Thanks to football, Notre Dame hoops has a secure future in ACC
At Notre Dame, it's always been about football. And considering that Mike Brey has worked with five Irish football coaches in his 12-year tenure there, few know better the dichotomy of football triumph and tumult in South Bend.
But for all the uncertainty and mediocrity that Notre Dame football has offered in the last decade, it hasn't lost its enduring power as one of college sports' most desirable brands. And by leveraging five football games per year with the ACC to find a home for Irish hoops and its non-revenue programs, Notre Dame football paved the way Wednesday for a secure future for Notre Dame baskebtall.
"Some other coaches out there were really wondering, 'What does the future hold?'" Brey said in a phone interview on Wednesday night. "I never worried that much about it. I felt like we were going to land in a solid place."
Brey is giddy at the ACC opportunity, calling it a "great fit." Its also a familiar one, like a favorite game-day mock turtle neck, considering the Irish will be renewing acquaintances with old Big East sparring partners Syracuse, Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Brey's also happy Notre Dame avoided landing in the Big 12, which is no slight to the caliber of hoops played there. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick masterfully played the Big 12's courtship as leverage and conceded very little -- Notre Dame was playing four ACC football games in 2015 anyway -- to find the right geographic and philosophical fit for basketball and Notre Dame's other sports.
Brey saw the Big 12 as an odd fit for recruiting, as the Irish have rarely pointed southwest for players over the years.
Brey is an East Coast guy to the core, as he's a graduate of DeMatha High School in the Washington, D.C., area, played part of his college career at George Washington and began as a head coach at Delaware. He's also an ACC guy at heart, considering that he grew up near Cole Field House and learned the trade under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke after serving as an assistant to Morgan Wootten at DeMatha.
The same way it's difficult to imagine Notre Dame aligned with Memphis, Houston and Central Florida, it was difficult to believe that the Irish would be playing hoops in Ames, Lubbock and Stillwater.
"They just traded conference games against Houston, SMU and UCF for Duke, North Carolina and Maryland," said ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. "How can you see it any other way?"
Notre Dame has always pointed East. After all, it's hard to have subway alumni in towns with no subways. As a school and a brand, the Irish are much better off exposure-wise, for both fans and potential recruits, to be in Boston, D.C., The Triangle, Atlanta and Florida.
And this move further solidifies the ACC's burgeoning status as the country's best hoops league once the Big East defectors bring it to 15 teams. (When that is will be determined by lawyers and multi-million dollar payments, but the latest the Irish will join is 2015.)
And the new ACC affiliation can only prove to be a boon in recruiting, as Brey said that he and his staff have already discussed targeting more recruits in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
"Notre Dame has already been in those areas," said Miami coach Jim Larranaga. "But the difference is now that the alumni in those areas get to see them a lot more and it opens them up in recruiting to major markets and major cities that produce the most basketball talent."
Notre Dame enters this season looking to continue an era hallmarked by consistent success. Brey took over a program in 2000 that hadn't been to the NCAA tournament for a decade and has reached the NCAAs in eight of 12 seasons.
While his NCAA tournament record still leaves some Irish fans grumbling -- just one Sweet 16 in those eight trips -- the Irish may have the best team of his tenure this season. (Brey points out that the ACC is in transition, as much of the current league outside of Duke, UNC, NC State and Florida State is rebuilding.)
Last year, after being predicted to finish near the bottom of the league, the Irish went 22-12 overall and 13-5 in the Big East. They return their five top scorers, including senior bruiser Jack Cooley, jitterbug point guard Eric Atkins, consummate glue guy Scott Martin and rising sophomore stars Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. The Irish also welcome a vaunted recruiting class that includes Cam Biedscheid, Zach Auguste and Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman. (One of Brey's favorite recruiting sayings is "we need to get older," and the 6-10 Sherman gets the Irish older and bigger.)
It hasn't gone unnoticed that Brey's flurry of Big East success and strong recruiting hauls have come while fishing from a smaller recruiting pool than their Big East rivals.
"No one really cares what guys' grades are when you're watching a basketball game," said DeMatha coach Mike Jones, who coached Grant in high school. "But what makes what he has done at Notre Dame even more impressive is that they can't get the same kids in as everyone else."
Brey and his staff have always thrived in the mid-Atlantic area. Assistant Rod Balanis is another DeMatha product, Anthony Solomon played college ball at Virginia and Martin Ingelsby is a Philly native. One of the D.C. area's most prominent AAU coaches wondered Wednesday whether the defections of Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame from the Big East officially turn the D.C.-Baltimore corridor into ACC country.
"With all the teams going to the ACC, it looks like it's going to be pro-ACC," said Keith Stevens, president and director of Team Takeover. He added: "It might be a swing now, outside of Georgetown. It looks like it might be a swing."
Oddly, the Irish's biggest current recruiting target couldn't be any closer to home. Telep pointed out that Notre Dame's top current recruiting priority is Mishawaka, Ind., star Demetrius Jackson.
"He's only a few miles away from campus," Telep said. "We'll see if he gets caught up in this and picks the Irish."
The potential recruitment of Jackson is one of the many micro ways the ACC move will reverberate through the Notre Dame campus. In the macro, Brey and the Irish have found the perfect spot to continue their prosperous run. Brey's recent contract extension has him in South Bend through 2022. There's no telling how many football coaches he'll share campus with by then. But he can thank Notre Dame's storied football past for Notre Dame basketball's stable future.