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.