Jan. 30, 2015
As the seconds counted down to the University of Notre Dame men's basketball victory against Duke on Wednesday night at a jubilant and packed Purcell Pavilion, legendary Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski walked over to Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey and extended his hand for the post-game handshake.
Krzyzewski is the only Division I men's basketball coach to have reached 1,000 wins, a milestone that he reached on Sunday against St. John's at historic Madison Square Garden. Winner of four national championships, Krzyzewski has seen 13 former players and assistants become head coaches at collegiate level. Two of his former players are general managers in the National Basketball Association.
But when Krzyzewski shook hands with Brey on Wednesday night, it was only the second time in 21 meetings that a former Duke assistant or player for Krzyzewski has beaten his former boss, and both of those victories belong to Brey.
"It's funny, I don't really look at it like that," Brey said on how meaningful it was to get a victory against Krzyzewski. "I've been a coach 20 years, and again, I owe a lot to Mike.
"We talked a little bit before and I congratulated him and told him I was honored to be a part of some of that run," Brey said. "But it's about our team now, and when our program can beat the programs like Duke and North Carolina, especially now that we're in this league, it's a great endorsement of who we are in this league and becoming a factor again like we did in the Big East. We had to do it in the Big East with Syracuse, Georgetown, and UConn. And you had to get those guys to be taken seriously in the league. And certainly you've got North Carolina and Duke already this year. OK, these guys do belong in the ACC."
Brey's Irish own a 20-2 record, including an 8-1 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame plays at Pittsburgh on Saturday, and then returns to Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday at 7 p.m. to take on Boston College. Special ticket deals are available through the Notre Dame ticket office.
Krzyzewski said after the game that he expected Brey to carve out a remarkable career as a head coach after his eight-year stretch as a Duke assistant coach. Brey was an assistant on Duke's back-to-back national championship teams in 1991 and 1992. He is 320-161 at Notre Dame in 15 seasons.
"I want all of my assistants to be head coaches, and a lot of them have been," Krzyzewski said. "They've all become really good. Obviously Mike (Brey) is a terrific head coach. He spent eight wonderful years with us and he helped us immensely. The fact that he's done so well here is not surprising to me."
Brey said that one of the biggest lessons he learned from his Duke experience was that the competition didn't stop when the buzzer sounded at the end of a game.
"When I was with Mike (Krzyzewski) for eight years, learning how to compete every day to build a program as much in the off-season as during the season, recruiting, marketing your program ... I learned a lot of great lessons," Brey said. "That was maybe the biggest one."
Krzyzewski had plenty of reason to be impressed with Brey's current Irish, who are emerging as one of the top stories in college basketball this season. Notre Dame rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to deck the Blue Devils, 77-73.
Under Brey's guidance, the Irish have roared back from last season's 15-17 record to vault into the Top 10.
When the Irish were faced with fighting back from a double-digit deficit against the nation's No. 4 team, Brey made sure the Irish were the ones applying the pressure, not feeling it.
"We don't panic," said Brey, whose team has a remarkable six rallies from double-digit deficits. "We should never panic when we're down now, because it's happened a bunch now, and we've come back. I think we'll be able to handle just about anything. It's a pretty mentally tough group. They're poised. When they're down, they're not arguing in the huddle, they're not hanging their heads. I give (seniors) Pat (Connaughton) and Jerian (Grant) a lot of credit for that."
Keeping a team loose in tense times is a special talent.
"The whole joke with our staff and our players is that coach Brey is the loosest coach in America," Irish assistant coach Martin Inglesby said. "I think that's kind of been fun to see. I think it's gotten the most out of our guys. It's kept them loose and given them a chance. He's always been positive. Guys love coming to practice every day and playing for him. His key group of guys have always had opportunities. They know if they make a mistake, they're not coming out."
Brey's ability to relate so well to players and get them prepared to compete - and beat - the nation's elite makes Notre Dame an attractive destination for top players.
"I think, for him, he's always kind of been a players' coach," Inglesby said of Brey. "He's gotten the best out of our group this year. He really gives them confidence. Night-in and night-out, we never feel like we're out of it. We've gotten down, but he's always positive and uplifting, encouraging guys.
"We feel like when we get into game situations, that we have a chance to win every one. It's something that we practice every day. There will be a time when we're in the huddle, and coach Brey will say, "Look at the time and score. We just did this the other day at practice, so we're ready to go." I think he's doing a great job of feeling the temperature of the group, shifting personnel, groups, and it's really been to our advantage this year."
Brey said that he joked with his team about putting him through another comeback. The Irish trailed by 18 points on Sunday before rallying to beat North Carolina State in overtime, and also fought for a gutty one-point victory against North Carolina, which was the first time the Irish won on the Tar Heels' home court.
On Wednesday, Notre Dame was down 65-55 to Duke with 10:58 left in the game, and from that point on limited Duke to 2-of-12 shooting.
"I told my team after the game, `Down 10, you've got them right where you want them, don't you fellas? Thanks a lot. Thanks for doing that to me again.'" Brey laughed. "We make a habit of it, but you can't say enough about our two seniors tonight for making us believe and helping us win. So, again, proud of our group.
"This group almost relishes it," Brey said of the underdog situations. "There is a little bit of a psychological advantage. That's why I don't want to over-coach, 'Hey, we need to be out in front, we need to have the lead. When you're down, you play with nothing to lose. You play loose. A lot of times, when you play at home in a big game, human nature is you're a little tight.
"Duke was loose tonight, and they were flowing and playing. We were uptight at times, because the moment was big. Then, you get down my 10 ... nothing to get uptight about, because you're thinking, we may get blown out. Let's just play. There is a little big of an advantage psychologically, sometimes, and maybe our guys purposely do that to themselves. I ain't going to mess with it."
Krzyzewski admired the toughness of the Irish in coming back from a 10-point deficit against a Top 5 team.
"Mike's teams have always been really tough," Krzyzewski said of Brey. "We have tough kids, they have tough kids. That's why we're both good teams. A coach has something to do with that, but I would like to give the players on both teams more credit than the two coaches, because they're competitors, they're winners.
"Mike puts his players in a position where they can use those skills well, offensively and defensively," Krzyzewski said. "They've won some really close games because they can put five people on the court who can score."
Brey's other victory against Krzyzewski came last season in Notre Dame's inaugural ACC game. The Irish stunned No. 7 Duke 79-77. Wednesday's battle between the Irish and the Blue Devils was just round one between the two storied institutions. Notre Dame plays at Duke on Feb. 7, and there is the possibility of a meeting in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
And when Brey is matched up against his mentor's team, expect the Irish to be prepared, to be loose, and to be fierce.
By Curt Rallo/special correspondent