When you think about the history of Notre Dame basketball there is one name synonymous with the program and that name is Digger Phelps. Over 20 seasons Phelps won 393 games, which makes him the all-time winningest coach in the history of the program. He led the Irish to 7 Sweet 16s, 2 Elite 8s and to Notre Dame’s lone Final Four. He was the head of the program when Notre Dame was considered one of the premier basketball schools in the country. So his legendary status is well deserved, but current head coach Mike Brey is very very quietly entering the same echelon as Phelps.
Brey is 16th season as head coach of the Irish and has led the program to 355 wins and a .669 win percentage. Brey just turned 57 on Tuesday and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, so he most likely will surpass Phelps in wins in the next year or two. His postseason success might not be as great as Phelps, but for this day in age Brey really hasn’t done that bad. Before last season the biggest knock on Brey was that his teams could not get it done in the tournament. But Notre Dame made the Elite 8 last season and almost knocked off undefeated Kentucky. This season he has the Irish right back in the Sweet 16 and thats after losing Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. He’s created a winning environment in South Bend and you can’t ask for much more from your coach. Over his 16 seasons Brey has led the Irish to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, 3 Sweet 16s, 1 Elite 8 and the program’s lone conference championship.
What makes Brey’s success even more remarkable is that he’s doing it in a much tougher environment than Phelps. In this current day all the top recruits want to go to a Kansas or a Kentucky or a Duke, so Brey isn’t getting the best of the best. While Phelps was able to bring in players like Adrian Dantley, Kelly Tripuka and Orlando Woolridge, Brey hasn’t had that kind of success recruiting. Over his 16 season’s he’s brought in only 3 McDonald’s All-Americans (Torin Francis, Luke Zeller and Demetrius Jackson). In fact, according to Rivals, Jackson was the highest rated recruit Brey has brought in since Francis. That’s a span of 11 years. On top of that it took until last year for a player that Brey recruited to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft (Grant). For the most part, Brey has been working with a lot of 3-star talent. But still, Brey consistently has Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament and finishing near the top of the conference.
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So now it brings us to this weekend. The Irish are back in the Sweet 16 and taking on 7 seed Wisconsin. If the Irish can get by the Badgers they would then get the winner of North Carolina and Indiana, and if the Irish could beat either of those teams they would be headed to the Final Four. If all that can happen, and honestly it can because the Irish have shown this season they can play with anyone, but if all that can happen Brey would have to be considered as one of the top 2 best coaches in Notre Dame history. Now I’m not saying Brey is no better or no worse than Phelps, but if he can lead the Irish to the Final Four this weekend he arguably has to be in the same category as Phelps.