Larry Brown returns to the college game for the first time in 25 years. His task: Lead SMU back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993.
By Michael Bradley
The sound was something like a cross between electronic Dubstep music and an alarm clock gone haywire.
“Uh, Larry, is that your phone?”
“Yes. Is it bothering you?”
“Not at all. It just doesn’t sound like a ringtone you might have.”
“I don’t like any of this mechanical stuff. My boy (L.J.) made me get it, and I don’t know how to change the ringer. I just learned how to text.”
If there is any better metaphor for 72-year old Larry Brown’s return to college coaching at SMU, that small episode is it. While submitting to questions over a speakerphone in his office, Brown endured three calls on the cell, each one triggering the aural explosion that was about as appropriate for him as Jimmy Durante’s “Inka Dinka Doo” would be for one of his players.
Brown is a basketball teacher. He would rather hold a three-hour practice than coach a game any day of the week. His love of the sport’s many intricacies has been well documented, and any point guard who has ever played for him knows how demanding he can be regarding the minutiae. That’s why he has come back to coaching. To teach. To motivate. To build character. Everything else is just, well, noise.
“Before I got too old, I wanted to share these ideas I have with other people,” Brown says in his trademark, drawn-out Brooklyn drone.
The trouble is, there are a lot of people out there who believe Brown is too old. That’s why his inability to remedy the space-age cell tone is so amusing. Inserting Brown’s be-bop personality into a hip-hop game isn’t easy. Take this year’s new NCAA ruling that coaches are now able to fire texts at will toward coveted recruits. The judgment comes too late for Kelvin Sampson and way too late for Brown. At a time when some coaches text more frequently than even the most ardent high school BFFs, and others have Twitter followings that rival those of movie stars (Kentucky’s John Calipari has 1.2 million Twitter followers), Brown isn’t just old school, he’s the basketball equivalent of a one-room schoolhouse.
“This texting and calling on the phone to kids, I don’t know how they enjoy talking to us,” Brown says. “Every time I’m on the phone, I feel like I’m an imposition to the family and the kid.
“But my staff keeps telling me I have to do it to show we care.”
So, Brown texts — slowly, deliberately, infrequently. He calls prospects and shows them love, er, interest. But most of all, he coaches basketball in an attempt to lift SMU from the Conference USA doldrums in time for the Mustangs’ 2013-14 move to the Big East. It’s a big task, and one that some don’t believe he can accomplish, even if he is the only coach in history with NCAA and NBA titles on his resume.
“He is old, old school,” says SMU assistant Tim Jankovich, who gave up a head-coaching gig at Illinois State to become coach-in-waiting under Brown. “You know what is never old, old school? Basketball. He has a passion to teach, and that allows him to connect with players. There is no disconnect there, although I wouldn’t ask him to merge e-mails for me.”
The soap opera surrounding Brown’s hire is quite interesting. It began with SMU’s decision to fire Matt Doherty, who compiled a 80–109 record in six seasons on The Hilltop, and never finished higher than seventh in league play. Not much drama there. But the subsequent search led the school to candidates like Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Saint Louis’ Rick Majerus, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker and Long Beach State’s Dan Monson — reportedly — none of whom wanted the gig. When SMU athletic director Steve Orsini turned to Brown, at the urging of school president R. Gerald Turner, he did so as a last resort. Less than a month later, Orsini was gone, fired by Turner who said in his statement that “a unified effort is required for future progress.” Those who read between the lines speculated Orsini was released because of an unwillingness to hire Brown.
Related: 2012-13 Conference USA Preview
Brown came to town and quickly informed four members of last year’s team that they should look for other places to play in 2012-13. That’s fairly standard stuff at big-time programs, but since the Ponies aren’t exactly big time, it caused a stir. SMU has had three 20-win seasons since 1988 and constantly has missed out on top prospects from the Dallas area. It prepares to enter the Big East with a team that has just 11 players — two of whom are walk-ons — on the roster. Although two transfers – from Illinois (Crandall Head) and Illinois State (Nic Moore) – will be eligible next year, SMU is a long way from competitiveness, even in C-USA.
22-10, 12-6 Pac-10
20-7, 13-5 Pac-10
22-10, 9-5 Big 8
26-8, 11-3 Big 8
35-4, 13-1 Big 8
25-11, 9-5 Big 8
27-11, 9-5 Big 8
“The challenge is huge,” Brown says. “We have nine [scholarship] kids in the program, and we’re moving into the Big East. A lot of these kids weren’t recruited to play in the Big East. But there is a lot of potential here. We have to get Texas kids to think we’re relevant and get them to believe we can get better.”
