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  • Shake it Up

    by Mike Coffey

    In the wake of the NCAA loss to Iowa State last year, I said both Jack Swarbrick and Mike Brey needed to gear up for changes. The downslide since the #2-seed performance the previous season needed to be reversed, and it seemed both men had the ability and opportunity to get their part of that job done.

    As we sit here 12 months later looking back on the progress that has been made, I’m forced to conclude I see very little on either side. We’ve backslid on a number of fronts, and unless both men take their (dwindling) opportunities to shake things up a little bit, the situation will become untenable.

    What’s Jack Been Up To?

    The mention of basketball in the Campus Crossroads Project certainly was positive. To have the athletic director actually talking about a practice facility in concrete terms certainly is an improvement over vague assurances of “priorities”, and Mike certainly welcomed the news.

    The progress, however, remains inadequate. While talking about specifics is an improvement, when those specifics involve a five-year wait for a football-related project to be completed before they come to fruition, they’re not nearly enough. It’s five more years for something to go wrong, plans to be changed, and the program to wear the “ND doesn’t care” albatross around its neck. Like many ND alums, I have no problem with the philosophy that football comes first — it pays the bills, after all — but when it’s exhibited in such a clumsy and blatant manner, to the detriment of another sport that should be able to pay some bills itself if it’s managed correctly, I want to start throwing things.

    Notre Dame should be an attractive program to recruits and coaches, and Jack’s position on the food chain makes a lot of that his responsibility, especially when it comes to the latter. Five years is too long for a group already 15 years behind schedule. It’s time for some out-of-the-box thinking to show the college basketball world Notre Dame isn’t screwing around anymore. Maybe move the current amenities of the Rolfs building into the 84k square feet of the JACC’s North Dome until the new student space is ready, and allow the basketball teams quicker access to their new digs? That’ll certainly get people’s attention.

    What’s Mike Been Up To?

    For the first time in Mike Brey’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish finished below .500 for the season and did not participate in any postseason play. The team suffered more losses than in any of Brey’s previous years, and while six conference wins manages to match the previous nadir set in the forgettable 2005-06 season, that team had two fewer games to get those wins. So I’m confident calling this the worst of Brey’s 14 Notre Dame teams, and the fact it comes at the start of what I was expecting to be an uptick in Irish basketball fortunes makes it even more disappointing.

    The difficulty analyzing the 2013-14 Fighting Irish, however, is the same one we had this past football season — the unexpected absence of a key piece. Jerian Grant’s academic suspension robbed the team of its leading scorer and best overall athlete right at the start of the conference season. One might argue some of the low points hit this season might have been avoided if 20 percent of the starting lineup had been available.

    While I understand and appreciate the difficulty, unfortunately, I’m not one of those people.

    Yes, Brey and his assistants had a lot less time to adjust to Grant’s departure than Brian Kelly’s team did Everett Golson’s, so I can understand having to adjust on the fly. But let’s not pretend the team was playing lights-out basketball prior to Grant’s departure. Excellent efforts against Indiana and Ohio State were offset by terrible outings against Indiana State and North Dakota State, both at home.

    The issue this season wasn’t the presence or absence of Jerian Grant, but rather the poor (if not occasionally horrific) play by the Irish defense in general and big men in particular. Garrick Sherman, while turning in some good performances on offense, was an absolute liability for Notre Dame on the other end of the floor. Zach Auguste, while showing flashes of the quickness and leaping ability that could make him a key piece for ND in the future, couldn’t perform at a consistent level. When not injured, Tom Knight pretty much was a non-factor.

    With the poor performance of the frontcourt players, Notre Dame’s defense suffered even more than it usually has under Brey. The team finished the season(or at least are ranked as of this writing) a brutal 203rd in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive rankings, and many of the season’s losses can be blamed on a dismal defensive effort.

    The play of both the big men and the defense must improve next season if the current downward trend is to be reversed. Barring the sudden appearance of a 5th-year senior transfer, Notre Dame must depend on Auguste and newcomers Bonzie Colson and Martin Geben to carry the load in the paint successfully, and that achievement is not outside the realm of possibility.

    The defensive issues, though, remain pervasive, and may require a more draconian solution. Brey lamented the staff had wracked their brains to find a solution to the poor defense all season. If such a solution couldn’t be found with the current staff, perhaps some changes in that area are required to get some new and better ideas flowing.

