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TOM DAVIS: Notre Dame coach strengthens his grip on best job in college basketball

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey watches during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wichita State, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017, in Lahaina, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
Former Notre Dame men's basketball coach Matt Doherty now serves as the associate commissioner for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Almost no one outside of his immediate family will remember this, but Matt Doherty was on the verge of becoming a college basketball legend at one time.

But as it turned out, the move he made – one in which he felt would lead to that iconic status – didn’t propel him upward, but actually exacerbated his downfall.

The chain of events, however, did open the door for another coach, Mike Brey, to reach iconic status and the current Notre Dame men’s basketball coach added another chapter in his story Tuesday.

Notre Dame extended Brey’s contract through the 2024-25 season, which should be the final note written on the career of the most revered men’s basketball coach in Fighting Irish lore, which is saying something considering the beloved Digger Phelps stood in the same coach’s box.

“My goal has always been to be good enough to retire as the head coach at Notre Dame,” Brey said in a release. “It sure looks like I might be able to pull that off with this extension.

“I’m proud of what our program has achieved in the past 18 years and I could not be more excited about what the future holds.”

Brey needs to be careful not to contemplate the future too much, because that is what ultimately doomed Doherty, who walked away from the best job in college basketball, and yes, from a coach’s perspective, that is precisely what I am designating Notre Dame as.

RIDING HIGH

It was the summer of 2000 and Doherty was coming off his first season as the Notre Dame coach, one that was highly-successful (in Fighting Irish terms).

Following eight years of morass under the nice and knowledgeable, but apathetic John MacLeod, Doherty came to South Bend and quickly led the Fighting Irish to the NIT championship game.

It’s all relative when discussing the “interest level” for Notre Dame basketball, but given that immediate success, the fact that Notre Dame had an All-American player in Troy Murphy, and that the Notre Dame football team was mired in the malaise that was the Bob Davie-era, Doherty was riding a perfect storm of confluence that elevated him to a celebrated status.

Doherty was so well-regarded that he was offered an opportunity to lead the North Carolina program, which many believe was, and still is, the premier position in the sport, as well as Doherty’s alma mater. And when he left to guide the Tar Heel program, Doherty most assuredly felt it was a move that would catapult him into college basketball history.

FORESIGHT, NOT HINDSIGHT

When you write about sports for a living, you are in the unenviable position of taking a very public stance on situations, some of which come back to haunt you.

You can make an off-the-cuff remark on the radio or a podcast and no one will remember it hours later. But write a column on a topic – especially given the intensification of social media – and if you are even remotely off base, the masses will excoriate you.

No one bats 1.000 in this profession, myself included, however, in the case of Doherty I was spot on at the time.

With the entire college basketball world convinced Doherty was going TO the best job in college basketball, I was convinced – and am to this day – that he actually walked away FROM the top job.

PRESSURE? WHAT PRESSURE?

Doherty took over the Tar Heels and three years and 43 defeats later, he was fired.

He later coached at a couple of non-descript programs (Florida Atlantic and SMU) and now works as the associate commissioner for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Brey meanwhile lost 44 games over his first four seasons in South Bend, contests that included losses to Miami (Ohio, not Florida), Creighton (when it was in the Missouri Valley, not the Big East), and Central Michigan, and it turns out he was in the infancy of what will prove to be a 25-year run as the coach of the Irish.

“Mike Brey has built one of the most consistently successful programs in the country,” Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. “And the foundation of that success is a winning culture that develops the members of his teams as both basketball players and young men. He is a perfect fit for Notre Dame and we are excited to have him lead our program well into the future.”

WIN MORE, LOSE SOME, IT’S ALL GOOD

Brey certainly should be commended for his success at Notre Dame, because he has achieved much – to a degree.

He is the winningest coach in program history (394 victories with the program), but he also has endured those aforementioned defeats, as well as more to the likes of Holy Cross, Butler (when the Bulldogs were in the Horizon League, not the Big East), Winthrop, Loyola Marymount, Old Dominion, St. Joseph’s, Indiana State, North Dakota State, Monmouth, and most recently, Ball State this past season.

Imagine doing that at Duke.

Brey’s teams have earned a dozen NCAA Tournament bids, but they have also lost in the opening weekend of the tournament nine times, including four opening-game defeats.

Imagine doing that at Kentucky.

In five of their seasons, Brey’s teams didn’t even get into the “Big Dance.”

Imagine doing that at UCLA. Ben Howland can’t.

The former UCLA coach led the Bruins to three Final Fours and was fired after winning 25 games and a Pac-12 regular season title.

Closer to home, Indiana University sent former coach Tom Crean packing after his team advanced out of the opening weekend of the NCAAs three times in nine years AND won the Big Ten twice.

Brey has never won a conference championship at Notre Dame, but if it weren’t for the women’s coach at the same school, he’d be a shoo-in to have the court named after him.

The expectations for the Irish program are to win more than you lose, recruit solid young men and graduate them, and without question follow the bylaws of the NCAA rulebook.

That is pretty much it.

Brey is certainly held to a standard, just as MacLeod discovered, but not an extraordinarily high one.

He enjoys all of the benefits of having a big-time coaching position (compensation, facilities, travel, etc.), but doesn’t have anywhere close to the level of pressure placed upon his professional shoulders as some of his peers.

As Brey has learned and taken advantage of, simply being pretty good is sufficient enough in South Bend.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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