Last March 16, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered in SMU’s Moody Coliseum on Selection Sunday, eager to celebrate the Mustangs' return to the NCAA tournament. Instead, SMU's name was never called, and the Mustangs had to settle for being the No. 1 overall seed in the NIT.
SMU coach Larry Brown told the crowd, “I feel like we let you all down.” They responded in unison: “No.”
It was a disappointment, of course, but it was better than what anyone had imagined for a program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1993 and hadn’t made a Sweet 16 run since 1967. When the Mustangs fired head coach Matt Doherty in 2012, they offered the job to Tommy Amaker, Rick Majerus, Dan Monson and Buzz Williams. They all said no.
Brown, who hadn’t coached since his departure from the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats in the middle of the 2010 season and hadn't coached in college since 1988, expressed interest in the job and was offered it, but there were still doubts about whether the 72-year-old Brown really turn around a team like SMU.
His coaching history suggested he could. He had played and been an assistant under Dean Smith at North Carolina before playing in the ABA and spending eight years as a head coach in that league and the NBA, Brown went back to college at UCLA for the 1979-80 season and immediately led the Bruins to the national championship game, which they lost to Louisville. After one more year in Westwood and two seasons with the NBA's New Jersey Nets, Brown took over a 13-16 Kansas team in 1983 and put the Jayhawks back in the NCAA tournament his first season. By '86, they were in the Final Four, and in '88 Brown guided Kansas to the national championship, with star center Danny Manning turning in a legendary tournament performance.
Brown took over the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs the next season, and Kansas was hit with NCAA sanctions over recruiting violations. Brown spent the next 18 seasons coaching six different teams in the NBA. He then sat out two seasons, in 2006-07 and '07-08 before resurfacing in Charlotte, leading the expansion Bobcats to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in '10. That was the latest example of Brown's ability to turn teams around, which he had previously demonstrated in New Jersey, which he twice took the postseason, and San Antonio, where he orchestrated a 35-win improvement in 1990 that was then the biggest in NBA history. In 2004, he won the NBA title with Detroit, becoming the only coach to win a championship in both college basketball and the NBA.
But Brown never held down a job for longer than six seasons. And when he was fired from Charlotte after a 9-19 start in 2010, many assumed he was done coaching. And then, in the middle of SMU’s coaching search, he expressed interest in jumping back into the college game. For the Mustangs, his past transgressions with the NCAA and his tendency for bouncing from job to job didn’t matter as much as his reputation for results.
After one rebuilding season (15-17 in 2013), he had the Mustangs ready to return to the NCAA tournament a year ago. Alas, despite going 23-9 and boasting a No. 53 RPI, they were the first team left out of the Big Dance, though they recovered to reach the NIT finals, losing the title game by two points to Minnesota and finishing the year 27-10.
This season, SMU isn't leaving its fate in the hands of the selection committee. Despite losing prized recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to professional basketball in China before the season even began, the Mustangs are 23-6. They’re ranked No. 22 in the latest AP poll and are tied with Tulsa at the top of the AAC standings. They host the Golden Hurricane on Sunday with a chance to wrap up the regular season conference title at home.
SMU has its sights set on far more than just reaching the NCAA tournament. It boasts the 22nd-most efficient offense in the country, led by senior center Yanick Moreira, junior forward Markus Kennedy and junior guard Nic Moore. Despite those talented players, there’s no doubt that SMU is in this position because Brown is at the helm.
As for how long he’ll keep going, that’s anyone’s guess. But he seems satisfied with the work—and rejuvenated by proving to himself and to the world that he still has some of that old magic.
“I’ve never worked,” Brown told SI.com’s Seth Davis in an interview in December. “I’ve loved every minute. I’ve had my feelings hurt, I’ve felt like I let people down, but what motivates me the next day is that I love what I do. My body’s kind of changing. I’m losing my hair, I’m getting whiter, but I don’t feel any difference. I just don’t look in the mirror anymore.”