As the Southern Methodist team bus rolled back onto the Mustangs’ campus following a road trip earlier this week, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown seized an opportunity with the style and flair that has become characteristic of his amazing career.
“After we lost [at] Temple, our athletic director told me the students were camping out for tickets for Central Florida and Louisville and thought it would be a neat idea if we went by,” Brown said Friday during a conference call with Connecticut reporters. “I thought, ‘Wow that would be great.’ I wanted our team to see the effect they’ve had on the student body.
“Sunday was miserable until the bus pulled up and we saw all those people sitting out in the cold, waiting for tickets. That opened up a lot of eyes. Again, I appreciate that. That’s why I love being back in college [coaching]. You want students to feel like we are their team. And their support will make a big difference in how we play. “
The Mustangs (21-6, 10-4 American Athletic Conference) are back on the road Sunday (2 p.m., Gampel Pavilion) to face No. 21 Connecticut (21-5, 9-4) for the second time this season. Since the Huskies lost in Dallas 74-65, Brown and his Mustangs have evolved into one of college basketball’s great stories this season.
The rejuvenation of SMU basketball is way ahead of schedule under Brown, 73, in his second year at the school. The only man to win both an NCAA championship (Kansas) and a NBA title (Detroit Pistons), came out of retirement to do what he does best and two weeks ago SMU appeared in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time after a 29-year absence.
SMU’s renovated home court, Moody Coliseum, has given the Mustangs a home court advantage once again and the Mustangs moved into the AP poll after an upset of Cincinnati, SMU’s first win over a Top 10 opponent since Dec. 3, 1987, at home. Sunday, Brown would like to see his team make a statement on the road. The Mustangs have lost at Cincinnati, at Louisville, at USF and at Temple in AAC play.
It’s time for SMU to take the next step, but UConn has won seven of its last eight and the Huskies are well known for defending their own turf.
“We were 13-15 in Conference USA last year,” Brown said. “I knew we’d be better this year, but I didn’t know if our record would reflect that. I think [the players] are proud of themselves, but in order for us to become really good, we have to prove that on the road against a quality team. Every game we’re playing now is like a tournament game for us.”
Brown is one of the great nomads in coaching history. He moves around, doesn’t stay long, but understands what it takes to turn a program around. In addition to recruiting, working hard in the gym, and possessing a basketball genius that comes from learning the game under Frank McGuire and Dean Smith at North Carolina, Brown does all the subtle things – like cultivating the student crowd.
At UCLA, he was an honorary fraternity member of Lamba Chi Alpha. At Kansas, he not only recruited Danny Manning, he started the tradition of Late Night, and delivered Joe’s Donuts to campers waiting for their premium student seats at Allen Fieldhouse.
“That’s one of the neat things about being a college coach is that you’re part of the community and part of the student body,” Brown said. “I want our students to care about our team. And I want them to know we appreciate their support.
“I’m having fun [at SMU] but I’ve always had fun. I’ve been real lucky that I’ve been able to coach for as long as I have. I’ve been lucky to have been all the places I’ve been. I can’t think of many times in my life when I haven’t enjoyed what I’ve been doing. To be doing this at my age, after I got fired in Charlotte, to be allowed to have an opportunity to coach a program like this, I’m really excited. I love my staff, I look forward to coming to work every day. If you look at my situation, why wouldn’t I be having a good time?”
When Brown was a candidate at Kansas in 1983, Smith warned his alma mater to “find out why he doesn’t stay any place.” After leading the Jayhawks to the national championship in 1988, Brown almost returned to UCLA, decided to stay at Kansas, then left for the San Antonio Spurs.
The late Bob Frederick, former Kansas AD, once told me Brown is a really interesting person “in the sense that each time that he moved, right away he was talking about how good the last job was. And then when he gets in that job, he’s thinking about how good the next job is going to be.”
But after the end came with the Charlotte Bobcats – his ninth NBA coaching job – in December 2010, Brown literally didn’t know what to do. His extensive coaching family reached out to him. First, Villanova’s Jay Wright, then Bill Self, John Calipari, Mark Turgeon and Tad Boyle.
During the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans, he was hanging out with Self and the Jayhawks again and watching Calipari’s Kentucky team win a national championship. In a matter of days, he had agreed to coach SMU.
“After I got fired from Charlotte, I went home,” Brown said. “I’d drive my kids to school and hang out. After about a week, I was bored to death. . . . Then they all started inviting me to come to their practices. They were all thanking me for being there and they were all saving my life. I was the one that was benefitting from that experience.
“I wanted to get back into coaching. Doc Rivers talked to me about coming with him. I thought about going to high school. I was hopeful maybe an NBA team would call me and ask me to be a GM or president. But this job [at SMU] came open and John and Jay and Mark and Bill all called on my behalf. So it gave me an opportunity tog get back and do what I love. I didn’t know it would be at SMU, but I was hopeful I’d be involved in basketball in some capacity.”
Brown enjoys going to practice every day, but he was put on this Earth for games such as the one that will be played at Gampel on Sunday. The only drawback for Brown will be coaching against UConn’s Kevin Ollie, who played for Brown when they both represented the Philadelphia 76ers. The respect they have for each other has been well documented.
“When you have great guards, you have a chance to be a great team in college basketball, in my mind,” Brown said. “And they have great guards. And when you have maybe the best player in the country [Shabazz Napier], you have a chance to do great things. They have a team as good as anybody in the country. And they respond to Kevin.
“If you’re going to put a team together and you have 12 Kevin Olllies, you’re going to be successful. I think they reflect he is, the way they play.”
One way or the other, Brown and the Mustangs are going to learn something new about themselves Sunday at Gampel. Playing big games on the road is still new to the Mustangs.
“Again, all of this is a growing process for us,” Brown said. “I’m excited about coming to Connecticut. I want our kids to be in an environment like that where you walk in and look at the [championship] banners, and look at the body of work by that program. That’s something we’re trying to get to. I don’t know if it will happen, but I want them to feel like if we do the right things, and get better, that’s the kind of program we’d like to have.”