Every once in a while in college sports, we reach a fascinating moment when otherwise intelligent people completely lose their minds.
This is that moment. SMU is that school. And Larry Brown is the object of its insane desire.
The Mustangs are striving to hire a man roughly the age of Stonehenge, who last recruited high-schoolers in the 1980s and left the only two college programs he has headed saddled with major NCAA sanctions.
That's right. SMU, the historic leader in NCAA scandal scar tissue, is borderline desperate to hire a fossil with one vacated Final Four (UCLA) and one postseason ban (Kansas) on his collegiate coaching résumé. Brown never cared about the rules then; do you really expect him to pore over the rules manual and learn them all now? Yet this is the guy they want to throw considerable money at to coach a sport nobody at the school cares about – unless I'm misinterpreting that average home attendance of 2,013 this past season.
Anybody know the number for a straitjacket dealer in Dallas?
Look, I like Larry Brown and I like SMU athletic director Steve Orsini. Somewhere in a box in my basement is a picture of a 13-year-old me with Brown at his basketball camp, when he was coaching the Denver Nuggets. And I do believe Orsini is an ambitious AD who has smartly upgraded an athletic program that for a long time seemed incapable of overcoming its scandal-ridden past.
But the idea that Larry Brown is just what SMU basketball needs right now is crazy.
Will he immediately improve the product? Yes. If I had to choose the smartest living coach in the game, I'd probably take Brown over Phil Jackson without apology. (Larry never balked at a rebuilding job, whereas Phil only moved into ready-made mansions.) Brown can absolutely coach the game, and the bar is set at subterranean levels after the Matt Doherty debacle.
But he's no more the long-term answer than Rollie Massimino would be. Perhaps even less so, since he hasn't coached collegians since Danny Manning was a collegian. As a frame of reference, Manning now is the 45-year-old coach at Tulsa. It's been a while.
More important, Brown hasn't recruited since then. And at a place like SMU, where you have to fight off a lot of higher-profile schools for the abundant in-state talent, recruiting will be the most important part of the rebuilding effort. You need a recruiting monster.
Sure, there is talk of surrounding Brown with an able staff of recruiters. Most notably, there are reports that Jerrance Howard (formerly of Illinois) would be a Brown assistant. That would probably help, but it also takes a lot of head-coaching energy to close deals in recruiting. Brown will be 72 by the time he coaches his first game, which would make him the second-oldest coach in Division I behind Jackson State's 75-year-old Tevester Anderson. How much energy will he bring to the job?
In another potential move to prop up Brown, SMU reportedly is talking to Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich about becoming coach-in-waiting. This is absurd. If the school has identified Jankovich as its coach of the future, make him its coach of the present, too.
(The original coach-in-waiting name was Buzz Peterson, which just goes to show that North Carolina Is Forever. Brown is from the Dean Smith coaching tree, as is Peterson. The only problem is that Peterson has accomplished precious little in six stints as a head coach. Next.)
In short, SMU is going to extraordinary lengths to hire a big name. I guess that's compulsive in Texas – and Dallas, specifically. A lack of ostentation apparently is a sign of weakness when it comes to athletics in the Lone Star State.
Plus, with the move into the Big East, there is an understandable urge to bring in someone who won't look down the sideline at Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim and faint. From that standpoint, Larry Brown certainly could hold his own – as long as the games don't start after his bedtime.
But the guy with the big name doesn't really want to coach at SMU. He just wants to coach again, somewhere. And if he does well enough and looks spry enough, someone else will offer him a job. And in addition to all the wins and all the rules violations, that's the other part of the Larry Brown legacy – he's always looking for the next gig. The basketball vagabond has had 13 jobs in 40 years.
What SMU really needs to do it is identify the next Brad Stevens, the next Shaka Smart, the next Fred Hoiberg. I know, those guys don't grow on trees – but they're out there, waiting for their chance. SMU needs an energy guy who can outhustle Rick Barnes and Scott Drew on the recruiting trail, then coach them up well enough to score some upsets and earn some respect in the Big East.
If that coach is successful enough, yeah, you run the risk of losing him as fast as you might lose Larry Brown to retirement or wanderlust. But if SMU has the bankroll it reportedly does, there also is the chance of keeping him and turning that into a destination job. If Stevens can do that at Butler and Smart can do that at VCU, why can't SMU build something special in Dallas?
Finding a great young coach would require some basketball acumen and an ability to look forward. Hiring Larry Brown is traveling back in time, and hoping he can dust off a long-unused skill set.
It is, in a word, crazy. But every once in a while, crazy happens in college sports.
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