Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 7 of 39

8 FEBRUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI T hirty years ago this winter, Notre Dame men's basketball went through one of the most awkward times in its history. The 20-year tenure of Fighting Irish head coach Richard "Digger" Phelps (1971-91) was ending on ugly terms. Phelps was informed by the Notre Dame administration prior to the 1990-91 season that it would be his last, regardless of what happens. A killer schedule — resulting in a 12-20 record that year — had been as- sembled to help grease the skids. Re- cruiting had suffered tremendously in 1990 and 1991, and the program had lost its buzz. From 1973-81, Phelps was the ring- leader of one of the top 10 basketball programs in the country, highlighted by their first (and still lone) advance- ment to the Final Four in 1978. His marketing prowess, assertiveness and drive made the basketball opera- tion almost as electrifying and antici- pated on campus as football, which won national titles in 1973 and 1977. Nobody could work up a vociferous audience in the stands like Phelps. After a 10-17 finish in 1982, he would bounce back and return to NCAA Tournament action in 1985 — but in his last 12 seasons Notre Dame would record only five wins in the Big Dance. Phelps had become a victim of his own success. The bar set in the 1970s had fallen significantly in the 1980s. The program had become stale, maybe even complacent. His final season in 1990-91 was one nightmare after an- other, including the academic ineli- gibility of one future first-round pick (LaPhonso Ellis) and medical disquali- fication of another (Monty Williams). By the end of Phelps' tenure, his name was not even announced in home introductions, because the ca- cophony of boos from the stands had become an embarrassment. With the passage of time, Phelps' tenure is now remembered as part of "the good 'ol days" and he is in the Ring of Honor at Purcell Pavilion. Meanwhile, 21st-year head coach Mike Brey is somewhat enduring simi- lar travails 30 years later. Ever since surpassing Phelps for the most all-time wins at the program in January 2018, it's been one setback after another, even off the hardwood with former as- sistant Ryan Ayers (see page 12). A three-time Big East Coach of the Year, 2011 Associated Press National Coach of the Year, 2015 ACC cham- pion, and the lone Irish coach to di- rect seven NCAA Tournament wins over three years (2015-17), Brey has seen his prosperous career trending the wrong way the past three years. Like Phelps in 1988 with a five-man class led by Ellis, Brey signed a five- man harvest in 2018 he was expecting to return Notre Dame to prominence. Instead, the result has been 21-15 in 2018, 14-19 in 2019, and 20-12 last year. In the Power Five world of college basketball, no NCAA Tournament bid three straight seasons often results in hot-seat status. Because there was no 2020 NCAA Tournament due to CO- VID-19, one can't say the Irish have not been invited three straight seasons, but even Brey has acknowledged a bid last year would have been unlikely. This year with a seasoned junior class and two fifth-year seniors, Brey thought the older, wiser Irish, who took their lumps as freshmen two years ago, would begin the return to relevance. Unlike Phelps 30 years ago, he volun- tarily assembled a land-mine schedule, expressing confidence that this group would snap the current school-record 27 straight losses to ranked foes. Instead, a 4-8 start — 1-5 in the ACC — through Jan. 18 and maybe another season without an NCAA Tournament bid has raised many an inquiry on the present and future of the program. Brey has lamented the lack of tough- ness on the current team, and on occa- sion he too has looked worn out trying to find answers, although landing Yale graduate transfer center Paul Atkin- son for next year provided a boost amid tepid high school recruiting. In the summer of 2019, Brey, who turns 62 this March, was asked how much more juice he has left in him. Typically forthright and self-aware, he replied he knows when it will be time to say "thanks for the memories." "I have older, veteran coaches tell- ing me, 'Don't retire. Ride it as long as you can,'" he said. "I'm not going to ride it if I'm faking it, or if I'm not productive. Believe me, I will be, 'You need a new voice, you need new blood.' I'm not going to go kicking and screaming." Brey has developed much goodwill and admiration at Notre Dame, result- ing in a contract extension through 2025. Whether he has the fire in the belly, to see it all the way through is something to evaluate before he too joins the Ring of Honor. ✦ UNDER THE DOME AT A CROSSROADS Mike Brey's 21-year tenure at Notre Dame has reached a familiar rough spot Digger Phelps (left) endured woes on and off the court 30 years ago in his 20th season that 21st- year head coach Mike Brey (right) has somewhat experienced the past few campaigns. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - February 2021