Don't judge SMU's basketball season by what happened on the court. Rather, go by what's happening a couple hundred feet below it.
"That hole in the ground," says first-year coach Matt Doherty, "is the future of our program."
No, smartass, it's not a mass grave reserved for the latest crop of underachieving seniors or a convenient dump for fired coach Jimmy Tubbs' prolific hamburger receipts. It's the foundation for a new practice facility that—despite another losing season and a 14th consecutive year without March Madness—will bump the Mustangs' program alongside college basketball's elite.
Currently a confluence of dreams and dust, by November the 43,000 square feet just east of Moody Coliseum will rise as the $13 million Crum Center complete with spiffy weight room, flat-screen televisions and a tunnel leading to a refurbished Moody. The facility will be bigger—and, according to Doherty, better—than buildings he designed at Notre Dame and North Carolina.
"SMU wasn't serious about basketball for a long time," Doherty says in his office while picking through a chicken caesar salad from nearby Café Express. "We can give all the lip service we want about commitment, but that's tangible proof that things are changing."
Unlike the proposed George W. Bush Presidential Library, this addition to the campus makes sense. Because, although he took an improbable, undesirable path to Dallas, Doherty is the perfect point guard for SMU's rebuilding.
If you know Michael Jordan, you'll recognize Doherty. Maybe not the 2007 version, wearing gray hair, blue pinstripes and a red "RTC" bracelet that represents his program's mantra of "Respect. Trust. Commitment." But on North Carolina's 1982 National Championship team he was that lily-white guy with the CPA haircut and the mechanically flawless chest passes to His Airness. He later coached under Roy Williams at Kansas, got the job at Notre Dame and, in 2000, reached his coaching pinnacle by following in the legendary footsteps of Dean Smith at North Carolina. In 2001 he won National Coach of the Year, recruited a class of freshmen destined to win a national title and...
No one, and I mean no one, plots a career course taking them from Chapel Hill to the Hilltop.
"It would take a book to explain it," Doherty says of his awkward fall from grace. "The main culprits were inexperience and politics. Mine. And theirs."
After a season littered with player disputes and underwhelming results, Doherty was forced to resign from his dream job in 2003. The following two years, away from the game, he authored a personal and professional thesis about himself at Pennsylvania's famed Wharton School of Business. The good news: He is ENTJ (Extrovert/iNntuitive/Thinking/Judging), an aggressive, pragmatic personality inclined to leadership and possessed by only 8 percent of the planet. Bad news: 92 percent of the world doesn't think like him.
"I had to learn that not everyone's perfect like us," Doherty jokes to a certain ENTJ-infected columnist whose name rhymes with Richie Whitt and who, apparently, is extremely adept at subduing his talents for world domination. "Actually, I had to learn patience. When I see things black and white, a lot of people see the same situation gray. It's about understanding."
Back into coaching and a year removed from a stint at something called Florida Atlantic, Doherty is like Pavarotti playing McFarland Auditorium. From the Petit Palace, somehow to midtown Dallas.
He finds himself with a five-year, $400,000-a-year deal commanding a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since '93, fired its former coach for giving players unauthorized laundry detergent and burgers and has—dwarfed amongst giants such as Doak Walker, Eric Dickerson and Payne Stewart—a short, sheepish hoops history anchored by the extremely forgettable Jon Koncak.
"We'd like to be Dallas' university, but with only 3,500 fans at games we know we can't say that yet," says SMU athletic director Steve Orsini. "We're carving out our niche. We've got the right building coming up and, with Matt, we've got the right leader in place."
Like the adjacent construction, the slug-slow progress is difficult to decipher.
Doherty, 45, has certainly embraced becoming the face of the program, from his weekly radio show on KAAM-770 AM broadcast live from downtown's Ten Sports Grill, to his TV show on KFWD-Channel 52, to his personal blog and his upcoming speaking gig at Highland Park High School's baccalaureate.
"He brings in about 10 times the normal customers," Ten co-owner Chad Lewis says. "You can tell the guy has a special charisma."
Says Mustang Club executive director Bob Sharp, "I've been around this athletic department 30 years and never seen a more confident, passionate coach. Donations. Attendance. Interest. All up."
But after a 9-1 start, the Mustangs plummeted because of injuries, the suspension of senior Brian Epps and a general lack of talent that forced them to latch onto moral victories. Despite suiting up only seven scholarship players last Saturday against sixth-ranked Memphis, SMU almost shocked the nation. After losing to the Tigers by 36 points a month earlier, the Mustangs led by 12 early and had a chance to force overtime before senior Ike Ofoegbu's 3-pointer at the buzzer hit nothing but air.
"They played us as good as anybody all year," said Memphis coach John Calipari.
The loss, witnessed by fewer fans than a Texas Rangers spring training game in Arizona, gave SMU defeats in 34 of its last 35 games against ranked teams. The Mustangs haven't beaten a Top 5 team since '85. Most sobering, with a loss in Wednesday's first-round Conference USA Tournament game, they will finish 14-17, no better than last year under Tubbs.
"We've taken steps as far as developing a culture and laying a foundation," Doherty says. "But I'm disappointed it hasn't resulted in more wins."
Says Orsini, "I knew it wouldn't be a quick fix, but I expect to make improvement each year."
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Despite the initial failure, Doherty remains positive about the future. About an incoming recruiting class ranked 25th by national publications. About Moody's new $900,000 scoreboard. About new marketing director Richard Sweet, who came back to his alma mater from Southwest Airlines. And, if all else fails, by the military medallion jingling in his right pocket.
Given to him by a friend in the armed forces, it calms him when his temper wants to go off crazier than Bobby Knight or when his ENTJ wants to go out and conquer everything, every day, right this second.
"Life's pretty good," Doherty says with a shrug, showing off his piece of copper and peace of mind. "Could be in Afghanistan, getting shot at."
Or playing in Moody Coliseum without that big hole being dug outside.