People are out to get Larry Brown again. It’s a shame. The NCAA just nailed him for the third time, and maybe this wasn’t as mean as when the U.S. Olympic basketball committee saddled him with a lousy roster that included LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Dwyane Wade, or when the Detroit Pistons rudely asked him to keep coaching a team that had just won the NBA championship, but still: It hurts.
This one is personal, too. The NCAA banned Brown from 30% of his SMU team’s games this year, which is really cruel, since it will keep him from coaching kids the right way, just like Coach Dean Smith taught him to do, but hopefully they still let him coach practice, because he really just loves to teach. If he could do it all over again, he would be a high school history teacher, but anyway, this isn’t about him, it’s about the kids, and he just wants to do right by SMU, because this will be his last job, and ... wait, does this ban apply to NBA games? No? Any jobs open there?
SMU should fire Larry Brown, the way it would fire the head of any other department who failed to report blatant academic misconduct and then lied to the people who investigated him. This is not complicated. If the head of the chemistry department knew students were plagiarizing papers, then claimed he didn’t, then admitted he did, would he miss 30% of his classes the next year and keep drawing a huge salary? Gosh, I hope not.
SMU should have known better than to hire Brown in the first place. When your football program got the death penalty in the 1980s for being a repeat NCAA offender, why would you hire a basketball coach who is a repeat NCAA offender? Brown got UCLA and Kansas in NCAA jail. UCLA and Kansas! Why would he follow the rules at SMU?
We are into the 44th season of the Larry Brown Show, and the plot never changes. If you are surprised that one of the game’s greatest minds is in NCAA trouble again, you haven’t been paying attention for the last few decades.
Brown simply does not have the kind of personality to follow NCAA rules. Coaches who follow the rules understand that doing so might cost them a recruit, or might cost a player his eligibility, and therefore might mean a down year for their team. You have to be patient, put your personal ethical code above professional gain, and trust that things will eventually work out. That’s not Brown. Of all the great coaches in basketball history, he is the neediest.
Brown’s on-court success has been built on his relentless attention to detail. He does not have any magic formula. He just coaches every little bit of the game a little better than almost everybody else. His players succeed because he convinces them there is no shortcut to success. But this is the hypocrisy of Larry Brown: Once he steps off the court, he looks for shortcuts everywhere.
Academic misconduct is a shortcut. Anybody who has ever cheated on a paper could tell you that. It’s what you do when you didn’t do the work and you can’t accept the consequences.
Lying to the NCAA? Also a shortcut.
Brown reveres his college coach, Dean Smith, but he never learned Smith’s most important lesson: How you win is more important than how much you win. Of course Brown lied to the NCAA. He lies to himself all the time. That whole history teacher bit is a lie to himself. When the NCAA was descending upon his star recruit, Emmanuel Mudiay, for academic and eligibility reasons, Brown could not admit Mudiay left for China for those reasons. Instead, he released a statement insisting "This is not an academic issue, since he has been admitted to SMU, but rather a hardship issue.”
The NCAA learned what all of Brown’s employers over the years have figured out: He is a human kite, changing directions with the wind. The NCAA report says he lied about the academic improprieties, then admitted he lied—presumably, when he knew he could not get away with the lies any more. Well, this is a man who once left the Davidson job before he ever coached a game because the administration would not pay for new carpet in his office.
The history of college basketball is filled with average coaches who won a lot of games because they cheated. That is not Brown’s story. Give him equal talent to everybody else in the country, and he might well win the national championship. Nobody ever taught the game better than Brown did. He just can’t help himself. He doesn’t really need those shortcuts, but he thinks he does.
For years, people (accurately) said he was the best NBA coach never to win a championship, that he was stuck making bad teams good, but deep down, that was all he could handle emotionally. When he finally won an NBA title with the Pistons in 2004, he panicked. How do you make an NBA champion better? You can’t. Brown had to get out.
He surprised team management by scheduling a medical procedure when the next season started. He spent most of the team’s title defense looking for his exit; the Pistons came within a game of repeating anyway, but then he pretended he didn’t know if he would be healthy enough to coach again, essentially forcing the Pistons to fire him. Moments later, he miraculously realized he would be healthy and took the Knicks job. Then he Larry Brown-ed his way to a firing in New York, too.
Brown took the SMU job in 2012, at 71 years old. You couldn’t even call SMU a rebuilding project at the time, because that would imply the program had ever been built in the first place. SMU had won six NCAA tournament games since 1957. Duke won six last spring.
You don’t hire a 71-year-old coach for a job like that, but Larry Brown was not any 71-year-old coach. He was a brilliant basketball coach. He is still a brilliant coach. But SMU should make him an ex-coach. That’s what I would call doing things “the right way.”