SMU’s gamble on Larry Brown is paying off

Posted Friday, Feb. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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engel The top unsigned high school basketball recruit in the nation sits in his coach’s office at Euless Trinity High School, and clearly states his seven finalists for college.

Kansas, Duke, Arizona, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio State and Oklahoma State are the Magnificent Seven for Trinity’s Myles Turner.

SMU?

“No, sir,” Turner said, “they’re not on my list.”

Yet Larry Brown, the head coach at SMU, keeps showing up at Turner’s games and practices. Until Turner signs, Brown is not quitting on him, or the game that he clearly needs.

Unlike many aging college coaches who quit recruiting — Bob Knight in his final years at Texas Tech comes to mind — Brown is still out there doing what must be done to win in college: Sell himself to high school kids. At 73, Brown is not mailing it in, stealing a check or going through the motions.

Brown’s age alone suggests the obvious — this is not a long-term hire — but both sides are getting exactly what they want.

The bold risk made by SMU to hire Brown in April 2012 is yielding the results the school sought: to be athletically relevant on a national scale. In turn, it is allowing Brown to do the only thing he’s ever done, and to adore his efforts the way he clearly desires.

Not satisfied

In the final minutes of SMU’s win against No. 7 Cincinnati last Saturday, the student body began to chant “Larr-ee Brown! Larr-ee Brown!”

He turned to the fans and mouthed “S-M-U! S-M-U!” The fans then chanted, “S-M-U! S-M-U!” Fans then stormed the court after SMU’s first win over a Top 10 team since 1987.

Whatever Brown is selling at SMU, they’re all buying.

The team was 19-5 heading into Friday’s game at Rutgers, and ranked No. 23 in the latest AP poll. It is the first time the team has been ranked since the 1984-85 season. The recently renovated Moody Coliseum is selling out — on Monday, students were in tents waiting to buy the tickets for the remaining three home games.

“When I first got here, it seemed like it was just our parents were here and now we’re selling out crowds,” senior forward Shawn Williams said. “The fan support is amazing. I was pumping my gas, and someone actually knew who I was. That’s never happened before.”

This was the plan when SMU President Gerald Turner and a few others went against then-athletic director Steve Orsini’s preferences to hire the veteran Hall of Fame coach, who last worked in the college game in 1988. And then there was Brown’s penchant for never staying in the same place for very long.

When Brown arrived at SMU, he did what he normally did at his previous stops: Run off players and bring in new guys. Brown did not renew the scholarships of the majority of players who were expected to return, but SMU honored all of the scholarship commitments of the players who preferred to remain at the school.

Then Brown started to land players, most notably guard Keith Frazier, a McDonald’s All American from Dallas Kimball.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t know where SMU was. I didn’t know until I was in the ninth grade,” Frazier said. “Larry Brown has brought something amazing. I didn’t know too much about him.”

Aided greatly by the presence of veteran assistant Tim Jankovich — who reportedly makes $800,000 per year, making him the highest-paid man in his position in the country — Brown has quickly remade SMU’s roster with quality players.

With Frazier, who Brown admits was crucial to give his recruiting credibility, he also landed Prime Prep guard Emmanuel Mudiay, the highest-rated recruit ever to sign with SMU. He is scheduled to begin play at SMU in the fall.

With an almost entirely new roster, SMU was 15-17 last season.

This season, SMU has defeated No. 17 Connecticut, No. 22 Memphis and No. 7 Cincinnati, will play in the postseason and is creating the type of positive headlines this athletic department has not enjoyed in years.

“I want them to be proud of what they’ve done. They should be proud of what is going on,” Brown said. “But I hope they are not satisfied. We’re certainly not. When you storm the court at home, it makes me realize you have not had much success. I would hope in the future that we’re excited to beat a team we’re expected to beat.”

According to the latest RPI rankings on ESPN.com, SMU is ranked 40th. That should be good enough, if it holds, for SMU’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1993.

This is why SMU hired Larry Brown.

Short stays

As any team that has ever won under Brown — Kansas, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, the Philadelphia 76ers — the question invariably becomes: When will he leave? When he arrived at SMU, people in the athletic department figured he would stick for three years.

Of the 10 head-coaching jobs Brown had between the NBA and ABA, which began in 1972, the longest he ever stayed was in Philadelphia — a total of six years. Of the two previous NCAA jobs he had — UCLA and Kansas — he stayed in Lawrence for five years.

He never says he intends to leave, but things happen. He was rumored to be linked to the Brooklyn Nets’ opening last season, but that never materialized.

Unlike his previous exits, there are a few factors that work in SMU’s favor for Brown to stay.

At his age, the NBA simply may no longer want him to be a head coach or a general manager.

His son is enrolled at SMU, and “he’s my roommate,” Brown said.

SMU will love him for as long as he wants. He is appreciated at SMU, and they both make each other feel relevant.

“I never imagined it could be like this, for me, at 73. This is like going back to when I was a freshman coach at North Carolina,” Brown said. “I feel the exact same way, until I look in the mirror. I still have the same passion. I love coming to practice. I love it.

“I don’t know about the need [to coach again]. I needed to be around basketball.”

As long as this is the case, Brown will work, and chase the Myles Turners of the high school world to come play for him at SMU. Until Brown says no, or until he is fired, expect Larry Brown to keep winning.

Follow Mac Engel on The Big Mac Blog on www.star-telegram.com/sports/.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @macengelprof

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