Jan. 9, 2001
When Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey was named the University's 17th head coach on July 14, it left him just over a month to assemble a coaching staff before players returned to campus in August for the start of the 2000-01 school year.
Brey was hired as the new Irish mentor right in the middle of the prime summer recruiting period, and while mid-July isn't the most opportune time of the year to be putting together a staff, he was able to bring to campus four coaches with strong credentials and excellent coaching backgrounds.
Brey hired individuals who knew the college basketball terrain as both players and coaches, but most importantly, he hired four coaches who understood and have an appreciation for the high standards Notre Dame demands of its student-athletes both on and off the basketball court.
The first-year coach didn't have to look very far to name his first staff member. On the day he was hired as head coach, he also announced that Sean Kearney, his long-time associate at Delaware, would be joining him at Notre Dame. Kearney had been the only top assistant Brey had known and now joins his colleague as the Irish associate coach. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, Kearney spent nine years at the Newark, Del., school, including five years with Brey.
Brey and Kearney made a strong coaching combination at Delaware and brought unprecedented success to that school. He helped the Blue Hens to four NCAA tournament appearances during his nine-year tenure with appearances in '92, '93, '98 and '99. The two combined for a 99-52 record and .656 winning percentage with the Blue Hens registering at least 20 wins in each of the final three seasons.
The success Brey and Kearney have had working together is a result of their similar philosophies and style. When Brey approached the former Springfield, Pa., native about coming to Notre Dame, he needed little time or coaxing to make his decision.
"Mike and I have developed a good chemistry because of our similar backgrounds," Kearney says.
"We're both guys who grew up with the same Catholic basketball high school ideals. Both he and I had worked our way up to the collegiate level from the high school ranks, so we shared those common ideals."
Kearney began coaching in 1981 as an assistant at his alma mater, Cardinal Bishop O'Hara High School in Springfield, Pa. It was his high school coach his senior year, Bud Gardler, who influenced his decision to return Cardinal Bishop O'Hara after he graduated from the University of Scranton in 1981, where he led Royal basketball teams to three NCAA Division III playoff appearances.
While a coach at Cardinal Bishop O'Hara, Kearney spent five years as a senior systems analyst for Cigna, but he knew in his heart that coaching was what he enjoyed the most.
"My heart wasn't really in my job. I knew that I wanted to be a coach," Kearney says. "He (Bud Gardler) helped me get my start in the Five Star Basketball Camp. He's really the one who helped me get me first job at Providence with Rick Pitino."
Kearney got his baptism into the collegiate ranks during the 1986-87 basketball season. That year the Friars became a Cinderella story as they advanced to the '87 NCAA Final Four which capped a magical year for the school and its fans.
Following the one year at Providence, he coached for one year at Philadelphia Textile under longtime head coach Herb Magee. From there he moved to Northwestern where he spent three seasons alongside Bill Foster.
"I have a great deal of respect for Bill Foster," Kearney says. "He is a really, really good person. He treated people with a great deal of respect and was an excellent teacher. The way in which Mike (Brey) treats his players and staff is very similar to how Bill approached things. I think that is why I enjoyed working with him so much and why Mike and I are so successful together."
The hiring of Anthony Solomon and Lewis Preston as assistant coaches for Brey seemed easy when considering the backgrounds of these two individuals. Solomon came to Notre Dame in August after spending the last two years as assistant athletic director for basketball operations at Clemson University.
Solomon, a former guard and four-year letterwinner at the University of Virginia, embarks upon a seventh assistant coaching stint. The Newport News, Va., native has been a part of many successful coaching programs. A second-team all-state selection as a senior, he was a part of teams that won 78 games and played in three NCAA tournaments and earned one NIT berth.
He was a member of the '84 Cavalier team that made an unexpected trip to the Final Four. It was that experience which still today is the framework for his philosophy as a coach and player. Solomon believes you must takes steps together. For him, its all a part of doing things as "we" and not "me."
"The team that went to the Final Four at Virginia wasn't the most talented team in the country, but we played together as a team," Solomon says.
"When the 64 teams were announced for the NCAA tournament that year, we were probably the last one chosen. But the thing that stood out most about our team is that we were so thankful to be in the NCAA tournament. We wanted to make the most of our opportunity and before you knew it, we had won four games and were on our way to Seattle."
Solomon began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Delaware. After one year there, he moved to Bowling Green for three seasons, Manhattan for one, Richmond for one and then landed back at his alma mater, Virginia, where he was an assistant from 1994 98 under then-head coach Jeff Jones. While in Charlottesville, Va., he served as coordinator of recruiting and player development. During his tenure as an assistant coach, Cavalier teams advanced to the NCAA tournament twice, including a trip to the Elite Eight in '95.
"I spent six months in retail after I graduated from Virginia. Then I called back and talked to Jeff Jones," Solomon says.
"I mentioned to him that I wanted to get into coaching and two weeks later I was talking with the basketball staff at Delaware. Jeff always looked after me. When he was an assistant on the Virginia staff, he was the one who was there for me through the good and bad times.
"Jeff has been someone who has greatly influenced my career. Jeff always had a great temperament and is an individual I really respect in this business. He and Mike are very similar in their demeanors.
"We have a great staff here at Notre Dame with many different levels of experience. I think we've assembled a group of individuals that can draw collectively on the experiences we have had in this business. We're a staff, that although has been together less than seven months, works well together. We all have the same goals and aspirations for this program."
Preston, at just 30 years of age, brings a great deal of enthusiasm and passion for the game. The former Virginia Military Institute standout, who finished as the school's all-time career shot-blocking leader, played four years of professional basketball in Belgium, Ireland and Finland. At his last stop in Finland, Preston became interested in pursuing a career in coaching after exchanging coaching theories with his head coach
"My last year playing in Finland, the head coach and I used to sit down and talk X's and O's," Preston says.
"We were both around the same age, but it was very interesting that we would talk about coaching strategy because most times the European coaches didn't discuss that kind of stuff with the American players."
Preston credits his work ethic as both a player and coach as something that will benefit this year's Notre Dame team.
"I was always a player that worked extremely hard and took pride in what I've done as both a player and coach," Preston says.
"I love the purity of the game in all its form. I think I bring to the team a younger prospective. I hope the players can relate to me and the experiences I have had."
Rod Balanis seemed to be a natural fit for Brey as his director of basketball operations. A disciple of Morgan Wootten's De Matha High School program, Balanis and Brey met while the former was a player at the Maryland school.
"Mike was a very influential person in my life," Balanis says.
"He has a way of communicating with people. He has a great feel for what a player needs, he knows how to handle individuals, and I think that is what makes him such an effective coach."
Balanis grew up around the basketball coaching circles. His father, George, was the head basketball coach at William & Mary and he remembers well the many days he spent in the gym with his father during practices.
Balanis enjoyed considerable success at the collegiate level at Georgia Tech while playing for one of the most respected names in the business, Bobby Cremins. While at Georgia Tech, his Rambler teams made four NCAA tournament appearances, including a berth in the '90 NCAA Final Four in Denver, Colo.
He played professionally in Greece following graduation and then moved on to Colgate University where he worked with the late Jack Bruen, also a De Matha guy who coached Brey when he was in high school.
"The De Matha basketball connection seems to be everywhere, but we truly are a family," Balanis says.
"I can see a great deal of Coach Wootten in Mike, but there are some differences to their styles. Mike is going to bring a whole new level of enthusiasm to this program here at Notre Dame and I'm just thrilled to be working with him to attain those goals."