The Legacy of “Broadway Betty” Brey and the Impact on Notre Dame’s Basketball Program
Mike Brey at the unveiling of his mom’s statue in her hometown of Weissport, Pennsylvania.
Six years ago, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team made its way through the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament, finding itself in the championship game pitted against the blue-blood North Carolina Tar Heels.
The scoreboard held tight throughout, with Notre Dame taking a five-point lead into halftime only to find themselves down eight points with just under 10 minutes to go. Eventually, behind Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, a soon-to-be NBA first-round draft pick, the Fighting Irish would pull out a 90-82 win, giving the school its first ACC Tournament title in program history.
As Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey stood atop the ladder on the Greensboro Coliseum court, cutting down the last strand of netting to hang back in Notre Dame’s trophy case, he couldn’t help but think about his family, specifically his mother, who was in the stands watching.
“She saw Jack (Mike’s uncle, who played basketball at Duke) win the ACC title in 1960 in Greensboro as a player, and 55 years later she saw her son win in Greensboro as a coach,” Brey said.
The feat is a testament to the athletic genes that run deep through Brey’s family lineage, seeing Jack play basketball at Duke, Mike playing and coaching NCAA basketball, Brenda (Mike’s siter) earning NCAA All-American recognitions as a swimmer at LSU and more.
While these honors are all applause-worthy, the Brey family admittedly owes a large amount of their competitive nature and accomplishments to their mother, 1956 Olympic freestyler Betty (Mullen) Brey.
Betty’s story began in Weissport, Pennsylvania, a town that routinely hovers just around the 1,000-person mark on yearly U.S. Census data reports.
Betty’s father worked on the railroads, cleaning trains as they would pass through on the way to New York City. During a routine day at work, Betty’s father found a pamphlet for swim lessons at a YMCA in downtown New York. And thus, Betty Brey had become a swimmer.
“My sister and I called her Broadway Betty,” Mike explained. “They (Betty and her father) would go up to the city, catch a matinee on Broadway, and then go work out and then catch the train back.”
The training paid off, as Betty quickly rose through the swimming ranks in the 1940s, becoming one of the top female swimmers in the country. When she wrapped up with high school, she wanted to keep swimming, but at the time, women’s swimming was not an NCAA sport.
She knew she wanted to keep at it, so Broadway Betty did her research and found that one of the elite women’s swimming coaches at the time, Stan Tinkham, coached in West Lafayette, Indiana. Betty packed her bags and headed to Purdue University, where she became a full-time student, swimmer in her free time, and even a baton-twirler in Purdue’s historic “All-American Marching Band.”
“There’s a picture in my office of her twirling at the 50-yard line at Notre Dame Stadium,” Mike explained. “Purdue came up here and beat us when we were No. 1 in 1950, and I got a picture of it. People go ‘get out of here,’ when they see it, but I just say ‘that’s my mom’ back to them. She’s doing a back bend with a baton.”
The spare-time training that Betty did with coach Tinkham in West Lafayette paid off, as Betty continued her pursuit of becoming one of the nation’s best female swimmers. Suddenly, after years of trying to make the Olympic roster, her dream became a reality.
“She tried in ’48, didn’t make it. Tried in ’52, didn’t make it. Then she hung in there for ’56 and made it as ‘the old lady’ of the ’56 team,” Mike said.
That ‘old lady’ title came to Betty at just 24 years old, the age that current U.S. National Team stars Simone Manuel, Lilly King, Kathleen Baker and more are continuing to dominate today’s headlines at.
While it seems odd to give a 24-year-old the ‘old-lady’ title, at that time, it was unprecedented to be a woman in her mid-20s and still be competing at a high level. Of the female swimmers on the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team to have their age on record, Betty was the only woman in her 20’s and had five years on the next-closest swimmer to her age.
At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Betty swam in the prelims of the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay, an event that the U.S. team would go on to claim silver in during the finals. Back then, only athletes who competed in the finals of a relay were awarded tangible medals back then, so while Betty played an integral part in the U.S. relay team’s silver medal, she was not awarded an actual medal.
Though she does not have an actual medal from the 1956 Olympic Games, the title of Olympian holds a lot of weight among the Brey family tree of athletes.
“That’s why I have pictures of her all over my office, it’s a reminder of her work ethic and I’m so proud to call her my mom,” Mike explained of the athletic influence her legacy holds. “It’s a reminder of the edge and the mentality to wake up every day and compete your tail off to be successful. She drove that into my sister and I.”
The legacy carried over when Mike and his two siblings, Brenda and Shane, were growing up. Betty and Paul, her husband and the father to Mike, Brenda and Shane, enrolled the kids in swim lessons in early. For Mike, his swimming career lasted until he was around 10 years old when he realized he wanted to switch to basketball.
With the fear of letting down his Olympic-swimming mom, Mike opted not to deliberately quit swimming, but rather strategically place his gear at the end of the pool by the exit door during summer swim camp. Betty would drop him off at camp, watch a few laps, and then when she went out to run errands, Mike would exit stage left and head to the basketball court.
Then, one day, it happened. Mike got caught.
In the car ride home, he sheepishly admitted to his mom that he may want to commit to basketball over swimming. The fear started to sink in.
To his delight, Betty responded: “Yeah, we’ve got you signed up for basketball camp beginning next week.”
The support of Betty meant the world to Mike, who went on to play collegiately at George Washington University before coaching five years at Delware and now being in his 21st year on Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
While basketball remained at the forefront for Mike’s playing and coaching career, he has continued to hold swimming near to him, going to the pool a few times a week. Mike views it as a sense of therapy; a time to be alone, go over practice plans, recruiting strategies and be himself with no distractions. He even relied on long-time Notre Dame swim coach Tim Welsh for tips and equipment and would even bring Notre Dame’s basketball team to the pool for workouts in the offseason.
From the mental side, Mike credits his mom with his coaching philosophy.
“Watching her coach, teach and really just interact with people and swimmers who she coached was maybe the greatest mentorship I could have had,” Mike explained. “She had that balance of intensity, confidence, instructing and even adding humor to loosen athletes up was an unbelievable role model for me as an instructor and educator for me.
“Dang Betty, she’s got me so that I can’t relax or retire, I still have to be chasing this thing. That’s because of her. Her genetics still has me chasing success and being crazy every day wanting to beat someone or something. I say that to vent, but then I think, ‘God bless her’ and ‘I’m glad I got it’ because those genetics have served me well.”
That intensity and mentorship is what stuck with Betty for her whole life, even when health complications started to show up in her later years.
In 2015, she suffered a heart attack and passed away at age 84. It was the morning of a March Madness game against Butler, where Notre Dame won in overtime, and just seven days after she watched Mike’s Notre Dame team beat North Carolina for the ACC Championships title in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“When she passed, people spoke at her service nonstop for an hour about the type of person she was,” Mike said. “The swimmers she coached are now in their 60s, and many of them came back to talk about her as a person and an educator.”
Broadway Betty held numerous titles over her lifespan: mother, coach, teacher, Olympian, veteran, role model, baton twirler and more. Above all else, her legacy is one of both compassion and competitiveness.
“Little ol’ Weissport, Pennsylvania, she got out of there and kept kicking doors down in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then swam Masters after until she was into her 60s.
“She was 65 and would come back to me and say, ‘I’m disappointed in my time,’ and I would tell her that she should be proud since she is 65 and still swimming. But she would tell me that she was at the bottom of her age group now and was determined to crush those 68-, 69- and 70-year-olds. That was her attitude until the day she died, and that’s why she was special.”
The sport of swimming meant the world to Betty, but it was what she did with the sport that will carry over for years to come.