Coach, 73, puts Mustangs on the map for Big Dance

by: COURTESY OF SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY - Veteran coach Larry Brown, 73, has performed another in a long line of rebuilding acts at Southern Methodist, where the Mustangs are in the race for the NCAA Tournament.The call came from Columbia, Mo., the voice on the other end familiar, but one I hadn’t heard for more than three years.

“I’m watching some high school kids play here tonight,” Larry Brown says, adding with a laugh, “Can you believe, a KU coach recruiting in Columbia?”

Brown had given his Southern Methodist players two days off after Sunday’s 64-55 upset of 21st-ranked Connecticut at Storrs.

“My assistants told me I had to,” Brown says. “I’m anxious to get back into the gym to start getting ready for UCF.”

SMU is 22-6 overall, 10-4 and in third place in the fledgling American Athletic Conference and ranked No. 23 (Associated Press) and No. 24 (USA Today/coaches) in this week’s polls. This with a program that last won a conference title and last advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 1993. The Mustangs, 37th in the latest RPI rankings, are a shoo-in to make it to the Big Dance this season.

It has been a Larry Brown kind of renaissance in Dallas, the kind of magic the 73-year-old coach extraordinaire has done countless times over four decades in the business.

I’m long since done being surprised by Brown, whom I’ve known for 25 years and have admired as one of the truly great ones to come down the pike.

The only man to have coached an NCAA champion (Kansas, 1988) and NBA champion (Detroit, 2004) is at it again, resurrecting one of the historically worst programs in Division I basketball.

What Brown is doing at SMU should give heart to Oregon State fans who have stopped believing their program can ever be turned around. It can be done, with the right coach in place. Brown is living proof.

Brown was given up for dead in the coaching ranks when he was fired in December 2010 by the Charlotte Bobcats, a 9-19 record serving notice that the Hall of Famer’s career was destined to end on a sour note.

The man who had served as head coach for 10 ABA or NBA clubs, as well as Kansas and UCLA, and won more than 1,600 games spent 16 months in coaching limbo, wondering if he’d get another chance.

“I had two years to watch people coach,” Brown says. He visited campuses at Kentucky and Kansas and Maryland and Villanova, watching practices and visiting with friends in the coaching business. “They all wanted me to get back into coaching,” Brown says.

Nobody wanted him back, though, more than Brown himself. He’s a coaching lifer if I’ve ever met one. A teacher who loves practice sessions more than games.

“I just wanted to work again,” he says. “I didn’t care if it was high school, as Doc Rivers assistant (in Boston last season), as a GM in the NBA — I didn’t care. I just felt like I had something to offer. I wanted to do it some more.”

SMU did not seem a likely destination. The Mustangs have little tradition in basketball. They have been to the Final Four once — losing the third-place game in 1956 — and haven’t been to the NIT since 2000. Greatest player in the school’s history? Jon Koncak.

When fellow North Carolina grad Matt Doherty was fired after a 13-19 campaign in 2011-12, then-athletic director Steve Orsini looked around. And around. Rick Majerus, Tommy Amaker, Dan Monson and Buzz Williams all reportedly turned down the job.

“I was about the 20th choice,” Brown says wryly. “And the last one interviewed.”

Brown’s biggest ally in the hiring process was June Jones, the Grant High grad and former Portland State quarterback who is SMU’s football coach. Jones was the first to call Brown when he heard the veteran mentor was interested in the job.

“June is the reason I’m here,” Brown says. “He kept saying I was on their list. They kept canceling interviews. I was a little discouraged. I wasn’t real confident. June kept telling me to hang in there and be patient.”

“Larry was very disappointed he wasn’t being given any respect,” Jones says. “I was just trying to let him know it was a process. I kept him informed, kept encouraging him to not say the wrong thing. I told him, ‘You’re going to get an interview, and when you do, you’ll get the job.’

“He was probably the fourth or fifth guy they interviewed. We were lucky it worked. I thought he would create national media attention for our program right away, that he’d give us instant credibility, that he’d be able to recruit because of who he is. It’s proven to be an accurate assessment.”