    I’ve long maintained Mike Brey has been successful at Notre Dame in spite of the lack of support commensurate with that his adversaries on the court receive from their institutions, and God knows he’s shown loyalty to the school by not making it a point of contention. But he remains most directly responsible for the program’s success, and it doesn’t seem he’s been delivering the last two seasons. If he lets that loyalty get in the way of success, no one will win, least of all him.

    He very well may conclude Grant’s absence was the primary driver behind the lack of success this year. It’s a conclusion I don’t agree with, but he’s within his rights to reach it and take (or not) action accordingly. But if that conclusion turns out to be wrong, the responsibility for the consequences are his and his alone. If he chooses not to make more of an issue about school support and nothing changes, it’s on him. If he chooses not to make any changes to his coaching staff and things don’t improve, it’s on him. If the program continues to stagnate, student and fan interest continues to wane, and Jack Swarbrick decides he has to make a change — poorly equipped as Notre Dame may be to do so — he will have no one but himself to blame.

    I said it last year, I’ll say it again now — “Steady as she goes” is not the right path here, for either Jack or Mike. If both don’t shake things up, we’ll find ourselves where no one wants to be — right back where we were when Brey was hired.

    Get shaking, boys.


    30 Responses to “Shake it Up”

    1. james farrell says:

      that was a terrible negative article
      to acheive a higher level in this day and time will take longer
      ur reaction to notre dame and sports is very dissheartening
      james farrell md

      • Mike Coffey says:

        Mike Brey has been Notre Dame’s coach for 14 years. How long does “achieving a higher level” take?

    2. ChangesNotHappening says:

      How can personnel be so similar to WI and VA and yet fundamentals and effort are so lacking particularly on defense (but also on rebounding). These 18-23 years old should be playing with fire and passion and instead in most games they have the look of being in a week long insurance seminar. There will be no changes to the staff because Brey is under zero pressure with the AD and PTB. For a D1 coach in a major conference, he likely has less pressure than any other in the country.

      His loyalty will keep the coaching staff in place and we will see the same results going forward (though I am sure the regular seasons will be different/better than this past one, but no change if they make the NCAAT).

      It would be nice if he extended a small olive branch to the fans and the students and showed he cared enough (or felt some pressure) about making this team COMPETTITIVE on both ends of the court (which would make them competitive in March)- but he will not and the Joyce Center will be a half to 3/4 filled tomb for almost all games going forward. There will be no shaking anytime soon- you can bank on that.

      • Defense (and rebounding) has never really been strengths of Mike Brey’s teams. I was at the UVA game in Charlottesville, and our inability to rotate on defense and seeming propensity for leaving people open for easy layups is troubling. This has been a problem in the past but to my knowledge has never been as bad as it was this year.

        Like Mike, I greatly respect Brey’s loyalty to ND and will be forever grateful to him for the Sweet 16 season my freshman year. I just hope his loyalty to/unwillingness to change up his staff doesn’t get him fired.

    3. It’s time to end the Mike Brey era. This program is going NOWHERE. I’m not buying the Jerian Grant excuse or any of the others. And I don’t think I’m out on the margin concluding that 14 years is more than long enough to prove that YOU CANNOT GET IT DONE. In football, we wait only 3-4 years to make that conclusion … why does it take more than 10 for basketball ??? End the embarrassment now and go after the Bennet coach at Virginia or one of the other young up-and-comers.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        I understand where you’re coming from. However, let’s remember Mike Brey currently is the fourth winningest coach in ND hoops history, and the three guys ahead of him are HOF-caliber. While things need to be shaken up, it’s not like he’s done or is doing lasting damage to the program that would require a knee-jerk reaction.

        • He’s the 4th winningest coach because we’ve kept him around for 14 years!!! Think about these statistics:

          ** In the last 10 years, Mike Brey is 2-6 in the NCAA Tournament. Those 2 wins were against a #15 seed and a #12 seed. In that time, he’s 2-5 against teams LOWER SEEDED than us. And he’s 0-1 against HIGHER SEEDED teams.
          ** He’s won ONE TOURNAMENT GAME in his entire career against a higher seeded team.
          ** He’s been to 1 Sweet Sixteen in 14 years.
          Those stats are mindbogglingly bad. Should I list the # of teams in D-1 that have been to the Sweet Sixteen in that time? How about 76 other teams…and those include powerhouses like St Mary’s, Fla Gulf Coast, Davidson, Cornell, LaSalle, Northern Iowa, Richmond, Kent St and Wisc-Milwaukee. Heck, Southern Illinois has been there 2 times in that time.

