By Jim Schutze
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Dump trucks, upended concrete, chain-link fencing and security tape block every logical path to the Crum Basketball Center, making it nearly impossible to penetrate SMU's practice facility. The university is remodeling nearby Moody Coliseum, where the Mustangs play their games; soon the musty building will be transformed into a shiny arena worthy of the school's moneyed reputation. It's hard not to see the construction as some overwrought metaphor: SMU is changing. But on this mid-December morning, there's still a lot of work left to do.
The program has long been mired in mediocrity, with only 10 NCAA tournament appearances in its long history and none in the last two decades. A mere 10 SMU alumni have gone on to play professional basketball. Demons like these can be exorcised with new buildings, new conferences and new coaches. By next season's opening tip, the Mustangs will have all three.
It's the last of the three that has the program buzzing like it's 1956, when someone named Jim Krebs took the Mustangs to the NCAA semifinals.
Larry Brown, by every possible criterion, is among the greatest basketball coaches of all time: Coach of the Year in both the NCAA and NBA; the only coach to win the NCAA and NBA championships; the only coach to lead eight NBA teams to the playoffs. At 72, he could easily be living out his retirement alongside his family and America's finest caddies. But coaching is a habit Brown can't quit, so instead he's here.
At first SMU wasn't sure they even wanted him here. This time last year, Steve Orsini, then the school's athletic director, was looking to revamp the basketball program in anticipation of its move to the Big East. His basic strategy: find a big name, no matter the cost. The strategy worked when Orsini found SMU's football coach, June Jones, who's led that struggling program to four bowl games in as many years.
"I wasn't high on their list," Brown says. It wasn't until Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called Orsini, practically begging on Brown's behalf, that the school started to come around. "Steve Orsini had other ideas. June Jones kept me involved, told me not to give up."
It helped that Brown promised to bring along a first-rate staff. Tim Jankovich, who'd also applied for the top job, joined as an assistant coach. Brown has a reputation for leaving teams early; Jankovich, the former head coach at Illinois State, could serve as an insurance policy in case Brown absconded.
"They wanted a guy with head coaching experience," Brown says. "Because of my 'track record,' they figure it'd be nice to have someone there in place."
Eventually Orsini relented, hiring Brown last April. And for the first time in a long time, the media were interested in SMU basketball. Several months later, on this December morning, that interest lingers. Once they find an entry point and descend into the bowels of the Crum Center, a small group of reporters surround Brown, peppering him with questions about upcoming games, key match-ups and of course his former glories.
Brown's dressed for a workout, in a red long-sleeve shirt, black jogging pants and white sneakers. He obliges their questions, but his posture suggests the desire to escape. He stands slightly turned toward the court, ready to break free. Eventually, he comes out and says it: "Do you mind if I coach now?"
Brown may have a nicer office elsewhere, with framed certificates and medals displayed in shadow boxes, but today his command center is a conference room inside Crum — a long table with a desk calendar, a telephone, a plastic basketball pen holder, an assortment of paper stacks and Post-it notes to make sense of the paper stacks. It's poetic, really: a coach with a reputation for transience grinding away in a workspace that could be broken down in a matter of minutes.
He's watching soccer, a Premier League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid. He turns the volume down and shifts his attention between his interviewer and the television, answering questions while watching the game. "Cristiano Ronaldo is maybe the best, second best, soccer player in the world," he says. He's been to Italy, but never to a game on this scale, what he called "real soccer."
The white board that runs the length of the room is filled with plays mapped in Xs and Os, arrows flailing in every direction, the pseudo-mathematical scribblings of a mad scientist. He could probably just erase it and scribble "The Right Way," the capitalized philosophy he developed from his predecessors that focuses on deeper values found in the game. Brown's coaching lineage is rooted in myth and folklore: Dr. James Naismith, the bespectacled creator, prophet and lawgiver of basketball, coached in Kansas. He mentored Forrest Allen, who mentored Dean Smith, who would be Brown's coach and most enduring inspiration for The Right Way.
"Basically, play hard and play together, play unselfishly, try to rebound and defend," Brown says of the philosophy. "I've tried to do that. And I've found out kids want to be taught on every level, and guys want to play the right way generally. I haven't met many who didn't."