Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press file photo
Larry Brown was a young assistant on coach Dean Smith’s staff at North Carolina in the mid-1960s when he turned down his first head coaching offer.
At the time, Brown didn’t think he was ready. But Smith asked him where he’d like to coach one day.
“I said, of course North Carolina, but I didn’t ever want to see him step down,” Brown said. “So I said Stanford, Northwestern, Princeton and Vanderbilt. ... Great academically and great conferences and great areas to live.”
A record nine NBA jobs later and a quarter century after leading Kansas to an NCAA title, the 72-year-old Brown found that kind of fit in his return to coaching this season at Southern Methodist University.
“We don’t have the tradition of Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA,” said Brown, whose Mustangs are off to a 9-4 start. “But I don’t think we’ll shortchange a kid in terms of getting an education and coaching them up and giving them a chance to be successful.”
For anyone who thought the Hall of Fame coach went to SMU as a figurehead for a struggling program with a pending move to the ever-changing Big East Conference, it quickly becomes clear why he’s back in the game.
“The only reason I took a job is because I love to coach and teach, and this school afforded me this opportunity,” he said.
Brown had to be told during early games to stay in the coaching box. He holds out his hands questioning a non-call by a referee, tries to prompt his team to run its play at the right pace and chides a player for hanging on the rim after a dunk.
During practice, Brown gets right in the middle of his post players to demonstrate what he wants them to do. He swishes a shot to start a drill, then moves up and down the court, waving his hands to direct the action.
“We all thought that he may come in, be like the GM figure. ... That’s so wrong,” SMU junior guard Nick Russell said. “He’s in practice, and he’s screaming, and he’s running, and he’s dribbling, and shooting hook shots. He’s doing it all. He’s involved, and his presence is felt day in and day out.”
Brown was hired in April to replace the fired Matt Doherty, who went 80-109 in six seasons. Brown left the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats in December 2010.
While home in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two high school-age kids, Brown spent many days at Villanova games and practices with coach Jay Wright. Brown also visited friends like Kansas coach Bill Self, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon but stayed away from NBA arenas.
“He’s a piece of work,” Wright said. “I do miss him, but I know how happy he is down there.”
Tim Jankovich was Illinois State’s head coach the past five seasons after working on Self’s staff. He had one of his best Redbirds teams coming back this season, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with Brown, a coach he has always followed and studied.
“What’s struck me is the amount of energy that he has,” said Jankovich, SMU’s associate head coach and Brown’s expected successor. “His energy is that of someone 20 years younger. ... He’s still passionate about the game.”
The Mustangs’ last NCAA tournament was in 1993. Their last NCAA victory was 1988, the same season Brown won the title at Kansas.
In a tight concourse at Moody Coliseum, which is undergoing a massive $47 million renovation, there is a case with some of the Mustangs’ old trophies. The 1993 Southwest Conference championship trophy is near one recognizing a 1957 league title and another from 1935. There is a folded-up jersey once worn by 7-foot center Jon Koncak.
After his first SMU practice, Brown told players he was going to “pray that we win a game.” He seriously asked them to do the same.
“He was like, ‘Ah, this is terrible.’ ... It was our first time playing against one another,” said junior forward Shawn Williams, chuckling at the memory. “I expected a little rust, but I think with him being around NBA guys, it was a little different.”
Brown, who at one time coached the Denver Nuggets, played with the Denver Rockets in the old ABA.
Self, who attended Brown’s SMU introduction along with Doherty, stays in touch with Brown and remembers a call he got last month after a difficult Jayhawks victory.
“He told me how good we’re doing, and I said, ‘Are you watching the same stuff I watched?’ Which goes totally against how he used to be,” Self said. “Because if he’s talking about his own team, they’re always awful.”
Brown seems to like his team now – and the players waiting for next season.
Three transfers get to practice while having to sit out this year, including players from Villanova and Illinois State. A top-notch junior college player and two Chicago-area high school standouts have signed letters of intent for next season.
Brown admittedly isn’t crazy about recruiting, and there have also been a lot of changes in the college game since he was at UCLA (1979-81) and Kansas (1983-88).
“It’s become four different professions in the time I’ve been in it, it changes so much,” said Jankovich, in his 30th season coaching. “I sometimes try to see it through his eyes, and I’m like, ‘You must think you’re on Mars sometimes.’ ... But he’s very bright, and he’s a fast learner, and he’s very observant.”
Many young players know little about Brown, the only coach to win NBA and NCAA titles. Some do connect him when reminded of Allen Iverson’s famous rant about practice while playing for Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers.
When Brown recently was watching some high school games in Beaumont, Texas, some seventh- and eighth-graders sitting nearby were trying to figure out what SMU was.
“There’s a big hill to climb,” Brown said. “It’s a little different when you’re at North Carolina and UCLA and Kansas. You walk into a home where you see a kid, maybe they recognize your program based on the tradition and the excellence and stuff like that. ... That being said, I know in my heart we’re going to be like those other programs. I really believe that.”
Brown, in his 14th job and with a reputation for impressive turnarounds and often messy or quick departures, also knows the inevitable question: How long will he be at SMU?
“Other people bring it up about how long I’m going to stay, and it’s based on my age and based on my track record,” Brown said.
“It’s a question I should have to answer because I have moved, and I don’t know if any Division I head coach is older than me.”
There is. Jackson State’s Tevester Anderson is 75.
As for how long he will keep coaching this time, Brown said he always wants to be doing something in basketball.
“Nobody has had a background like me. Not only the people I played for or worked for, it’s the people who worked with or the people I coached,” Brown said. “Why not share what they taught me?
“I don’t look at mirrors or celebrate birthdays,” he said. “Otherwise, I feel exactly like I did when I was coach’s assistant at North Carolina.”