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  • Time For Point C

    by Mike Coffey

    I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area for most of my life, and the lessons of my sports formative years not imparted by Notre Dame came from there. Growing up, I watched Walter Payton run for the Bears, Carlton Fisk catch for the Sox, and Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick skate for the Hawks. I’m led to understand some baseball was played north of Roosevelt Road, but I have no personal confirmation of that.

    And in 1989, I watched Doug Collins get fired as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

    When Collins took the Bulls job, it was not one a good coach might want to take. Stan Albeck was 30-52 the previous season, and Kevin Lougherty had been just as awful the previous two seasons. But Collins got the Bulls’ feet under them, and in three years, had them up to 50 wins and solid conference finishes.

    By the same token, though, the post-season was predictable. Every year, the Bad Boys from Detroit would come calling. Every year, the Bulls would go home empty handed. So after those three years, Jerry Reinsdorf decided it was time for a change, canning Collins and elevating assistant Phil Jackson to the head job.

    I’ve never been one to make an emotional investment in the attrition or lack thereof of coaches in the professional ranks, because business is business. But I do remember the Collins-to-Jackson transition because of the consistent theme of those writing about it. Collins, the pundits said, was the Point-A-to-Point-B guy. The Bulls, with young Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the roster, needed someone to take them to Point C. Reinsdorf took the risk that Jackson was that Point C guy, and two years later, the Bulls were hoisting the first of their six championship trophies.

    I couldn’t help but think of Doug Collins as I sat in a neighborhood watering hole and watched Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish get absolutely dismantled by Iowa State. An also-ran in an average conference, the Cyclones took ND to school, wiping them out by 18 points in a game that wasn’t that close, continuing a string of under-performance in the NCAA tournament by Brey’s teams. I thought about what Notre Dame was when Mike Brey took the job. I reflected on what has and hasn’t changed in the years since. And I wondered whether or not Jack Swarbrick should take a page out of Reinsdorf’s book.

    After some prayerful meditation, I concluded he should not. But we’re closer to that point than we’ve been in the 13 seasons since Brey arrived in South Bend, and its time for both sides of the equation to prepare themselves to fish or cut bait.

    The conditions of the Notre Dame job and the circumstances under which Brey accepted it back in 2000 are known to all, and it’s obvious much has changed for the better since then. Big East performance, both in the regular season and tournament, has outpaced all but the elite programs in the conference. Recruiting is on an uptick, especially recently. Home crowds have watched more wins than any time in the program’s history in an arena that actually looks like a Division 1 program and not a YMCA. And NCAA bids once again are de rigueur after a decade of going without them.

    The Fighting Irish have arrived at Point B and unpacked their things, to the credit of everyone who worked hard to get them there.

    But as that strong foundation sets, the irritation of the apparent ceiling grows. Once again, Notre Dame was bounced from the postseason by a team not as highly regarded, at least as determined by seeding. Mike Brey’s 13 seasons have seen only one game in the second weekend of the tournament, and if Dylan Page had made a layup, that number would be zero. As strong as the recruiting uptick has been the last couple of seasons, it has been matched by a performance trough. The last couple teams, while made up of outstanding young men, have been frustrating as hell to watch as they crater at the most inopportune of times.

    I would love to live in a world where a coach was judged on the entirety of the season. But in the desert of the real, that’s just not an option. Like it or not, people judge college basketball coaches on how they perform in the NCAA tournament. And the tournament performance since ND’s last Sweet 16 appearance has been mediocre at best. Complaints about the lack of student support have been strong the last couple of years, but rightly or wrongly, such support is earned in games like last night’s, and time and time again, the opportunity is squandered. There’s a lack of excitement in Purcell Pavilion. People want to emotionally invest in this program, but even with the wins, they see listless teams and results like last night, and they turn away.

    We seem to be stuck. And assuming everyone associated with the program is dissatisfied with that state of affairs, unless all of them decide to do something different, we’re going to stay stuck.

    The players need to invest in their own success. So many times this season, I saw five guys on the court seemingly waiting for someone to take control of the game. Instead of someone grabbing the reins, they were left to drag on the ground, and the wagon ended up in the ditch. I would rather see five guys trying to take that control than none. They need to find their emotional fulcrum. If the upperclassmen still aren’t willing, I hold out hope the talented underclassmen, including a very highly-regarded freshman class, isn’t afraid to do so.

