Conference Follies: College Football Calls The Tune

Notre Dame hoops coach Mike Brey knows as well as anyone that football rules the world of college athletics. (AP Photo / Marcus Marter)

In New York on Wednesday, doing interviews for this column on the jumbled landscape of college athletic conferences, one of the best perspectives came from Mike Brey, the former Delaware coach who had now been head basketball coach at Notre Dame for 12 years.

One of the Big East Conferences’s problems, as it tries to survive in the new reality, is that it is essentially a basketball conference in a football world. So, let’s face it: No one should know more about trying to make basketball a success in a football environment than the coach at Notre Dame. Right?

“It’s all about adapt and overcome,” Brey said, with a laugh. “Sometimes, you have to adapt, then duck, and then overcome. I know that when the football discussion comes up with regard to the Big East, I don’t have any energy to argue with it. All I know is that football pays a lot of bills where I work. We’ve probably been able to do some things with the basketball program because of the money football makes.”

As the Big East scrambles to strengthen its football position following the impending loss of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, it goes without saying that the football position would be a lot spiffier if Notre Dame had thrown in with the Big East in that sport as well as the others. The Irish remained a football independent, however, even as its other sports joined the Big East, preferring to keep all the income from that national brand for themselves. That’s just business and you can hate Notre Dame for it if you like, but it was probably good business at the time.

Things are changing now and it could be that the money to be made in a top conference would equal what even Notre Dame can make as an independent. Those calculations are still to come, but if the Irish announced tomorrow that the football team was also joining the Big East, well, let’s just say the conference wouldn’t be sweating whether Air Force joined as well.

For much of its existence, the Big East conference was spoiled by its preeminent position as a basketball conference, only to be lately overtaken by the money machine of football. Brey knows all about that, too.

His first assistant coaching job was at DeMatha High School, his alma mater in suburban Washington, D.C., a fiefdom of legendary coach Morgan Wootten. Football was good there, but basketball was king. Brey’s next job was as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, and there’s little doubt which sport ruled that campus.

After five years at Delaware – certainly more of a football school – Brey got a real dunking into reality when he took the Notre Dame job.

“Oh, I know where I coach. In 2003, we went to the Sweet 16 with our team, and there was a stretch during that season when we beat three top 10’s in a week,” Brey said. “We beat Marquette with Dwyane Wade, then beat Maryland and Texas. It was a Sunday evening in December after that last game and I was feeling pretty good. Someone congratulated me and then turned to the sports information director and said, ‘Hey, did the BCS rankings come out?’ And I was, ‘Ok, right back to reality. It’s been a great week.’ Believe me, I know who I am and I know where I am.”

And for everyone in college basketball, they know who runs the show in college sports these days. It ain’t them.