-time winning percentage that hasn’t.

Under Brey, Notre Dame achieved some initial post-season success early, winning first-round NCAA Tournament games each of his first three seasons, and two in 2003 to reach the Sweet 16. In the nine years hence, Notre Dame has only two NCAA Tournament victories to its credit. Digger Phelps had five NCAA Tournament wins in his last 12 years from 1980-91 and was labeled “stale,” which led to his retirement after 20 years.

The Irish have lost as a 6 seed twice in the first round, first to 11 seed Winthrop (2007) and then Old Dominion (2010). It was bounced in the second round (I refuse to refer to play-in games as the “first round”) as a 2 seed in 2011 by Florida State, and this year again in the first round as a 7 seed by 10 seed Xavier.

One of the most approachable, likeable and cordial figures in collegiate athletics, Brey uncharacteristically reacted defensively and interrupted a reporter’s query prior to this year’s NCAA Tournament when it was stated that coaches at this level are usually judged by how they fare on the Big Stage in March.

“Who said coaches are judged on tournaments?" he asked. "What rule book is that in? Is that your rule book? What's your record? I need to see your playing stats before you start doing that."

It touched a nerve, similar to the way it probably used to with Gene Keady (Purdue) and Norm Stewart (Missouri), who did superb jobs in two-plus decades at their respective schools and have basketball courts named after them there — but never reached the Final Four and often fizzled in post-season action. Brey might be perceived as the Marty Schottenheimer of NCAA basketball. Schottenheimer was an excellent regular season coach (division titles and top records at Cleveland, Kansas City and San Diego), but for whatever reason, struggled in the post-season and would routinely get upset in the first round as a home favorite.

Yet, unlike with Phelps from 1971-91, who thrived in his first 10 years before hitting more of a decline his last 10, Brey’s best coaching days seem to be ahead of him. He has established a culture of winning, developed rapport and confidence amongst his players and the program’s recruiting has gradually been upgraded (even ranking 7th currently in ESPN’s poll for the current 2013 recruiting class).

In the next 10 years, if Brey is wanting to coach that long, expectations of advancing to two or three Sweet 16s shouldn’t be unrealistic anymore, especially with the vote of confidence he received from athletics director Jack Swarbrick. Maybe in one of those runs, that proverbial lightning in a bottle experienced in recent years by schools such as Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason could occur.

These days, to prompt positive news for recruits, athletic departments all over the country are always itching to announce “contract extensions.” Brian Kelly even received one for two years. If he gets to a BCS bowl this year, it might be extended to five (maybe 10 with a win). It serves as good publicity for a school. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney just received a three-year extension through 2017 despite a 6-7 season in 2010 and a 70-33 BCS loss to West Virginia to finish 10-4. What are never discussed are terms of the buyout.

In the coming decade, as in the past, both the Notre Dame football and basketball programs will be expected to eclipse the current status quo.

  • great write up Lou. Hopefully both programs are on an upward trend. ND football needs to start protecting home turf like the basketball team, that would be a good start.

    Two time Poster of The Week, 2011 and 2013.

  • BlueandGold


    I've read so many disparaging remarks about MB and his coaching and how if he remains the HC we'll never see the final four or a NC.

    MB has done more with less than anyone in recent history. His players are developed in the system and play for 4 or 5 years, earn their degrees and most who can, find pro ball at some level.

    Let's face it. ND is not the place for one and done future NBAers and I wouldn't want them. MB is developing a culture of winning and attracting more and better talent each year. He currently has the 7th ranked recruiting class for 2013. When's the last time you saw that for ND basketball.

    During D Phelps rein, ND was one of a select few schools that were always on TV. Ballers came to ND and stayed for 4 years as no early NBA entry existed.

    This is not the case today. Yet, MB continues to attract more and better talent each year. As the wins and notoriety of NB basketball accumulate, top tier talent (that still value an education and the 40 year decision/ND degree) will come. When they do, I expect to see an improvement in tournament play, not to mention better than just sweet 16 finishes.

    MB deserved his new contract (I hope Solomon was included in that extension as well) and I see a bright future for ND basketball.