* * *
For the three years or so Larry Brown observed Villanova practice (in between coaching gigs) he was always on time and never left early. “And we had some long practices,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright says. There was that one day, when Brown had to go just as the workout ended. Usually, he stayed around to evaluate the players and talk basketball. But this day was different.
“He said it was his anniversary and that his wife (Shelly) was going to kill him,” Wright says. “He has a unique love for the game.”
It is somewhat comical to poke fun at Brown for returning to coaching -- he’ll be 72 when the season begins -- because the man has what Wright terms “energy” for basketball and an “amazing craving to share his knowledge.” That craving and his energy manifest themselves in a way that Wright terms “relentless.” Brown doesn’t tolerate malingerers. He doesn’t do shortcuts. One day after a practice, Wright watched Brown speak with Villanova big man Mo Sutton. After listening to Brown, Sutton said, “I got you, coach.” Brown replied, “No, Mo. You don’t got me. When I see you at practice tomorrow doing what I taught you, then you got me.”
During his time in the NBA, Brown was notorious for his rough treatment of players, particularly point guards. The fear some have is that his perfectionist tendencies won’t reach today’s players, particularly those on SMU’s current roster, who are not as talented as those Brown encountered on previous collegiate stops at UCLA and Kansas. Further, none of the Mustangs was alive when Brown led Danny Manning and the Jayhawks to the NCAA title in 1988 or lifted the Bruins to the national championship game eight years earlier.
Related: Manning takes over at Tulsa
The announcement that SMU had hired Brown sent players scurrying to the Internet to learn more about him. Forward Shawn Williams says any previous knowledge came from the infamous Allen Iverson “Practice?” press conference. Brown was coaching the Philadelphia 76ers at the time of the outburst. And Williams remembered that Brown coached the Pistons to the NBA title in 2004. But unlike the critics who believe SMU made a mistake hiring someone Brown’s age with his itinerant history, the players are thrilled to have him on campus.
“As soon as he took the job, the atmosphere on campus and in the athletic department changed,” senior guard London Giles says. “To be successful, a program has to have a lot of energy, and that’s what he has brought.”
A new NCAA rule allows coaches to work with players during the summer, and Brown has introduced himself by sharing his knowledge and cultivating an enthusiasm for playing the game, as he puts it, “the right way.”
“The guy is amazing,” Williams says. “For me, it’s been a blessing in disguise. I knew about him as a great coach, but until I met him, I didn’t really know his greatness. They say he’s (72), but he looks like he’s in his 40s. He’s a lot different from what I expected.
“I thought he’d come in as an old, grumpy man. He brings energy to practice every day. He’s the greatest coach I’ve ever been around, and I’ve only been with him four weeks.”
There is a concern Brown’s tenure at SMU will be brief, either due to his inherent restless nature — his longest stint at any of his previous 13 collegiate and professional stops has been six seasons, and most are shorter — or his age. That’s why he enticed Jankovich, who directed Illinois State for five seasons, to join his staff. The term “coach-in-waiting” doesn’t sit well with Brown, but he does acknowledge Jankovich carrying that designation will promote continuity with recruits and help the program remain stable as it grows.
“When you’re my age, people say, ‘The guy’s older, and he’s not going to be there long,’” Brown says. “And if you look at my track record, you want somebody on the staff like Tim.
“Tim’s given up a lot. He wanted to be here. He doesn’t want to see me step down, though. I’m fortunate he’s here.”
Brown is fortunate to be in Dallas, too. It gives him a chance to get back in the game after a nearly two-year hiatus following his devastating firing by Bobcats owner (and fellow North Carolina alum) Michael Jordan. It’s not an easy job, and Brown’s not an easy guy to play for, a big reason why he doesn’t stick around too long in one place. But when it comes to basketball knowledge and passion for the game, Brown is unparalleled. He’ll hope that’s enough for SMU to start its move forward.
And all that stuff about his not knowing anything about texting and cell-phone ring tones? Don’t consider it an indication that Brown is out of touch. He may be older, but he has plenty of fire still burning.
SMU is about to learn that.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame
More from the 2012-13 College Basketball Preview:
Top 10 Freshmen for 2012-13
Impact Transfers for 2012-13
Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2012-13
10 Players Returning from Injury
Gonzaga leads International Dream Team