Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, who has seen it all, says Marcus Freeman is going to ‘pay dividends for us’
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — On the eve of his 13th NCAA Tournament as Notre Dame’s head coach, Mike Brey took to the podium and delivered an opening statement that summed up just how long he has led the Irish.
“This is my fifth Rutgers basketball coach I’ll coach against,” Brey said before his First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio. “The only program that’s had more coaches in my tenure is Notre Dame football. They’ve had six.”
Brey, who appeared on “The Shamrock” this week after ACC spring meetings, has witnessed failures, successes and downright unbelievable stories from the regimes of Bob Davie to Marcus Freeman and everyone in between.
Count the short-lived George O’Leary era among those unbelievable stories. Even if Brey — or at least one of his former assistants — has the physical proof to remind everyone that O’Leary’s five-day tenure actually did happen in South Bend in 2001.
“I was filming my TV show with Jack Nolan at WNDU, and Anthony Solomon, in his first stint with me, (and) he texted me and goes, ‘I don’t think Coach O’Leary’s going to be here anymore,’ ” Brey recalled on the podcast. “And I’m like, Whoa, what are you talking (about)? ‘Something’s going on.’ And so we get back and certainly it’s a tornado around the JACC and I’m hiding — we got the conference room shut, media’s looking, ‘Can we get a comment?’ And I don’t even know what’s going on.
“And we sat in there and they had already put the nameplate up, ‘George O’Leary,’ in the football office, which was my office for a while before we all moved out. And we were saying, ‘Somebody better go down there and take that nameplate. That is going to be valuable.’ So I say (former Irish men’s basketball assistant Rod) Balanis has that. He may want to put it on eBay some day. But one of the great stories in my tenure. And Marcus is football coach No. 6, and you just kind of ride the wave with them.”
The Athletic has reached out to Balanis, now the associated head coach at Howard, for confirmation of the whereabouts of said nameplate. But the story, apocryphal in nature, serves a larger purpose.
The Notre Dame football job is a beast. But Brey thinks Freeman is more than cut out for it.
“I think the biggest thing is to be himself, and I think he’s gotten great advice from his football mentors and our AD about it, and Niele (Ivey),” Brey said. “You’ve got to find who you are. You can’t be Muffet (McGraw).
“He’s certainly not going to be Brian Kelly,” he added, laughing. “That’s a good one, right?”
Brey cops to have not yet met Freeman in person, given the hectic nature of both of their schedules. Brey, Ivey and AD Jack Swarbrick were all at ACC spring meetings with their peers from other ACC schools, but Freeman wasn’t, since the Irish are not a full member in football.
Still, the 23rd-year Irish men’s basketball coach hopes to be a sounding board for Freeman should he need any advice.
“When I got my head job at Delaware, I made my mistakes. They weren’t on ESPN and I screwed some things up in the early years,” Brey said. “Marcus, how about his opener (at Ohio State)? I mean, he’s right there on the stage, but he’s kind of built for it. He played at that level. He’s been around. He’s been around the scene. He’s young and energetic, and (in tune with) the changes of college athletics and recruiting. And I think it’s going to really pay dividends for us. And he wants to be here. He’s embraced our mission, I think.
“In one year, he quickly learned our mission is a little different, man. And you can’t change Notre Dame. But there’s a lot of great things to sell. And I think he’s found that niche. So whatever he needs, I’m there, and maybe he’ll talk me off the ledge next year, if we lose a tough one.”
Brey drew some attention — and ire around his industry — earlier in the week with his remarks about coaches needing to “Shut up and adjust” to the current recruiting environment.
Overlooking the beach while enjoying a burger and fries outside the Ritz-Carlton, the self-proclaimed “loosest coach in America” was certainly practicing what he was preaching.
“After 22 South Bend winters, this is pretty good looking out over the ocean,” he said, later adding: “I think my comments (Tuesday), as I’ve worked through it with my staff since July 1 when name, image and likeness was made legal, official, obviously there’s some amazing deals out there for young people. I just think we’ve got to adjust and stop complaining about it and try and use it to our advantage at Notre Dame.
“Jack Swarbrick has been very aggressive and creative in trying to help our student-athletes maximize this. It’s not supposed to be used in recruiting, but it has been. They’re going to try and dial that back. I think that’s going to take some time to do that. We never wanted boosters involved in recruiting. It was like rule no. 1 in the 700-page NCAA handbook. So there’s got to be some ways to kind of form this, and do this. In the midst of that, whining, pointing fingers, complaining, it doesn’t do any good. And as I said (Tuesday): Last time I checked, we’re all making a pretty good living in this coaching profession.”
(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)