          He hasn’t done lasting damage to the program but it’s an indictment that that’s the level we hold him too. I find it bizarre that you hold our football coaches to absurd standards, but don’t bury this guy for what has been a very mediocre career at ND. Fact is that going 11-5 in the Big East is irrelevant. Everyone else is coaching their teams for the tourney. And he’s not. Time for Brey to go.

          • Mike Coffey says:

            His rank is based on win percentage, not number of wins, so longevity has nothing to do with it.

            I hold coaches to standards commensurate with what they’ve been given to work with. Brian Kelly’s standard is far from absurd — he has top-notch facilities, his budget is among the best in the sport, he gets plenty of academic breaks for recruiting, and the admin is behind him 100 percent, so I expect him to win.

            I want championship basketball at ND more than anyone else reading this site. But the fact of the matter is until ND decides to care, complaining about it on a message board is pointless.

    4. It is shocking the expectations of the program are so low! The biggest problem: Mid-American talent (no slight to the MAC intended). That, combined with a chronic case of lethargic and passive play provides the results we’ve been seeing. The team has won NOTHING since 1978 for gosh sakes! We fold every March. Of course the fans and students are indifferent. Why care when the effort and toughness required to compete is so obviously lacking? I gave up on this bunch years ago. I was at school when Austin Carr played. I wish we had teams that tried as hard as those teams did.

    5. Maybe move the current amenities of the Rolfs building into the 84k square feet of the JACC’s North Dome until the new student space is ready,

      And where does volleyball practice? Or Bengal Bouts have their prelims? Or JPW have their dinner? Or Mendoza have their commencement ceremony?

      The problem with a narrow field of vision is that you can’t see the needs of other parts of the Athletic Department or the University as a whole.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        Volleyball can practice in the Pit or on the PP court, as the basketball programs won’t need that space anymore.

        Same applies to Bengal Bouts.

        There is plenty of banquet space available on campus. Maybe JPW dinner moves to South Dining Hall for a year or two.

        Ditto meeting space for a commencement ceremony, which is a once-a-year thing that takes place when campus is 90 percent empty.

        I fail to see why any of those things can’t be marginally disturbed for one or two years. Basketball has been waiting 15.

    6. With all due respect, Mike, I think 14 years of doing essentially nothing in the post-season, if in fact we even make it to “the Dance”, is indeed causing “lasting damage to the program”. Recruiting is the life blood of college sports … right? No blue-chippers want to play for ND! Why? Because we’ve been mediocre for 20 years. And after 14 years of medicority with one coach, it’s hardly a knee-jerk reaction to end the relationship and start anew. Instead, it’s more of a “What took you so long to pull the dang plug?!?!?”

      Besides, the players that Brey recruits don’t improve … We see the same freshmen mistakes when these guys are seniors !!! Sound familiar??? (Charlie Weis)

      • Mike Coffey says:

        If recruiting can be repaired as easily as you say, how is it “lasting damage”?

        I think you should consider the kind of replacement ND will attract given its current support of the program. The chicken must precede the egg here. There’s no sense replacing Mike Brey with someone just as bad (or worse). Let’s aim for (and maximize our chances of) improvement.

    7. As quoted just recently in the Chicago Tribune … Mike Brey: “Nine league wins would be heaven next year”. Wow, Mike, way to pump me up !!! A whole 9 ACC wins?!?!? A whopping .500 record in conference play ?!?!? Whoa … how truly inspirational !!!! Gee … ever wonder why elite talent doesn’t come our way??

      I truly cannot believe a head coach with Brey’s recently pathetic and overall mediocre track record would say that !!!! If he did, I think Mr. Swarbrick would have ample reason to terminate his contract immediately.

