How do you describe the indescribable? How do you treat the supernatural with the respect it deserves? These are the questions I struggle with attempting to write a piece about Mike Brey today. It’s easy to write a glowing piece about the coach coming off a tremendous win. While I don’t apologize for getting to do so, I worry that it cheapens what I’m about to write. I stress because I have so many words stuck in my mind about Mike Brey right now, and I don’t think a single one does him justice. I stress because I know this is but one of many articles that will be written about Mike Brey’s journey on Saturday, and I so desperately don’t want to seem reactionary. I can cope with coming up short as a writer. I can’t cope with degrading the sacrifice Mike Brey made for the University of Notre Dame. Please know that what I write is sincere and heartfelt.
Late Saturday night (or was it Sunday morning by the time the game was final?), the Notre Dame Men’s Basketball team achieved a feet they hadn’t since 2003 by reaching the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. In a hard fought battle, Notre Dame outlasted her in-state brother Butler 67-64 in overtime. The game was stressful, frustrating, and fulfilling all at once. In a season that’s been defined by the perseverance of the team, it seemed almost fitting that this was the way the team finally exorcised its Sweet Sixteen demons.
It wasn’t until elation was in full effect for the fans and players that everyone found out Mike Brey’s remarkable mother had passed away earlier in the day. Betty Brey deserves a eulogy longer and more thoughtful than anything I could put together. An Olympian and world champion in her own right, the Notre Dame community owes Betty a debt of gratitude for raising and lending her incredible son to us. It’s not fair to Betty Brey and the son she raised to limit commentary to too singular a moment. It’s difficult not to think that Mike Brey’s actions resulted from a lifetime of learning under Betty. Also clear: Mike Brey’s motivation on Saturday was not to mourn the loss of his mother but to honor her by living and serving others as she’d taught him. We can but scratch the surface of what Coach Brey’s sacrifice involved.
We all deal with death differently, but it’s normal to want to withdraw and simplify in such moments. So much emotional energy is expended that even seemingly basic decisions like what to eat or wear can feel like a body suit of weights. Being the head basketball coach at a nationally prominent school isn’t easy on the best of days. Now imagine trying to do so on one of your worst days, in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, and while haunted by the ghosts of past early tournament exits. The desire to run away and simplify had to be overwhelming for Mike Brey. I shouldn’t say that. My desire to run away and simplify would have been overwhelming. For Brey? The answer was simplify…only not for him.
The elegance of Mike Brey’s action is that it was really a decision not to act. For a man and coach who has always seemed to put team first, this may well be the ultimate example of that philosophy. Don’t change the routine. Don’t change the mindset. Keep things simple. Notre Dame lore is rich with stories that paint a vivid picture. The legend of “Win One for the Gipper” embodies the archetype of coach as master motivator. Reaching into the coffers of wisdom and experience to tug at the emotional strings of his team with just the right words and story. Yet Brey knew his team well enough to refrain from any of that. There’ll be no great speech to remember “Win One for Betty” by because that speech never got made. Yet undeniably Brey’s actions, instilled in him by Betty, will similarly become part of the fabric of Notre Dame lore.
I’m hardly a superstitious man. I don’t read my horoscope, and I try to keep my sports quirks to a minimum. However, there are times when events align in such a way that denying a greater architecture to the World is made more difficult. When I think of the legacy of Father Hesburgh, the word that instantly comes to mind is servant. For close to a century, Father Hesburgh served and honored others above himself in a way that positively influenced generations of people to come. His legacy of serving others is deeply embedded in the fabric of Notre Dame’s community. If you’ve yet to do so, go read David Haugh’s piece from the Chicago Tribune about Mike and Betty Brey. You get the sense that Betty Brey believed in those principles as well. The World never loses people like Father Ted or Betty Brey. Instead, their values echo through the lives of those they impacted. On Saturday, Mike Brey became the walking embodiment of those values.
When was the last time a week went by without some critique being levied agains the NCAA and its member schools on their treatment of student-athletes? Pawns in a money making scheme. Chewed up and spit out without a care for their well-being. These are the common refrains. Yet, regardless of where you stand on those issues, it’s impossible not to look at Mike Brey and realize everything he did, he did to serve those players, that team, above himself. I’m happy Notre Dame won the game. I’m more grateful of a real-time reminder of what it means to serve others.
Thank you Mike Brey.
Aside: It was impossible for all the members of HLS to share their thoughts in this space, but Bayou Irish had a few words to add that I share with y’all as well:
[Brey]’s clearly got the team focused. You don’t go on a four game win streak that includes Duke and NC without focus. That those four games put you in the Sweet 16 just proves the point. He has his guys winning on the biggest stage. That he kept news of his mother’s death a secret speaks to his professionalism. Team chemistry is a delicate thing and you can’t spring news like that on them the day of a big game. He kept them focused and kept it about them.
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