CHICAGO | Thirty-eight years ago, Paul Brey returned home from work to a perplexing request from his son.
All of 13 years old, Mike Brey wanted to play basketball for DeMatha Catholic High School. Didn't matter that he stood 5-foot-3, would be dwarfed by teammates and faced a 20-mile commute from Rockville to Hyattsville each day. His mind was made up.
"He was a little, scroungy kid. But he was a very determined kid," said Paul Brey, then a teacher and athletic director in Montgomery County. "I didn't want to dump a bucket of water on his head. So I said, 'Let me look at it.'"
That started the ride, as Paul Brey calls it, that hasn't stopped. Today, Mike Brey coaches Notre Dame, a No. 2 seed, against Akron to open the NCAA tournament at Chicago's United Center. Despite an unheralded roster, Brey led Notre Dame to 26 wins and its seventh appearance in the tournament in his 11 seasons as coach. Last week he was voted the Big East coach of the year.
"People will say things like, 'He's really come into his own as a coach.' I kind of scoff at that," said Sean Kearney, a close friend of Brey's who coached with him for 14 seasons at Notre Dame and Delaware. "He's been a terrific coach all along. But I think the stars are aligned right now."
Added Brey: "We found a niche. The kids I've got are a lot of gym rats. … I think it's kind of refreshing. I think it's the way the world's going."
Brey, 51, grew up in gyms around the Washington area, experiences that shaped the program he has built in South Bend, Ind. He idolized his uncle, Jack Mullen, a Duke University point guard from 1960-62. Before Brey was old enough to play, he perched on the end of the bench to watch his father coach Rockville's Julius West Junior High and stopped by practice to help with drills and chat up players. The family's athletic focus extended to his mother, Betty, who swam at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and coached women's swimming at George Washington University.
By the time Brey was 23, he was an assistant to Morgan Wootten at DeMatha, the head junior varsity coach ("Learn to call your own timeouts," Wootten said), taught five history classes each day and helped with the school's weekend bingo fundraisers. In the summer, Brey piled his younger brother, Shane, and three others into his Toyota Celica each morning and drove to Wootten's Metropolitan Area Basketball Camp at St. John's High School that he ran.
Wootten brought him aboard with a simple promise: DeMatha had so many good players that Brey would meet every great college coach in the country. One of those coaches, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, got to know Brey while recruiting Danny Ferry at DeMatha. Ferry went to Duke and so did Brey, as an assistant coach in 1987.
"One time we had 13 DeMatha players who were D1 head coaches. Hiccup stories with a lot of them," Wootten said. "Can't think of one with Mike. He was that good. … He paid the price."
Wootten watches each Notre Dame game. The old coach texts Brey after most of them. Each message brings a smile to Brey, who can't believe Wootten knows how to text. At first, Brey didn't believe the texts were really from Wootten.
One arrived after Notre Dame beat Pitt earlier this season. In the game, Brey used his "burn" strategy to leech time off the clock — one shot per possession, slowed tempo and the like. Wootten texted: "Burn, baby, burn."
"He's still a voice of reason and a mentor today," said Brey, who started attending Wootten's basketball camps at 9 years old. "Morgan is an educator and a teacher and a communicator. … That's probably the biggest thing I've taken from him."
Notre Dame assistant Rod Balanis played under Brey at DeMatha and still needles him about being too smart for the remedial history course Brey taught. Brey is like his older brother.
"He's a great calming influence to his players and his staff. That's the way he coaches and that's the way we play," Balanis said. "People talk about our offensive system, but we have a freedom in this program to do something and not worry about making mistakes."
Three weeks ago, Brey junked Notre Dame's shootaround routine in favor of a game of knockout. Brey took the first shot, an airball. That night the Irish hit a school-record 20 3-pointers and beat Villanova.
That's classic Brey, like the mock turtlenecks he wears on the bench. To scream or berate players on the sideline isn't his style. He's approachable. A communicator. Someone who listens. Even remembers names. An old adage of Wootten's guided him: Be the kind of coach you want your son or daughter to play for. Brey has an adage of his own: You can't hit someone in the back of the head with a two-by-four all the time.
Paul Brey sees his parenting style in that. Don't yell or carry on. Give the kid a reason why something didn't work or find a way around the problem without conflict.
Just don't mistake that for a lack of intensity, same as the 13-year-old kid who didn't want to hear no 38 years ago.
After an overtime loss at Louisville in 2006 — Notre Dame's fifth in a row — the pilot on the charter flight back to South Bend offered a tour of the cockpit. Two freshmen — Zach Hillesland and Kyle McAlarney — headed up.
"I could almost see steam coming out of (Brey's) ears," Kearney said. "There's a very fierce competitor inside. … There's the level of competitiveness that burns inside him to put out the best team he possibly can each night."
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