    Mike Brey and his staff need to shore up the program’s shortcomings on the court. Just like in football, a one-dimensional team will get beat by an opponent who can stop what they can do well. We saw an example in Wisconsin’s loss to Ole Miss. As good as the Badgers’ defense can be, the Rebels’ offense could overcome it, and Wisconsin’s stagnant offense wasn’t up to the task. This team needs balance. 13 years in, a philosophy of outscoring the opponent isn’t acceptable, and if it’s a function of what he can do with “the guys he can get into the program”, that has to change too, both in the people making the admission decisions and the coaches trying to attract those players. Two good recruiting classes must be followed up by a third to create the strong nucleus.

    Jack Swarbrick and his folks need to take the hurdles down. As someone said on the Pit, a new practice facility isn’t going to make Mike Brey a better coach, but it sure will make Notre Dame a more attractive program. That applies not only to the players we need to succeed, but if Jack finds MB not to be the Point C guy, we’re going to need to attract him. The lack of said facility grows more embarrassing by the year, as program after program invests financially in their own success. Meanwhile, an arena clean-up a decade late is followed up by rumors of a Rolfs Center re-purposing, creating a “we don’t want to but we’re being forced to” atmosphere. Being one of the lowest investors in men’s basketball barely got by in the Big East. In the ACC, it’ll be a millstone several orders of magnitude larger. If Notre Dame has decided it’s not worth it to them to invest in men’s basketball, they should be honest about it and let the people who spend hundreds of hours and dollars every season supporting the program factor that decision into their own plans.

    Enroljas said it best: It is time for us all to decide who we are. We’ve got excellent underclassman talent on next year’s team. Mike Brey needs to show us he can be a Point C guy. Jack Swarbrick needs to prepare Notre Dame for the possibility he is not. If we want packed houses in Purcell Pavilion and reasonably frequent games in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, it’s the only way to go.

    16 Responses to “Time For Point C”

    1. jmichael says:

      This opinion is so long overdo and is so nicely written without harsh criticism nor personal bash.
      Everything written is illustrated with reference that is glaringly true with Chicago sports and applies very much to the Cubs,with whom I was a dedicated fan who no longer cares about their mediocrity.
      The shame is this piece will most likely not be read by anyone with influence and it should be an embarrassing transition as well as permanent placement in the ACC.

    2. Paul Kennedy says:

      Gee, I thought I might be the only Chicagoan season ticket holder. I’m also discouraged. By the way, I attended the women’s games against Baylor and Connecticut. What a reception the coach receives from the crowd when she enters! Look at the nonconference teams the women play.

    3. I’m as disappointed as the next Irish fan about last night’s effort, but the thought of firing Brey is crazy to me. We can call Iowa State an “also ran in an average conference” but the fact is – Iowa State presented a number of challenges for ND. It was just a bad match-up on paper for us. We couldn’t defend them man to man, and a scoring team like that can pick apart the zone (like they did last night).

      I live in North Carolina a few hours away from UNC, Duke, and NC State. About 7 years ago NC State supporters got tired of watching UNC and Duke cut down nets, only to watch their team make an early exit in the tourney each year. They were about to make a change, when their coach (Herb Sendek) beat them to the punch and took another job and Arizona State. He cited unrealistic expectations at NC State for the reason he made the move. No matter what he did, it was never good enough for the NC State fan base. NC State was happy to let Herb walk, and they then proceeded to take a huge step back, and are only now starting to get themselves back to the point that the were when Herb was the coach.

      So the question I have for ND fans is this… if we move in another direction, who would be better than Brey? The guy is only a 3 time Big East Coach of the year who is 4th all time in wins in the conference? A guy who I think does more with less year in and year out. Digger isn’t walking through that door folks.

      Furthermore – I think we need to do something that NC State fans couldn’t do a few years back… understand who we are. We aren’t like the Dukes and UNC’s of the world with a number of banners hanging from our arena. We are a football school – always have and always will be. When Sidney Lowe was leading the NC State team to the bottom of the ACC, I asked one of my NC State alum friends a simple question… what was so wrong with Sendek… a guy who took you to the big dance every single year?

      Let’s take a step back and remember the mess that was ND basketball in the mid to late 90′s before Brey took over. As the program makes a huge move to the ACC next year, and has some big time players arriving on campus for the first time in a long time next year – I ask my fellow ND fans the same question… What is wrong with a guy who takes us to the big dance every single year?

    4. Nice article but I could swear I read something similiar last year and the year before. Guys it’s time we admit that Brey is not the guy that can take us to point C. Since his only Sweet 16 team he has only won 2 tourney games. In 13 seasons only once has he defeated a higher seed in the dance. Think about that guys. 1 time in 13 years. 9 of those years we made the dance.

      What Harvard and Gulf Goast did this week, defeat a team at least 2 seeds higher, Brey has never done in 9 trips to the dance. If Brey stays at ND, which I’m sure he will, we will continue to be unprepared in the dance and to omce again play our worst basketball in March.

