Coach comments on successful season, coaching
Vol. 17, No. 27April 16, 1998

Coach comments on successful season, coaching

Coach Mike Brey, with America East Championship teammates Keith Davis (left) and Tyrone Perry.
It was less than a month after the Blue Hens men's basketball team had completed one of its best seasons-including an America East championship and a trip to the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament.

But, seated in his office at the Bob Carpenter Center, Mike Brey looked restless, like a greyhound waiting to leap forward at any time and chase after the mechanical rabbit. It wasn't that the 39-year-old, third-year UD head coach wasn't interested in talking about his team-he just couldn't relax.

"I'm a Type A personality," Brey admitted. "Ask my wife, Tish. She'll tell you how I can't relax. But, I'm getting a little better at it now. I've been taking up golf. I love the game, but I can't justify spending the four or five hours out there. I'm a nine-holer. Got to keep moving."

Moving up may be more like it. After a successful career as an assistant high school coach at his alma mater-DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md.-Brey advanced quickly in college coaching ranks-signing on as an assistant with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University in 1987. Brey kept that position until 1995, when he was named the 21st men's head basketball coach of the Fightin' Blue Hens.

According to Brey, it wasn't a difficult decision to come to Delaware. His wife's family had vacationed in Rehoboth Beach. During the summers, when the couple was dating, he had visited Delaware often. To varying degrees, Brey said, fate has seemed to play a role in the major decisions in his life-like meeting his wife.

They had grown up in the same town, but he didn't meet her until he transferred from Northwestern Louisiana University, where he played basketball, to George Washington University (GWU). Tish was a successful volleyball player and Brey's mother, Betty, who was a GWU swimming coach knew her well.

When Brey told his mother the name of his new date, Brey said the response was, "Good choice."

Brey comes from a family of athletes and educators. His mother was an Olympian who swam for the U.S. in the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. A 1955 world record-holder, Betty also won gold medals in the 1951 and 1952 Pan-American Games.

"My father was a physical education teacher," Brey said, "and I grew up hanging around the gym, watching the athletes and my dad's coaching. At the dinner table, we talked about games and competing. I guess I was destined for this profession.

"Also," Brey said, laughing, "because of my father, I had all the equipment. So, everybody was always at my house, playing. My parents never cared about the grass in the backyard. Our place was the neighborhood rec center."

One of the most inspiring persons in Brey's life was his Uncle Jack, who played for Duke University in the early 1960s. It was natural for Brey to follow the Blue Devils, and he admitted that his dream was to one day play at Duke. Instead, Brey became a Duke assistant coach and participated in six national championship games-in Kansas City in 1988, Seattle in 1989, Denver in 1990, Indianapolis in 1991, Minneapolis in 1992 and Charlotte in 1994.

This spring, the Newark campus was excited about the Blue Hens' trip to the NCAA tourney. The 1998 first-round match-up against the Purdue Boilermakers was the Hens' third national tournament game in the school's history.

Contrast that to Brey's involvement in 37 NCAA tournament games-36 with Duke and one with the Hens.

"I've been there before with Duke," he said, "but I was extremely proud and satisfied to be there with our team this year. And, it was particularly satisfying getting there with this team after only three years at Delaware."

Brey also commented on the overwhelming fan, community and state support he and the team received.

Delaware Gov. Tom Carper called Brey in Chicago, on the day of the game, to wish the team well. U.S. Sen. Bill Roth read a proclamation on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and U.S. Sen. Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Mike Castle both called to offer best wishes.

Brey recalled the words of Dallas Green, UD alumnus and former major league baseball coach, on the night of the Hens' victory over Boston University that clinched the America East Championship. "That's why we built the building [Bob Carpenter Center]. For a day like today."

Brey talked of the tournament loss (95-56) to Purdue and his advice to his team that was trailing by a large margin at half-time. Rather than an unrealistic let's-go-get-'em-and-win-this-game approach, he told his athletes to go out and do the things they did well during the season.

When the game was over, he instructed the team to sit in the stands for the first half of the following contest and absorb the scene. "I told them to look at the atmosphere, the banners, to remember the sounds and the smell. Remember, so when we come back, we can do a better job."

The successful 1997-98 season was particularly impressive, Brey said, because the Hens were expected to have a mediocre year. Instead, they surprised their opponents and won the league championship.

"We came out of nowhere this year," Brey said. "I told the kids, 'Next year, everyone will want us, and they'll all be looking at us a lot more closely.'"

But, he added, to win the America East championship and get to the first round of the NCAA tournament is a realistic goal.

"We are really good in our world," Brey said. "To look at upsetting someone in the first round of the national tournament, that's our national championship."

Brey acknowledges that his coaching style has earned him the reputation of being a "nice guy." But, he added, he works hard at the art of coaching, which involves much more than getting players to put the ball in the basket.

"Xs and Os, plays and strategy, are only 15 percent of this thing," Brey said. "It's communication, personalities, motivation, getting them to listen to you and to listen to each other. Knowing how to tell one guy to shoot more and, at the same time, tell another to shoot less.

"I coach by gut feeling, but I also treat my kids the same way that I would want someone to treat my son or daughter. Coaching can consume your attention, and not just during the game. Before it and after it. I wake up sometimes at 2 in the morning, thinking about something I have to do or try or say," he said.

Brey shared his team notebook, a copy of which is given to every player. The paramount rule is that no team member should ever embarrass himself, the University, his team or his family. The other four building blocks are: Compete every day; have great communication; make it work (no excuses); and no fear of failure (go for it).

Satisfied players, Brey said, are your best recruiters. They speak with prospective players when they visit campus, they talk up the program back home and they represent the team well on campus and on the road.

Two such individuals are Keith Davis, a senior business major who played his last game for the Hens in Chicago, and Tyrone Perry, a junior criminal justice major who may be looking at a career in coaching.

"The coach has taught us about self-responsibility,' Perry said, "and to be responsible for our actions. He's helped me become more mature as a person and as a player. When I leave here, I'll be able to look back on the good memories and accomplishments. And, maybe I'll go into coaching myself one day, and use some of the strategies and techniques that Coach Brey taught us."

"He's more like a big brother than a coach," Davis said. "He's helped me to mature a lot. He's put the love back into the game for me. He made me start dreaming again and renewed my love of the game. And, with my education, if the future doesn't work out with the ball, I'm ready to enter the real world."

Other coaches in the America East Conference-which named Brey and Vermont's Tom Brennan 1998 Coach of the Year-also were complimentary, Brey said. He also has been profiled in a number of publications.

ESPN's Contact SportsZone called him "one of the most promising young coaches in the game, although he's too humble to admit it.... Brey may stay at Delaware for 20 years, but if he does, he'll have to turn down a lot of other job offers."

A Washington Post story, headlined "Brey's Way is A-Okay," focused on the America East championship victory and his coaching style.

The Indianapolis News also profiled the Hens and Brey as a prelude to the match-up with local school Purdue.

"College coaching is different than high school," Brey said. "You have to compete every day. It's recruiting, public relations, selling tickets, public speaking. You're always thinking about what you have to get done.

"But, I always wanted to coach," Brey said. "I don't know what I would do if I had a real job. With my parents' background, with two mentors who are Hall of Famers, with my Uncle Jack at Duke, it all came together. It's natural that this is what I should be doing."

In 1992, Brey was on the floor as an assistant when Duke University won the National Championship in Minneapolis. That game floor, he added, was bought by the University for the Bob Carpenter Center.

"That floor has some magic for me," Brey said, alluding again to another appearance of his occasional companion-fate.

-Ed Okonowicz
Photo by Jack Buxbaum