    8. Mike … You make it sound so difficult to find a coach better than Brey. REALLY ?!?!? If we could just get someone to light a fire under the players so they play hard and tough for 60 minutes, that would be an improvement. Our guys play hard for 10 or 15 minutes and then lose interest. We don’t hustle, we wimp out in the pain. Plus, we play stupid a lot of the time, which is really disappointing when it’s your juniors and seniors making the stupid plays. ND gets a lot of the same guys Wisconsin gets … but Bo Ryan does sooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much more with them. Just one easy example.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        As I noted, the guy is the fourth-winningest coach in the program’s history, and he did that playing in the most difficult conference in the country the last six years against teams with recruiting classes ranked far higher. You make it sound so easy — all we have to do is “play hard and tough for 60 minutes”. That’s what mid-majors do. Never mind our opponents out-spending off the court and out-recruiting us on it.

        Mike Brey isn’t an elite coach by any stretch, but for most of the last 14 years he’s been a pretty good one. If we want one to get us to Sweet 16s and the like, we have to show that we want it, and the only person who can do that is Jack Swarbrick. Time would be much better spent working on him than worrying about “wimping out”.

    9. On the bright side, Muffet has developed the Irish into an elite program!

    10. Let’s be realistic when assessing Brey’s tenure. We place great emphasis at ND on loyalty, but when has loyalty ever triumphed EXCELLENCE at ND, except in men’s basketball? Players missing from the team are just another excuse. It’s what he doesn’t do with the rest of the players that is maddening, that make the men’s games unwatchable for me. The men’s teams simply do not play HARD. They don’t DEFEND. I don’t care who your players are, anyone can tell when a team plays hard and defends, and it’s clear that the last several ND men’s teams do neither. That’s coaching, pure and simple. Good coaches get their teams to play hard, rebound, and defend. No matter who those kids are. Those traits are not about skill sets. You want to see a team play hard and defend? Watch the ND girl’s team.

      To have any chance of competing in the ACC, we need better players. Simple as that. And Brey has PROVEN he cannot recruit. No one wants to play for him, for a mediocre team, in a half filled gym. And there is no high level player who wants to play the ND style of basketball. ND has LOTS to offer highly touted recruits, and the football team and girl’s basketball team have debunked the excuse that the academics are too stringent to be able to attract the top talent in the country. So please, let’s stop the excuses. He’s a mediocre coach who has become complacent because for some reason the ND admin seems to accept mediocrity in that specific program. I don’t get it, and until they fire him, I will be watching the woman’s team. Oh yea, that’s right, they’re the only ND basketball team still playing.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        ND has LOTS to offer highly touted recruits

        Perhaps, but in men’s hoops, they’re not offering much the blue-chippers (whose goal is a quick route to the NBA) necessarily want.

    11. Wonder if we’ll still be alive if/when we make a Sweet 16 again ??? So, Mr Coffey, tell us this … I know it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison BUT I’ll assert it’s more like grapefruits and oranges … how is Muffet McGraw and our ELITE women’s program able to attain their lofty heights for much more than a decade now and yet our men’s program wallows in mediocrity? Why is Muffet able to attract elite talent and develop good talent into very good … yet Mike Brey is unable to do that? Why do Muffet’s teams thrive under pressure, yet Brey’s team’s fold under similar circumstances. Why such a stark contrast from two teams who play the same sport, in the same building, at the same university? WHY????

      • Mike Coffey says:

        I’ll answer your question with a question — how do blue-chip women’s basketball recruits view the value of an education, particularly one like ND’s, versus the way blue-chip men’s basketball recruits view it?

        Put it this way — if the WNBA paid the way the NBA does, Muffet’s job would be a hell of a lot harder than it is.

        Not that she’s not an excellent basketball coach, because she is. But it wasn’t so long ago — prior to Skylar Diggins signing — that people were wondering if the game had passed her by after her teams went one-and-done in the NCAAs a couple times.

    12. Joe Schaefer ND '59 says:

      Agree re the poor defensive play of our big men. Phelps had the same problem with Flowers. So many of the big time / big name coaches are crooks, who’d want them? Student-athlete basketball players are much harder to find. I think if he can do something about big man defense, the team will do all right.

    13. Frank Johnson says:

      I’ve had season tickets since 1968: If Notre Dame cared about basketball, they would have fired Brey five years ago. As it is, he’s a perfectly groomed mediocrity.

