SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame sophomore Cassidy Mullen walked into North Dining Hall around lunchtime Tuesday and was briefly startled by what she witnessed.
The premed major from New York’s Westchester County wasn’t expecting to see the Notre Dame leprechaun in full regalia, trailed closely by a 62-year-old man who seemed vaguely familiar and surprisingly energetic. But Mike Brey had a fistful of free tickets for the men’s basketball game against Clemson, and he wanted to make a scene.
So Brey, in his 22nd year as coach of the Irish, jumped on a couple of tables and did just that.
“The leprechaun was kind of dancing around, and then the coach just said, ‘Hey, we need you guys to come to the game,’ ’’ Mullen recalled the next night during Notre Dame’s 72-56 win. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fun.’ Everyone was cheering. I thought it was pretty cool. I’d never seen that happen before.”
Brey also visited South Dining Hall with the same minutelong stump speech, taking a suggestion from Notre Dame basketball SID Alan Wasielewski and running with it. Brey reminded the students, back this week after winter break, how much they had contributed to a Dec. 11 upset of 10th-ranked Kentucky, a victory that ended with the students storming the court.
“I was warned,” Brey joked about his lunchtime parkour. “I’m on probation in the North Dining Hall. That’s against the rules.”
One night later, fresh off a sixth consecutive win, one that pushed the resurgent Irish within a half-game of the lead in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Brey rushed into the packed student section and barked his appreciation.
“I almost crowd-surfed,” Brey said with a grin. “I was close to diving up there, and I probably will. I wonder how long it would take me to get surfed from the baseline all the way to the top. We’re going to try that before the year’s out on a good win.”
Blake Wesley, Notre Dame’s uber-talented freshman guard from nearby Riley High School, just missed Brey’s lunchtime speech.
“I actually was walking in when he was walking out,” Wesley said after his second straight 20-point game. “That’s a big thing for a coach. I don’t think any other coaches tell their other students to come out. He’s a great coach.”
According to ushers, an estimated 2,500 students filled up four sections behind the basket closest to the visitors’ bench. The so-called Leprechaun Legion danced to the beat of the school’s pep band, under the direction of Sam Sanchez, and did its best to follow the “Jeer Card” guidelines on both sides of a letter-sized printout.
On cue, they held up copies of the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper, during Clemson’s pregame introduction, a time-honored tradition that encourages them to yell “sucks” in public.
It wasn’t quite like the old days when Digger Phelps’ Irish were knocking off top-ranked teams regularly, but the modern generation stopped scrolling through its smartphone feeds long enough to heed Brey’s call.
Mask adherence was decidedly mixed, which only increased the noise level. It was enough to make appreciative Irish players forget the sparse attendance throughout the rest of Purcell Pavilion.
“I did not know there were going to be this many students here,” Wesley said. “It was crazy. It was like the Kentucky game, and they really helped us out. It was loud. We really needed that.”
Notre Dame remains unbeaten at home, where it will close out the month with a rescheduled visit from No. 8 Duke. No one is about to confuse the Legion with the Cameron Crazies, but an identity is beginning to crystallize.
Travis Dobbin, a senior mechanical-engineering major from Tucson, Arizona, attended his first Arizona Wildcats game when he was 3. He has been to dozens of games at McKale Center, thanks to a buddy with season passes, but he’s making new college hoops memories in the Midwest.
“McKale’s pretty cool, but I think the Leprechaun Legion is better than the ’Zona Zoo,” Dobbin said. “I might be a little biased, but I love it here.”