When a Notre Dame teammate blew a routine layup midway through practice Thursday at the United Center, guard Ben Hansbrough barked as if the miss cost the Irish a trip to the Final Four.
Three feet away from the histrionics, coach Mike Brey didn’t flinch.
By now Brey realizes Hansbrough isn’t a guy you want to cut off in the merge lane on the Edens. But instead of overreacting to every Hansbrough hissy fit the way many college basketball coaches with control issues might, Brey sees value in creative tension. Where some egomaniacs in his profession might dwell on a weakness such an outburst suggests, Brey finds strength.
“He has learned to become a leader with some diplomacy,” Brey said of Hansbrough. “You can’t hit everybody in the back of the head with a 2-by-4 all the time.”
On that philosophical foundation, Brey has built a career sturdy enough to take him wherever he wants to go if Notre Dame makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament beginning today against Akron.
His secret? Brey is so hands-off, the game he coaches really should be soccer. Everybody refers to Brey’s offense as motion but it’s more like Montessori, with each player given the freedom in their basketball environment to develop independently to benefit the group.
You won’t see Notre Dame players looking toward Brey in fear after a mistake — they’re too busy eyeing their next shot. While many coaches micromanage every possession, Brey worries how pulling too many strings might make his players tightly wound.
“He’s a guy who definitely trusts us and in return that helps us to trust him,” guard-forward Tim Abromaitis said.
Brey’s loose approach helped Notre Dame lead the Big East in three-point shooting (39 percent) and finish second in scoring (76.0). Bulls executive vice president John Paxson, a Notre Dame star from 1979-83, compared the way Brey corrects players to the way Phil Jackson used to wait until practices to make his strongest points.
“One thing I’ve noticed with Mike is when a kid makes a mistake on the floor, he lets it go,” Paxson said. “He’ll address it during a timeout or substitution. That leads to kids playing with great confidence. They believe in themselves and you see that in his teams.”
You see a big-time college basketball coach taking the same common-sense, plain-spoken approach he took as a history teacher at DeMatha High School 25 years ago. You see the rare guy in his business whose sense of humor exceeds his sense of importance. You see a coach secure enough in himself to realize sometimes, to reach kids, less is more.
“I do think we’re in an era sometimes of over-coaching our game (and) what we’ve tried to do with our system is teach,” Brey said. “I think you want to create an atmosphere of, ‘Don’t let me down.’ And we’re letting each other down if we’re selfish or we take a bad shot.”
Nobody knows more than Brey how badly Notre Dame needs a Sweet 16 appearance to avoid letting down remaining skeptics who have been reduced to complaining about his trademark mock turtleneck. But if the Irish indeed advance to San Antonio — they are 1-3 in the tournament since their last Sweet 16 in 2003 — the only complaints might be about schools trying to lure Brey away.
It spoke to how fresh Brey keeps his job challenges when I asked his reaction to the perception that college basketball lacked talent. Obviously, Brey’s lack of a controlling nature shouldn’t be confused for a lack of competitiveness.
“It’s a little frustrating to hear,” Brey said. “The phrase that has been out there, there are no great teams. Well, I think we’re a great team because we play like a team. I take it a little personal. ... Certainly in the climate that has become college basketball, we found a niche.”
After 11 seasons of carving under Brey, it’s as deep as ever.