CLEVELAND — The normal rhythms of the NCAA Tournament are easy enough for a coach to manage. You show up to the next city on your bracket ready to play one game and packed to stay for another. It’s exciting, at times frightening, always stressful — but easy enough. That’s the job, right?
But you can’t plan for everything. You can’t possibly see it coming when your dear mother drops dead of a heart attack only a week after she was by your side — strong, vital, thrilled — at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. For Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, that was the sudden, cruel reality last Saturday in Pittsburgh, where he coached the Irish past Butler hours after Betty Brey, a former Olympic swimmer, had died, most unexpectedly, at home in Orlando.
While his team returned to South Bend, Brey flew to Orlando to spend a day with his brother, sister and father, all of whom live there. It was a special day, as the four reminisced, laughed and cried. They watched Wichita State — the Irish’s opponent here Thursday in the Sweet 16 — beat Kansas. Brey got to do a little thing he really wanted to do: sit outside and smoke a cigar with his dad.
By 1 a.m. Monday, the coach was back in South Bend and focusing on the 30-4 Shockers, seeded seventh in the Midwest Region yet slight favorites to knock off 31-5, third-seeded Notre Dame. It’s funny how that works, isn’t it? Here the Irish are, champs of the ACC, and the experts out in Vegas like the team that lost to Illinois State in the Missouri Valley tourney better. Of course, these Shockers, led by veterans Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, were in the Final Four in 2013 and were a No. 1 seed in 2014.
Not only does Brey feel like the underdog, but he knows many around the country already are playing up the potential story line of a Wichita State-Kentucky rematch in the Elite 8. The Wildcats won a two-point classic last year en route to the national title game.
“There’s so much out there about the Kentucky-Wichita State rematch, so our guys have seen that,” Brey said here Wednesday. “Certainly their NCAA Tournament success with this nucleus, we’ve not had that. … We do feel a little bit like the odd man out.”
Brey feels good about his own team, though. The disposition of his players is right on the money. From there, it’s mostly about game prep — no small challenge in the searing heat of March Madness, but easy enough.
But, again, you can’t plan for everything. Paul Brey is 84. And here’s a steady drumbeat of kicks to the gut Mike and his siblings are dealing with now that Betty is gone — the old man’s Alzheimer’s. Who’s going to take care of him now?
“He does know what happened,” Brey said, “but I think we’re going to have to deal with that. … What are we going to do with him, with more full-time care? My mom took care of him, did everything for him. That’s what we talked about Sunday, and we’ll continue to after the season.”
Meantime, the waves of sadness will come as they do to anyone who has lost a loved one. Coaches are the “greatest compartmentalizers in the history of the world,” according to Brey, “and have to be to survive in this thing.” But life is life. Our parents are our parents. And, sometimes, the next game on your bracket is simply that, and nothing more.