For more than two decades now, SMU's men's basketball program has languished in mediocrity. It saw moderate regular-season success during the Mike Dement era of the late '90s and early '00s but made the postseason only once, and that was a berth in the lowly NIT. Its last trip to the NCAA tournament came in 1993, when it was bounced in the first round.
Matt Doherty was supposed to change that. He was a big name, a former NCAA coach of the year whose national profile and recruiting chops seemed destined to spark a basketball renaissance at SMU. That experiment failed, and failed hard. Doherty went 80-109 over six seasons and never came close to reaching the promised land of the NCAA tournament.
Now, it's Larry Brown's turn, and, while his and Doherty's situations may seem similar at first blush (Brown's previous successes have been tempered by mediocre stints with the New York Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats), Brown has already put those comparisons to rest by leading the Mustangs to a 7-1 start.
Seriously, though, there isn't much ground to compare the two coaches. Doherty was something of a one-hit wonder, whose initial success at UNC waned very quickly, and which he has yet to replicated. Brown, on the other hand, has won titles in both the NCAA and NBA and has proven over decades that he's a damn good basketball coach.
He's also finally bringing the type of national attention to the program that SMU seems to crave. As SMU prepares to face Hofstra this weekend, the Wall Street Journal checks in with Brown and examines the school's attempt to raise its athletics programs from post-death-penalty obscurity.
Brown seems intent on following the example of Georgetown "by taking advantage of the big Dallas media market and the school's solid academic reputation." And the school seems intent on capitalizing on the fact that it has Larry Brown.
Brown, paired alongside football coach June Jones, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, has given SMU its biggest-ever athletic buzz since 1987, when it gained infamy after the NCAA handed it "death-penalty" sanctions for paying football players.
"We're using it every way from fund raising, to creating exclusive or intimate interactions with Larry and our staff, to developing excitement on campus, getting him in front of fraternities, sororities, campus organizations," says Rick Hart, SMU's athletic director. "We're trying to showcase coach Brown and utilize not just his talents and abilities, but his reputation and accomplishments to create for our program."
His deployment at SMU has startled Brown, who before taking the job hadn't considered what it would mean to be the most famous fish in an anonymous pond. "I'm like a trophy here now at SMU," he says. "I'm doing a lot of things outside of basketball, but in the NBA, it's all basketball."
It remains to be seen how long SMU can maintain its early-season success. It also remains to be seen how long Brown can stay. But it's a given at this point that Brown's tenure will be a net positive for the long-term success of the program. He's way too smart -- and way too good at recruiting -- for it to be otherwise.