    14. brendenomalley says:

      Notre Dame has been able to thrive on getting decent players who stay for four years or more and their maturity has been an asset in the one and done NCAA. My overall concern is that Notre Dame is not seen as “Big Time” in the minds of many recruits and Brey has had a razor thin margin. Transfers have been a huge asset as well.

      Brey should be given a little more time, but another poor recruiting effort will spell dormat status in the ACC and only lead to further decay in the program.

      On the X and O side, ND is horrendous. They really do not make any attempt to take anything away from you. Their principles seem to be to try and stay in front of people and make them miss shots. Even with that philosophy they give up way too much dribble penetration. With our players, it seems that you should be able to be more solid in your positioning and close gaps without giving up too much space on shooters. I am not sure that we have ever been real solid. That sadly is coaching and scheme.

    15. We need a change or we will always be mediocre. Brey needs to go. He is not a winner.
      Men’s basketball is our worst Varsity sport.

    16. Mike, why do elite men’s players choose Duke, which offers an excellent education? Why is Virginia, with its excellent education, now a force to be reckoned with in the ACC and maybe nationally? How in the world did Brad Stevens take the Butler Bulldogs to consecutive title games??? Butler ????

      And how in the heck did the ND women win the national title in 2001 before Diggins got there? (why did the elite blue-chipper Ruth Riley pick ND?)

      All I know is that … men’s or women’s … people are getting it done at “academic institutions”. Why? Excellent coaches. I know it’s not just about the head coach, but we’ve given our coach 14 years in his “given environment”. We are getting worse! Gotta start somewhere. I’d start with replacing the head coach. What else can the AD do ensure opponents don’t dribble freely to the basket? Or have wide open three’s? Or prevent ND’s players from committing stupid turnovers down critical stretches of games? Or from being outscored at the outset of games or the second half by 10-0 margins because they’re not ready to play? Or to simply recruit better players???

      Wisconsin is doing worlds better than ND … with essentially the same talent level. Why? Coaching. Can we please swipe Bennet from Virginia or the guy who’s got Wichita State on the verge of two Final Fours? Or Brad Stevens, when he figures out, ala Pitin,o that the Celtics aren’t his thing?

    17. Yeah, these programs like Gonzaga a few years ago and Wichita State recently appear to come out of nowhere and create powerhouse programs. ND lacks the type of energy and excitement in regards to men’s hoops. Just another Brey day.

    18. I can’t argue that big-man defense has been a problem, especially (in my mind) as it relates to protecting the glass on defense. However, our perimeter defense was atrocious all season. I think we were ranked at or near dead last in the ACC in opponents’ three point percentage. That problem reared its ugly head against Wake Forest in the ACC tourney. I remember back-to-back threes in the first half got us in the original hole. When we were making a run in the second half, it was three consecutive threes by Wake that did us in. What was Wake’s overall three point percentage? 70%?

    19. PanDomer73 says:

      I too watched Austin Carr, and also enjoyed the great team of 1978. This year we are a bubble team with Grant. We have been competitive with Brey and I think he is good both for the school and for the scholar athletes he coaches. We have no one-and-done level guys. We don’t get great players and we don’t improve much, but for my money Brey embodies the spirit and integrity of ND far more than the guy on the sidelines for us on football Saturdays. We are fortunate to have him. My guess is Billy Donovan would have had the same outcome with this bunch. Hang in, this has just been a rough year in a top level conference. I saw us play at FSU and we played a better team down to the last shot. Go Irish!

      • BoogAlou says:

        Agree completely. Some of Brey’s teams have played very good team bball that took them far above their individual talents. The disappointments have come in the tourney — why have Brey’s teams played so well at home against very good teams, even winning big games in the Big East tournament, only to lose to lower seeded teams in the NCAA tournament? Do his teams just play tight in the tourneys?
        I was also at ND for Carr, Jones, Catlett and crew — what a fantastic time for bball at ND — but even Johnny Dee’s teams and Digger’s best team (Shumate, Brokaw, Dantley, Clay) faded in the tournament. I think Carr’s team senior year lost to friggin’ Drake. It seems ND just chokes in the tournament year after year, even when it has the talent to go deep. Maybe there’s just been a lack of a killer instinct.