Table-topping: Mike Brey Loves Students. But is that Enthusiasm Reciprocated?

Author: Ryan Broussard

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The legacy of the Fighting Irish has attracted and shaped legendary coaches for over a century. They’ve brought back national championships, memorable victories and developed athletes of hall-of-fame caliber. 

One of these legendary coaches is Mike Brey, who has risen to his celebrated status throughout his more than 20 years as the Notre Dame men’s basketball coach. During his first three years as head coach, Brey led the team to three straight tournament appearances after a 10-year drought. Since then, he’s developed NBA-caliber players and made 10 more March Madness appearances. However, among current and former students, Brey is known as more than just a basketball coach: he is an integral part of the campus community. 

Brey can be seen across campus high-fiving students, running into the student section after games and mounting tables at the dining halls, where he announces upcoming games and throws out free tickets. This season especially, Brey has amped up his involvement among the student body, hosting a promotional event at South Dining Hall and even attending dorm hall councils. 

Johnny DeLuca, president of Siegfried Hall, was able to get Brey to join their hall council in the weeks leading up to the season opener. Before the hall council, DeLuca and his hallmates didn’t know what to expect.  

“Going in, we all kind of thought it was going to be very artificial,” DeLuca said. “For the cameras, or like the videos last year of him at the dining hall standing on the tables. That just seemed artificial.” 

However, they were surprised when they met the same person they had seen on social media. The Ramblers of Siegfried met with a coach, who, despite all of his successes, was incredibly down-to-earth.

“He was there to say, ‘Come out to our first game,’ but really, for the majority (of the time) — and he was there for like an hour — it was just him saying ‘Yeah, this is what we want from this year,’ and taking questions from basketball to the ridiculous,” DeLuca said. “It was just really cool to be able to talk to him on a human level.”

Brey gave the Ramblers his full attention despite the season opener being right around the corner. “Our hall council starts at 10 p.m., so it was 11 p.m. when he was finishing up. But he took another 30 minutes to take a picture with every single person that wanted (one) and (talk) to a bunch of people individually after, too,” DeLuca said. 

Brey is a coach who embraces students in order to pack Purcell Pavilion with energy and excitement for his team at every home game. Are the students embracing Brey and his team with that same energy, though? Tom Noie, the men’s basketball beat writer for the South Bend Tribune, believes otherwise. To Noie, who has been reporting on Notre Dame for 30 years, a lot of what Brey does — as personable and energetic as he is — shouldn’t be necessary to generate excitement for the season. 

“It’s great that Mike Brey’s got the energy to go stand on tables in the dining halls and try and recruit the students,” Noie said. “He is all for that because that’s just the type of guy that he is.”

“It’s staggering to think that a coach as established and as veteran as Mike Brey has to go to dining halls and stand on tables to get people on his own campus interested in his program,” Noie said. 

Historically, Notre Dame has been known as a football school, with basketball in its shadow. This made more sense when the men’s basketball team had its struggles in the ‘90s. Even with a team coming off a tournament appearance and featuring a new five-star point guard in J.J. Starling, however, plenty of seats in the student section have remained empty through five home games. 

“The student body (is) always moving the goalposts when it comes to the support of men’s basketball,” said Noie. 

For a game to be sold out, it’s as if “the stars and planets have to align,” he said. “They had one sellout last year, and that was (against) Duke.”

While hockey games always have a packed student section for their openers against largely unknown teams, basketball struggles to get a sizable student section early in the season. Though showing promise, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team needs its student body to rally behind them as the season progresses