    Go Irish

    This post was edited by NEEDAVIXEN 22 months ago


    You have a very good handle on where the basketball program was in the 1970s as opposed to how the landscape began to shift in the 1980s, leading to the nadir of the program in the 1990s that ultimately led t to join the Big East in 1995.

    In the 1970s, the basketball landscape tilted very heavily toward Notre Dame. Think about it: Up to 1974, there were only 25 teams taken in the NCAA Tournament, and it expanded to only 32 for most of the 1970s. Until 1976, only the conference winner go could go to the tournament. So in 1974, you had a fabulous Maryland team that was something like 25-3 and No. 4 in the country not eligible for the NCAA Tournament because it didn't win the ACC. Then the next year, ND was invited despite only an 18-8 record as an Independent.

    Good post.

  • Brey has won 2 NCAA tournament games in the last 9 years (he won double that in his first years at ND).

    For all of his success in the regular season, we won 1 Big East title 12 years ago.

    I'm not sure what anybody sees that would make them think these trends will change? If anything his success in the tournament is trending down, to imply that his "best years of coaching are ahead of him" goes against data points (12 years worth)and historical trends of most coaches.

    I just don't think you can evaluate Brey, as a Coach without treating the over-achievement of the regular season and tournament failure as mutually exclusive, to justify a 10 year extension.

    I certainly respect him as a good Coach and a good person. But the reality is Notre Dame is littered with "good guys" that were shown the door. When Brey is gone I fully expect ND to hire another good guy.

    I don't fault Brey, and as I've said before, we could do much worse. And the 100-7 mark at home is incredible by any measure. But I've just seen so many teams make runs, VCU, Gonzaga, Butler...schools that have as many disadvantages as ND, yet they manage. I guess as a fan it really depends on your benchmark for success. Mine is post season. You make runs when it matters most, Brey doesn't. If you are happy with a competitive Big East team (1 title in 12 years) then he is your guy. To each their own....

    This post was edited by kking 22 months ago

    No down-vote please - thank you! No down-vote por favor, gracias ! Gringo Mafia ~ amigo el número cuatro

  • Actually the way I wrote it is wrong. ND won a conference division title 2000-01, season 1. That is Brey's best finish in 12 years....

    This post was edited by kking 22 months ago

    No down-vote please - thank you! No down-vote por favor, gracias ! Gringo Mafia ~ amigo el número cuatro

  • Lou,Another excellent article.One point I would like to add is that the mens basketball team is mentally tougher than the football team.This was shown last season by the football team in their losses to USF.and USC.when they could not overcome two costly fumbles and got the deer in the headlights look.Contrast that to the mens basketball teams three road wins.against Louisville,Conneticut,and Villanova,the latter after being down twenty points at halftime.

  • kking,

    You raise the exact points on why there is so much point-counterpoint with Mike Brey. You and NEEDAVixen would have a good debate with a lot of intelligence discourse.

    I'm sure if we would have gone up to Brey when he was hired in July 2000 and told him, "Mike, we know you'll be here at least 12 years, but you'll make it to the Sweet 16 only once," his reply would have been, "No way. That's unacceptable. We can do better than that."

    I do like the man and am impressed with the regular season work he has done, especially the past six years. It would be difficult to find someone who is better. What is really going to be important is that he doesn't think that, too, that there is a contentment with being in the top three or four in the conference, not being on the bubble, etc.

    He's got to have that hunger to say, "Yeah, this has been a good run, but it's unfulfilling until we have much better post-season success." I think by his 11th year, Digger Phelps felt established and was willing to rest on some laurels. I'm not sure he ever truly had the eye of the tiger that he did in the 1970s, which is why he started talking more and more about his graduation rate, Van Gogh, future political career, etc.

    If you don't have the fire in the belly, it's not going to work.

  • Lou,
    thanks for the reply. I get down voted each time I write a counter point to Brey. Not my intent to offend anyone. I have no idea if anyone could have done better than Brey has, although I often do wonder about the upside of someone else after this long. I'm also fully aware that we could do far, far worse than Brey, and as we've learned so painfully with the football program a coaching change doesn't guarantee success.

    I wish Coach Brey nothing but success, as I do with all ND coaches regardless of sport.

    No down-vote please - thank you! No down-vote por favor, gracias ! Gringo Mafia ~ amigo el número cuatro

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