- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- Notre Dame's basketball practice was underway on Oct. 27 when longtime trainer Skip Meyer approached coach Mike Brey. Began Meyer: "I just want you to know "
And that's when Brey first learned about the death of Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old Notre Dame student videographer who was killed when a fatal gust of wind blew over the hydraulic scissor lift he was perched on. The tragedy took place at the ND football practice fields, located just down the street from the Joyce Center.
"I don't know what we did the rest of practice," Brey said. "I was completely spaced out the rest of the day."
But the following day Brey gathered his players together, and team and coach tried to make sense of Sullivan's death. They couldn't, of course. So Brey asked them to take a moment and reflect about the frailties of life, about how well they had it.
"We need to continue to do what we do," he told them.
What they do is win games, win admirers and, in a tiny way, become an emotional lifeboat for a university community in need of at least one happy ending. Brey's team has given Notre Dame what its football program and conga line of head coaches haven't: stability and peace of mind.
Friday at the United Center, the Fighting Irish defeated Akron, 69-56, in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was a win to be appreciated -- all wins in March deserve that much -- but not framed. Too many Notre Dame turnovers and too many first half nerves.
Still, it was Brey's first NCAA tournament victory in three years. A season ago, Notre Dame couldn't make it past the first round. And a season before that, it couldn't even make it to the NCAAs. So Brey wasn't complaining.
"We're thrilled to advance," he said.
Notre Dame -- its students, its teachers, its staff, its administrators -- should be too. For months, the university has been on the wrong side of the news. A recent report by the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration detailed a chain of preventable events that ultimately ended in Sullivan's death. The school, which has publicly acknowledged its role in the tragedy, was fined $77,500 for administrative oversights.
About a month after the Sullivan accident, the University was accused by the family of a St. Mary's College student of conducting nothing more than a cursory investigation into the alleged sexual misconduct of a Notre Dame football player. The student who was the alleged victim of the misconduct later committed suicide. Criminal charges were never filed by the county prosecutor.
A basketball team can't heal the heartache of Sullivan's death, or answer the questions created by the incident involving the St. Mary's student and Notre Dame football player -- not even close. It can't even make people forget the waning months of Charlie Weis' football regime.
But it can help. Those 27 wins that Brey's team has stacked like cords of firewood this season help. The victory against Akron helps. Dependability helps.
"I've really felt that's my role at times there," said Brey, when I spoke with him before Thursday's practice. "We've had many football changes [five head coaches since Brey was hired in July 2000]. There's been two [athletic directors]. I've had two presidents. I guess quietly I've felt my and our steadiness is important to our campus. I think people have really latched on to that. Like, 'OK, they're going to be there. Mike and those guys will be there.'"
As the basketball season approached, Brey began receiving emails from assorted Notre Dame professors and friends of the university. "We need a good story," read one.
Brey and his program have given Notre Dame something to be proud of. The Fighting Irish are the No. 2 seed in the Southwest Region, their highest NCAA seeding since 1981. They finished second in the brutally tough Big East Conference this season. Brey's 11-year record in South Bend: 238-119.
Yes, his record against ranked opponents (38-65) and his 6-6 NCAA tournament record at Notre Dame attracts critics. But he runs a Lysol-clean program with a minimum of off-court drama. And he does it with a budget that pales in comparison with other Big East programs.
And yes, it might have taken Brey until late January, when the Irish beat Pittsburgh on the road, to finally embrace his team's chances of making a serious run at the Big East title. In fact, after the win at Pitt, a Notre Dame staffer pointed out the updated league standings to guard Ben Hansbrough.
"It's just now that the big guy is believing we can do this," said Hansbrough to the staffer.
Better late than never, right? And when Notre Dame needed that good story, Brey and his team were available for duty.
"I guess in some small way you say, 'Our university community was hurting a little bit. Do your job and let's be good and give them something to rally around,"' Brey said.
Brey and his players know a win against Akron or a win against Florida State on Sunday won't make the events of Oct. 27 go away. The pain lingers with everyone on that campus.
"Whenever a tragedy occurs like that it takes more than just a basketball team to get over it," Notre Dame guard Scott Martin said after Friday's victory. "We do our best to represent the University the best way we can. We play as hard as we can and I think that's all we can do. If people want to take us that way, that's great. If not, that's OK too."
Said forward Carleton Scott: "We just try to uplift however we can. I hope we're doing a good job."
A happy ending? Not yet. Maybe not ever. But they're trying.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.