During their initial conversation, Jones told Brown they’d met before, when Jones was a 17-year-old senior at Grant.

“The only way I could get into a Blazer game was to drive the van from the hotel for the visiting team,” Jones says. “He was coaching the (Denver) Nuggets. He jumped right into the front seat next to me, and we talked.

“The one thing I remember about it, it was the same thing I see him do now. He wanted to know more about me — where I was going to high school, what sports I played. He’s a unique individual. Successful people have that something about them. That’s how Larry is.”

Before his interview, Brown called Doherty.

“Matt and I go way back,” Brown says. “That was a little uncomfortable for me, to be honest. You don’t want to follow a friend, a guy who has been a big part of your life. He told me what to expect, and I got lucky. I hired a great staff. That made the adjustment easier.”

Brown hired two men who had played for him with the Philadelphia 76ers — George Lynch and Eric Snow — along with Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovich, who had interviewed for the job.

“Tim called (Orsini) after his interview and said, ‘If Larry gets the job, I want to coach with him,’ “ Brown says. Orsini “thought I needed a coach-in-waiting, somebody who had been a head coach. I told him, ‘All my coaches are in waiting. If you do your job as a head coach, the people who work with you and are loyal, hopefully they get a job.’ “

Brown hired Jankovich as an associate head coach at $700,000 per season, making him the highest-paid assistant in the country.

“When (Kansas coach) Bill Self recommended him, that was fine with me,” Brown says. “I like Tim. I hit a home run there.”

In their first season under Brown — who hadn’t coached collegiately since taking Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988 — the Mustangs went 15-17 overall and finished 5-11 and in 11th place in the final year of 12-team Conference USA. He augmented “four really good (returning) players” with a recruiting class ranked No. 14 nationally by

Brown added seven transfers this season.

“I knew we’d be better,” he says. “I didn’t know if our record would reflect it, since we upgraded our schedule and are in a much tougher league.”

SMU is one of five really good programs in the AAC, including Cincinnati (24-4), Louisville (23-4), Memphis (21-6) and Connecticut (21-6). The Mustangs already have knocked off Cincinnati, Memphis and UConn and get Louisville at home on March 5.

The Mustangs are 14-0 at 7,000-seat, 57-year-old Moody Coliseum, which underwent a $47-million renovation in the offseason.

“It’s plush. It’s beautiful,” Brown says.

Suddenly, the Mustangs, with seven straight sellouts, are a hot item in town. Luxury suites are filled for each game. Deion Sanders and Tony Romo have been spotted court side.

“Everybody wants a ticket,” Brown says. “That’s a good thing.”

Moody hadn’t sold out a game since 2001.

“When I first got to SMU six years ago, there’s be 150 people in the stands,” Jones says. “Larry has re-energized everything. I watch his team practice. The guy is energetic. I’m sure he coaches exactly the same way he always did. He relates well to kids, but he goes 100 miles an hour at practice. When they’re in a scrimmage, he stops it every two minutes. He’s what I thought he was going to be.”

Jankovich may be in-waiting for a while. The oldest coach in Division I basketball isn’t looking to quit any time soon. Brown’s son, L.J., is a freshman at SMU and Larry’s roommate at their Dallas apartment. “He wants to make movies,” Brown says.

Daughter Madison, a junior at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., “is Lady Gaga. She wants to be in performing arts. She likes music and plays the piano.”

Brown promised L.J. he’d stick around SMU to see him graduate.

“I wouldn’t mind Madison going here, too,” Larry says.

Retirement is not on his mind.

“As long as I feel I’m helping and we’re making progress, I don’t see why I should stop,” he says. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting better.

“It’s been a great experience. I’m lucky they’ll allow me to still do this. I have good young players, and we’re going to have great ones coming in. I’m confident we’re going to be a great program for a long time. I’m having fun. Why wouldn’t you have fun coaching?”

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