Nov. 17, 2016
By John Heisler
None of the three attended the University of Notre Dame.
They come from the Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston areas, respectively.
Yet today they occupy three of the most visible positions within athletics at the University as head coaches in women’s basketball, men’s basketball and football.
Muffet McGraw came to Notre Dame in 1987.
Mike Brey followed in 2000.
Brian Kelly arrived in 2010.
Combined they’ve already spent 50 seasons on the sidelines in South Bend—and all are in the prime of their coaching careers.
All three came from East Coast upbringings—and all three had their own appreciations for Notre Dame, despite no obvious connections.
“I knew about Notre Dame relative to its traditions, its history, its pageantry, its Catholic traditions,” says Kelly, the winningest active coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. “If you’re an Irish Catholic from Boston, you follow only one football team and that would be Notre Dame.”
Adds McGraw: “I remember watching Digger (Phelps, former Irish men’s basketball coach) beat UCLA (in 1974 when the Bruins were unbeaten and No. 1). I remember being in college where all the kids were watching that game, and we were all cheering for Notre Dame.
“I loved football growing up. My dad was a huge Notre Dame fan, my husband was a huge Notre Dame fan--so it was easy to cheer for the Irish.”
“I went to DeMatha High School (in Bethesda, Maryland) and taught U.S. history,” says Brey. “I remember the band sat up top (at basketball games) and the pregame music was the Notre Dame Victory March. I don’t know if it’s fate, an omen, karma, all of the above. I always had kind of a connection and felt it would be a good fit.”
However much or little Kelly, McGraw and Brey knew about Notre Dame’s athletic approach before they arrived, they’ve come to appreciate the institutional philosophy:
Says Kelly, “I think we all love challenges. We’re not just intellectually developing you. We are developing you socially, spiritually--and we’re going to develop you physically. That’s what makes it special, and that’s what I love about it.”
“I love working at a place where integrity matters,” says McGraw. “I love that we are committed to excellence in everything we do. We want to win a national championship, and we want to be 100 percent in our graduation rates. Notre Dame stands for so many great things, and for me to be a part of that? That’s why I’m here.”
Adds Brey, “Notre Dame allows me to be the teacher I am. The missions of the institution, the philosophy of the institution are very much in line with how I’ve been trained as an educator. My parents were both teachers. What got me hooked was how their students or their players loved them and gravitated to them and how they would talk about them to me when my parents weren’t around. Wow! What an impact.”
Kelly and McGraw recall how their personal priorities formed in their youth.
“Coming from a middle-class, blue-collar family, you pick up on the values that are important to you, that frame who you are,” says Kelly. “More important than anything else, it keeps you humble.”
Says McGraw, “I’ve always been driven to be the best. It’s all about winning, it’s never about me personally or about awards. That drive to win has just always been inside me. When I was in grade school we used to have races at the annual school picnic. When I won, I think I was in second grade, and I thought, ‘What a great feeling--I think I’m going to do that again.’ That was it – that was my goal from then on. I had to win.”
It hasn’t taken long for the Irish head coaches to understand and appreciate the expectations that come in South Bend.
Kelly says, “There are the highs and the lows because Notre Dame can excite you and scare you at the same time. What scares me is not providing enough resources for our players. We’re in a very competitive business, and we want to make sure we’re providing our athletes with the very best on a day-to-day basis.”
“We had our team meeting Sept. 1,” says Brey. “I sat there looking out before I went up to speak to them. And I thought, ‘Their eyes are big and I have to make all their dreams come true.’ That’s a lot of pressure. It motivates you to be on your toes and to connect. I don’t want to let them down.”
And the three know how they want their programs to be viewed:
McGraw says, “When I dream about the future of Notre Dame women’s basketball, I see it being the elite program in the country--some place where every kid in the country dreams about coming. I want to win championships, I want to be the team that everybody’s gunning for--the one with the best players, the best staff and the best university. For me, we want to win. That’s what I want.”
Adds Brey, “I want my guys to look back and say, ‘That’s the best teacher I had at Notre Dame.’ That’s so energizing to lead a group that’s full of believers, that wants to do it together--to see them celebrate great wins but doing it together. That moves me on a daily basis.”
“We’ve got a great vision toward the future,” says Kelly. “We want consistency. After you gain consistency, you then can achieve the great heights we all want and that’s a national championship.”
Kelly, McGraw and Brey also know the ultimate goal and how they can position themselves to reach it.
“Winning the national championship (in 2001) was the pinnacle, it was the greatest,” says McGraw, whose Irish have been to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four five of the last six seasons. “But every year we want to get back there and do it again.”
“This is a select group,” says Brey about his program, the only one in the country to advance to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Elite Eight in both 2015 and 2016. “This is a special club. Culture eats strategy and talent for breakfast every day. Our culture is as good and productive and strong as any of them out there.”
“It’s about dreaming big,” says Kelly, whose unbeaten Irish played in the Bowl Championship Series title game after the 2012 season. “One of my greatest fears is that we don’t dare to dream big enough.”
Notre Dame vice president and James E. Rohr athletics director Jack Swarbrick believes his head coaches have the ability to be as influential from a teaching and leadership standpoint with Irish student-athletes as any other individuals on campus.
In Kelly, McGraw and Brey, he knows he’s got three of the very best who embrace what competing at a championship level is all about.
Beyond Notre Dame Kelly won two NCAA Division II national titles in his years at Grand Valley State, while Brey as an assistant at Duke helped the Blue Devils to the NCAA Final Four six times (with two titles).
And there are plenty of other examples of Irish head coaches with championship pedigrees—Jeff Jackson in hockey (he won two NCAA titles at Lake Superior State), Kevin Corrigan in men’s lacrosse (his Irish have been to the NCAA championship weekend five times overall and four times since 2010), Bobby Clark in men’s soccer (his 2013 Notre Dame team claimed the NCAA crown) and Jim McLaughlin in volleyball (he won an NCAA men’s title at USC and an NCAA women’s title at Washington) among them.
While Swarbrick knows the intercollegiate athletics landscape poses its own set of challenges, he doesn’t lose any sleep when it comes to leadership in his locker rooms.
He knows his Irish student-athletes are in good hands.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following Irish athletics fortunes since he joined the Notre Dame athletics communications team in 1978.