      Next year at this time you will once again be writing something similiar after we lose in our first game and we will hear how we are a young team and Brey needs more time to develop the young guys. It has become a broken record guys. Brey has had 13 years. Why would any sane person think things will change? We need to make a coaching change ASAP. I would rather take a chance with a young guy then continue with watching Brey crap out in March.

      • Max Brady says:

        I agree with everything you said, John. Unfortunately, as long as the administration likes him Brey will keep his job. Now that they’re playing in the ACC expect ND to become regular NIT participants.

    5. I think there are some very strong and insightful comments being made. The truth is that Brey is a great guy and a good coach and he fits the ND model in that his players graduate, they dont cause trouble and they do well and even exceed regular season expectations. It seems like ND is ok with this and has accepted this as their target. But we all know that it can be significantly better without any compromise to the program quality and integrity. I am fine with giving Brey long term security as was done with Wooden and coach K but at some point there has to be elevation to a higher level. that is does not appear to be happening. The talent is limited although we have a two great recruits coming in. The style if frankly boring and very painful and uninteresting to watch. The slow, clumsy burn style that they have played covers up the lack of athleticism. Cooley for example played great for his talent level and had a good regular season but he is completely lost and ineffective with mobile talented big men.
      Gonzaga, Duke, Villanova, G town afre all good catholic schools that when looked at over the past decade have competed a a much higher level than ND. Butle, VCU and other small schools play more competitively as underdogs against good teams. Brey simply is not getting it done. ND should be a top 15 team every year and should be able to get to the sweet 16 or further every 4 or 5 years.
      As for the boring and almost church like crowd for the home games, that is epidemic at ND. that was the case for football for the past 15 years until last year. That is a culture issues. ND I think fostered this and supported this. It is time to get music in there, fire up the crowd and foster a rowdy crowd. Im 56 so I am older–but please ushers and others–dont cater to the older semi dead crowd that demands the ” down in front+ mentality in seats and the scornful attitudes towards rowdy students. Get those people out of the pavilion and football stadium please!!

    6. As a long time Chicagoan, I am reminded of Jerry Reinsdorf ‘s “point B to point C” comment on firing Collins as well. Reinsdorf took a risk because Collins had just coached the Bulls to one of its most successful recent postseasons. Things seemed to be on the rise with Collins as coach. Looking at the coaching legacies of Phil Jackson and Collins, you see the prescience inReinsdorf ‘s unpopular (at the time) decision.

      The difference in these situations is that, in Chicago, many thought at the time that Collins was the man for the job and could get them to point C. Here, no one that I know of genuinely sees Brey as someone who can accomplish that. I find it hard to imagine that Swarbrick fails to see that. While an inadequate practice facility undoubtedly limits recruiting, and while admissions presents a significant obstacle, the biggest hurdle to recruiting is the head man. For better or worse, succesful college basketball programs are inextricably linked to the head coach. What legitimate championship level recruit (and, no, ND has none on the roster for next year )would commit to playing for a coach who can’t get his teams to perform at even the level of mediocrity in the tournament. And that is with a very large sample size.

      Mike Brey is not a bad guy or a bad coach. Yet, he is not a championship level coach. As long as he remains the head man, the administration signals to everyone–most importantly recruits–that the University is not truly committed to achieving championship success. All the sparkling practice facilities won’t change that perception. Reinsdorf was willing to take the criticism by making an unpopular choice in order to get the Bulls to a championship. Unlike that moment, if ND fired Brey, the decision would–appropriately–be met with understanding and even praise by those who matter, the people who closely watch and care about the program. Only until then does ND gives itself a legitimate shot to contend.

    7. Mike Brey is a great guy. At best, he is a mediocre coach. What I witnessed last night was insufferable. At one point in the first half our offense turned the ball over on 5 straight possessions. Why does Brey insist to run that terrible burn offense when the team is struggling to generate any opportunities on offense? Here’s a great idea, we can’t get off a single shot, so let’s slow everything down and allow the defense to set up on every single possession!

    8. Like BC, I now live in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Have so for 14 years coming from Wisconsin. I have no skin in the game between the ACC teams. BC is dead on about NCState fans and expectations but where I disagree is I’m ready for ND to miss the tournament for a few years on the hope, yes hope, that a new coach gets them to the Sweet 16 more often and, heaven forbid, a Final Four once in awhile. Brey is an ideal ND coach for all the reasons mentioned. And I wouldn’t want to hire a coach that sacrifices academics or quality people for a NCAA win. But it is time to try to find a coach that can us to that next level. If he doesn’t succeed, hire another. Enough of this monotony.

