When SMU announced in April that it had hired Larry Brown, the only man to have coached teams to both the NCAA and NBA championships, to lead the Mustangs, a lot of head-scratching ensued.
It was hard to fathom why SMU would put its basketball program in the hands of a 72-year-old known for changing jobs every three years or so. Harder to fathom was why one of the best coaches in basketball history would come to a basketball backwater like SMU, which hasn't made the NCAA tournament in two decades.
Neal Gabler's lengthy profile in Grantland today lookos to solve the mystery. The short answer: it's complicated. The slightly longer answer: Brown begged SMU to hire him.
[Former SMU athletic director Steve] Orsini decided to "aim high" for a new coach. He wanted one of the most prominent names in the business. Though a football guy, he had been appointed to the NCAA basketball committee, which meant that he knew the big college coaches, he would "hang" with them, as he put it, at tournaments and meetings, and he says there were several among them who were "very interested in the job" -- people you wouldn't have expected. As for Brown, he wasn't on Orsini's list, and when Brown phoned to express interest, Orsini admits he didn't return the calls. As Brown himself puts it, "I was not their first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice, fifth choice."
But Brown's coaching family pushed him. Brown thinks it was Mark Turgeon who first called Orsini to make Brown's case, but Orsini says that the entire coaching tree "came a-calling." As Orsini characterizes it, it was, "Dad wants this. We've got to help him." Orsini asked them to convince him that Brown would be motivated to come to a place like SMU after already being in the Hall of Fame. They tried. Finally, Orsini says, he called Brown -- though he didn't mince words. He told him that he wasn't high on the list and advised him, "Don't call us. We'll call you."
But the coaching tree still didn't desist. They kept checking in, kept wanting to know where Brown stood -- a "volume of calls," as Orsini describes it, from the profession's biggest names -- from Self and Calipari and Turgeon and Wright. Brown had all but given up hope when he got a call that SMU wanted to interview him after all. The session, one of five with the final candidates, was held in a conference room at the Hyatt Hotel at the airport -- a two-hour discussion with Orsini, President Turner, and several trustees. Brown had to address his past. He declared that he wanted to return to college coaching, he wanted to make a difference, he wanted to teach, and he wanted to explain to his players that basketball was as much about life skills as about athletic skills.
In other words, it was desperation on both sides.
That doesn't mean it was a bad match. Brown's certainly raised the school's basketball profile and, while the team has struggled of late, dropping to 12-12 on the season, his presence bodes well for recruiting. It doesn't hurt, either, that he brought along a successor in assistant coach Tim Jankovich. Sometimes a marriage can work, even if it's not love at first sight.