The Hilltop is Hoppin'
Larry Brown propels SMU basketball to prominence with old-school attitude
Before last weekend, SMU men’s basketball coach Larry Brown said he had been a part of four “court-stormings,” which isn’t an official statistic but is something we see play out this time of year. None of Brown’s previous experiences was positive.
There was the fight he was in during his undergrad days playing at North Carolina. There were the two games he coached at UCLA and Kansas, respectively, where he watched his opponent’s fans storm the court after Brown’s team lost. Finally, there was the Ron Artest fight in Detroit in 2003.
Compared to that, watching SMU’s fans hit the court after the Mustangs soundly defeated Cincinnati last Saturday was unexpected bliss.
Brown loves a good reclamation project. His coaching life is filled with them.
“[Assistant coach] Tim [Jankovich] grabbed me, and I thought he was going to give me a hug,” Brown said Tuesday during his press conference before the team’s trip to Rutgers on Thursday. “But he was trying to warn me. I didn’t anticipate that. When it happened I was really caught off guard.”
So was the rest of the country. SMU has become college basketball’s latest Cinderella story. The Mustangs went from being unranked to a No. 23 distinction in the Associated Press Top 25. It's the team's first national ranking since March 12, 1985.
ESPN’s resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, said on Sunday that SMU went from being out of the NCAA Tournament to being a projected No. 9 seed. Students camped out overnight Sunday in near-freezing temperatures for tickets for the next set of home games, which went on sale Monday morning. Brown took them doughnuts.
Wanna see defending national champion Louisville when they come to town on March 5? Try the secondary market. SMU is sold out. Wanna see celebrities? Tony Romo, Jason Garrett and Deion Sanders were at Saturday’s game. Garrett brought the Cowboys’ coaching staff to Tuesday’s workout just to soak it all in.
“I think we were all hopeful that we would have the kind of program that the kids and the fans would want to support,” Brown said. “It’s happened a little quicker than we thought.”
Undoubtedly. Brown inherited a mess, and many wondered why the National Basketball Hall of Famer would even want a part of this job when SMU hired him in April 2012. It was a huge hire for SMU, but there seemed to be little motivation for Brown to take the job.
Brown asks his players not to read the paper or use Twitter.
He’s done everything you can do in basketball, from playing for two legendary coaches in Frank McGuire and Dean Smith to being the only coach to win an NCAA title and an NBA title.
But Brown loves a good reclamation project. His coaching life is filled with them. He has had an itinerant career — SMU is his 13th job as a head coach — but all he does is win.
Compile his entire 39-year coaching career, and you’ll see a coach that, entering Thursday, has won an insane 1,687 games. That’s instant credibility with a group of players that weren’t born the last time SMU was a player on the national stage, back in the days of Jon Koncak.
“His name speaks volumes,” SMU guard and Duncanville native Nick Russell said. “Who am I to disagree with what he has to say to me?”
It’s hard to disagree with a coach that has failed to notch a winning season just six times in his career. Brown has connected with this group of players by drawing on his extensive pro experience while mixing some old-school attitude.
He asks his players not to read the paper or use Twitter. But he’ll tell them what he read in the paper, especially when it has to do with something Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says. SMU runs the same flow offense the Mavs do, so watching a Mavs game is like watching game tape for these Mustangs.
“He really cares about us,” said Cannen Cunningham. “That’s what we really buy into.”
The culture is different now. Russell said last year fans came to see Brown. This year they come to see the players and a remodeled Moody Coliseum. Cannen Cunningham, who nearly left after Matt Doherty was fired in 2012, says he’s glad he stayed.
“[Brown’s] just incredible,” Cunningham said. “I think the big thing is that he really cares about us. You can’t say that about a lot of college coaches, and that’s what we really buy into.”
It will get better too. Brown and SMU have already signed one of the nation’s top five prospects in Emmanuel Mudiay, who goes to Prime Prep Academy.
Success shifts the paradigm for SMU. Entering this season Brown says the Mustangs were hunters, looking for upsets and out to prove they were improving. Even Brown is surprised by SMU’s 19-5 record. Now they’re the hunted.
The Mustangs will get every team’s best moving forward, and all five of their losses this season are on the road, which is where they’ll be for the next week. “It’s much more difficult to win games when you’re expected to win,” Brown said.
But it’s a nice problem to have, especially when there are reminders of what SMU basketball used to be in the 1980s, when it made three NCAA Tournament appearances in a span of five years.
“Every now and then it comes up in conversation,” Russell said about the program’s past. “But we see the banners. We know what this program did in the past, and to be here now it means so much.”