      It may be joining the ACC will make for better recruits but it certainly won’t make for better competition. The ACC is a very weak outside the top 2-3 teams. It will NOT prepare us for NCAA like the Big East. Maybe give Brey a couple years here and if the same disappointing finish occurs take a different direction. I have to believe the 10 year contract has some way out without breaking the bank.

    9. CT Domer says:

      I have been following Duke basketball very closely since 2000. My son attended and I became hooked on the school. I’m not going to try and compare and contrast the two programs but clearly their BB program is far superior.

      No doubt its talent as they pull in McDonald’s AA by the bushel. They don’t always have a top ranked recruiting class but they are up there every year.

      Two things impress my about Coach K and the program. He looks ahead in recruiting and he does it in scheduling. He knows the capabilities of his team and he plays to those strengths. He gets the best recruits he can team wise and adapts the Offense to their capabilities. Defensively he tweaks every year but offensively he can make very significant changes, year to year, based on the talent on hand,

      In terms of scheduling, he looks to March. His game plan is to build a team and test it in different environments before he gets into the ACC schedule. He consistently plays a very tough OOC schedule in the Fall. If he avoids injury, it pays off come March.

      When I look at the ND program, I don’t see it. I don’t see a coach maximizing talent and trying to cover weaknesses. ND looks like a bunch of big, usually thick guys trying to finesse a game. I haven’t watched that many games but enough to be surprised at a lack of coaching impact. The one time I saw Brey make a big difference was two years ago with that “take the air out of the ball, grind slowly” offense.

      Other than that I would be hard pressed to see a strategy at work. The CBS panel before last nights game was talking about ND’s discipline and ball control. Guess I have to watch more because last night all I saw were turnovers.

      I like Brey. I just don’t see him as a great coach.

    10. John fox says:

      Burn the shamrock uniforms ! Go back to the basics and get quicker !

    11. things could be dramatically better without sacrificing academics. Hiding behind this lame excuse is accepting mediocrity. I can be done, is being done at other schools and can be done at ND. We need a coach, an AD and an athletic dept that wants and expects more

    12. martinjordan says:

      Notre Dame men’s baskestball is NOT an elite coaching position. From what I read earlier this week it’s underfunded and probably not a desireable situation for either a veteran coach or an up and coming coach. So if Brey is fired then who would be the next coach?

      When Digger resigned under pressure everyone thought Pete Gillen was a lock but he decided to stay at Xavier and ND was forced to settle for John McLeod. The program became a laughing stock.

      Matt Dougherty showed promise but couldn’t resist the lure of his Alma Mater (not to mention the pressure applied by a phone call from Michael Jordan.)

      That brings us to Mike Brey. McLeod and Dougherty did not leave the cupboard empty. He inherited the likes of Troy Murphy, Harold Swannigan, Ryan Humphrey and Matt Carroll and experienced early success. Then came a few NIT appearances as he found his niche and developed his recruiting network. His success has been built on the development on two and three star recruits but he’s been able to upgrade that to three and four star recruits recently and is starting to compete with Duke for accademically viable recruits. Although Luke Zeller and Chris Thomas were notable busts who wanted to shoot three point shots and not much else Brey has done an outstanding job with player deveopment.

      Notre Dame’s administration is not going to lower it’s standards to those of John Calipari, Jim Calhoun (yes, I know he retired), and Rick Pitino – all with graduation rates under 40% – nor should they. Brad Stevens and his 83% graduation rate would seem to be a good fit but he could take a well funded, elite position. Shaka Smart and his 56% graduation rate are probably not an option.

      As long as Brian Kelly is winning football games and the men are getting to the post season Mike Brey is safe. After all FOOTBALL is what’s driving conference realignment and is where the real money is.

    13. Be careful what you wish for. It could aslo be true that this is more like the Joe Tiller situation at Purdue — took them from sheer cr*p to winning season after winning season — even a Rose Bowl, but never to the elite level. Now he’s gone. And they are back to cr*p.

    14. And I also vote for the death penalty for the next person who brings up the uniforms. Get a life!!

    15. I too have watched ND BB over the last few years and am amazed that nothing of significance has changed. They have no discernible offensive strategy or identity except to dribble around for awhile, make a few passes then shoot a three. No defensive fundamentals to speak of, still cannot defend the pick and roll at the top of the key, don’t box out consistently, and commit numerous turnovers when their guards pick up their dribble to soon. Bret is a mediocre recruiter at best especially for instate talent! But other than that he’s a great guy! IMHO as long as Brey is our coach mediocrity is the best we can hope for, and the university it seems is fine with that for now, but once we join the ACC that may change!

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