Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Welcome back, From the End of the Bench
loyalists. It's been awhile since we last met on the first Monday night in
April, or should I say the early morning hours after Kentucky finished off its
a fate accompli by hoisting the national championship.
Since then, the Wildcats' starting five entered the NBA draft in one press
conference - the main draw of a collegiate exodus that included the likes of
North Carolina's Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes, Connecticut's Jeremy
Lamb just in time for the Huskies' one-year NCAA Tournament suspension and
Baylor's Perry Jones and Quincy Miller after one underwhelming season apiece.
Seth Greenberg was hosting a recruit when he heard of a hastily called news
conference to announce his termination at Virginia Tech. Larry Eustachy
parlayed his second life and subsequent success at Southern Mississippi into a
better gig at Colorado State. His predecessor, Tim Miles, took his halftime
Twitter prowess to Nebraska. Johnny Jones packed his bags for LSU after former
head coach Trent Johnson departed for TCU.
And all of those moving places came into place before we could even reflect
back on the 2011 season. College basketball's transition period is so brief,
allowing just enough time for Kentucky to clean up its streamers before jumping
into a barrage of early entries and coaching changes.
Luther Vandross provides three minutes for reflection, then it's full steam
ahead on the same plane as David Axelrod and the President's re-election
Yet the game's biggest leap forward to date was a step back to the past. The
op-ed below isn't to wax poetic about Larry Brown's many accomplishments, of
which there are many. My Sports Network colleague Phil Neuffer already laid
about Brown's collegiate and professional feats in a column last week.
The point of this exercise is to look deeper, at the historical significance of
the hire, the monkey in the room on the recruiting trail (Brown's age), and a
nomad's (inability to maintain his interest in a game that has evolved greatly
since he was last part of it.
SMU's journey to the Big East was a piece of opportunistic desperation that
stemmed from power players' mass exodus from a once-proud league, and that very
league's necessary search west of the Mississippi River to find teams eager to
jump at the lore of major conference money, television appearances and a seat
at the grown-ups' table. What SMU had going for it was its proximity to a major
media market (Dallas), its football history and its willingness to say yes.
The jump from Conference USA to the Big East had nothing to do with basketball;
it just so happened that Brown came along for the ride in a move made for
The Mustangs haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 1992-1993, yet they have
shown recent interest in improving their program, beginning with the hire of
former North Carolina head coach (and one-time Brown assistant) Matt Doherty
followed by the building of a new multi-million dollar basketball facility and,
now, the increased exposure of playing in the Big East.
The Doherty plan failed, but in its wake still lays a sparkling recruiting
showcase to the best the Lone Star State has to offer. Currently nine Mustangs
hail from Texas, and Brown's first priority is not only going after a typical
SMU recruit, but aiming at the state's upper-echelon talent normally reserved
for Rick Barnes in Austin, Bill Self in Lawrence or Coach K out east in Durham.
Which brings us to Brown's sell job, and, more specifically, the whispers sure
to reach every SMU target's ears however long his tenure lasts. Larry Brown is
a winner; he has proven it by winning national championships (as he did at
Kansas in 1988), NBA titles (with Detroit in 2004) and amassing over 1,200
victories between the professional and collegiate ranks. His Rolodex is filled
with some of the game's greats, power brokers at every level and scouting
experts from Mount Rainer to Mount Pocono.
Suffice to say, Brown is one of the game's most respected elder statesmen, on
the surface a major coup for an athletic department trying to make its hoops
program relevant. His hire was the first step, and with the accomplishments
listed above, Brown brings a street creed that will resonate with many students
of the game, those players drawn to the poetic imagery that comes with playing
for an icon.
But what about the harder sells? What happens when a workaholic like John
Calipari is pulling all-nighters to get from one summer camp to the next? Does
Brown have that drive left? Being 71 isn't a standalone issue, but it strikes a
chord with 17-year-old athletes when combined with Brown's nomadic lifestyle,
his strong dislike for the micromanaging and roster construction that comes
with a head coach's responsibility.
Brown will never be outworked, and rarely outcoached, on the floor, but college
athletics has transformed so much since the late 1980s. The game is faster,
the players are stronger, the pool of talent for power programs much greater,
the recruiting game far more aggressive, the recent changes to the by-laws
governing the rat race more stringent in an ever-changing world of advanced
Can Larry Brown tweet? Does he even text? Is he up on new recruiting language
or the affects of the APR (Academic Performance Rating) on in-season scholastic
monitoring? To put it bluntly, Brown had a tough enough time following the
rules during his first collegiate foray (UCLA vacated a 1980 national
championship game appearance after violations of playing with ineligible
players, and Kansas was barred from defending its national championship because
of recruiting violations during Brown's tenure).
Brown's family tree has branched off to produce some successful head coaches,
namely Self and Calipari, but the roots have aged and been through so many
battles that one wonders whether they have enough left to grow another program.
Because that's what SMU is asking. They understand this isn't a quick fix, yet
they hired a quintessential win-now guy, a name brand with plenty of longevity,
but a quick itch to bolt town at the first faint feeling of boredom.
I can envision the competition now: Go play for Larry Brown. But think for a
second whether or not you want to be stuck at a second-rate Big East program
when Brown inevitably bolts for retirement, or mucks up the recruiting waters
or simply realizes what many in the game think but are afraid to say.
Why is Larry Brown jumping back into an unfamiliar arena filled with familiar
faces? Why is he partaking in the painstaking legwork he has always detested?
And better yet, how in the world did he convince SMU's athletic hierarchy that
his track record warranted a rebuilding project?
This isn't the NBA. In fact, this isn't Kansas or UCLA. SMU was a job for a
young basketball coach who didn't mind living out of suitcases or pulling all-
nighters to build a program brick by brick.
That's not Larry Brown, and I'd say SMU would realize that several years down
the road, but let's be honest, knowing Brown, this experiment probably won't
last that long.
The Sports Network