The Best Coach in Texas Works for SMU
Larry Brown on March Madness, Allen Iverson, and being an eyewear trendsetter.
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Of all the college coaches in Texas—football, basketball, baseball—the most accomplished works for Southern Methodist University. Larry Brown is one of five active coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame and the only one to ever win both an NCAA championship and an NBA title (with the University of Kansas and the Detroit Pistons, respectively). In just his second season, the 73-year-old Brooklyn native has vaulted the Mustangs back into the AP poll (the 22-6 team is ranked 23), filling the newly renovated (and beer-concessioned) Moody Coliseum with capacity crowds and highly ranked recruits.
It’s Brown’s first college job since leaving Kansas for the San Antonio Spurs in 1988, and with wins over UConn (twice), Memphis, and Cincinnati, he has the Mustangs comfortably positioned for their first NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearance since 1993. Given the realities of the American Athletic Conference (which spun out of the hoops-centric Big East) and the size of the College Football Playoff (4 teams) versus March Madness (68 teams), you might even say that sometime in the next five years, SMU is more likely to win a national championship in basketball than in football.
JASON COHEN: Your last job, with the Charlotte Bobcats, was your seventh in the NBA since leaving Kansas. How did you end up back at college?
LARRY BROWN: I tried retirement. I lived in Villanova [outside Philadelphia, where Brown had previously coached the 76ers] and after about a week, I was going to Villanova’s practices. [Wildcats coach] Jay Wright was kind enough to let me go. I’d go to Maryland because [former Texas A&M coach] Mark Turgeon, who played for me and coached with me at Kansas, was there. Kansas and Kentucky invited me to visit, because both [KU coach Bill Self and UK coach John Calipari] worked for me. And I just figured, well, I want to do this. I didn’t know if I wanted to try to get to be an executive again in the NBA, or a high school coach. I just wanted to be involved. I played for the best coaches of all time, and I wanted to share what they taught me with people, and it didn’t matter what level or what capacity.
JC: You’re known as a teacher of the game, so it’s interesting that it took you this long to get back, because it seems like there’d be more teaching at the NCAA level.
LB: I don’t know if it’s more teaching. I tried to be a pro coach the same way I am now. The older players, if they believe you’re trying to help them, they’re receptive to teaching. But this environment’s different than the pro environment, obviously: you have recruiting and public speaking, and worrying about kids going to class and summer jobs. But I just wanted to be involved. And when you’re at a great school in a great city in a great conference, you feel pretty fortunate.
JC: You coached the Spurs from 1988 until 1992. Did the fact that you’d lived in Texas before play any part in your decision?
LB: The university was what appealed to me—the fact that we were going in the Big East, that it’s a great school academically, and then that it’s such a fertile area for great high school players. And, you know, being in a city with Mark Cuban, with the success of the Mavericks—and the Rockets and the Spurs—a lot of people have become interested in basketball, and a lot of people have moved to Texas from out of state. We’re the only Division I program in the city. I thought if we were good, there’d be an opportunity to have a following.
JC: Is the program kind of a sleeping giant, recruiting-wise, with so much talent in this part of the state?
LB: I think it can be, but the competition’s great. There’s Kansas, Kentucky, and then there’s great programs in this state—Texas, A&M. But I don’t see why we can’t appeal to all these kids, at least be on their lists. And now with [freshman star player] Keith [Frasier, from Kimball High,] coming and with Emmanuel [Mundiay] coming, who I think is the best player in the country, we’ve become relevant. Our first recruiting class is also pretty good. So these kids at least now consider us. Plus, we have a new facility.
JC: Is it a little disappointing that you won’t be coaching in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, now that SMU is in the American Athletic Conference?
LB: Yeah, I mean, Dave Gavitt has been a big part of my career, and he started that league. And I don’t think there was a better basketball conference. Obviously every kid grows up wanting to play in the Garden and every coach would love to be there, but we have a great league; we’re very fortunate that we’re with Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis, Temple, Cincinnati.
I’m not real happy with what football’s done to the dynamics of college athletics; I can’t imagine a field hockey team at Maryland [which is joining the Big 10 next season] going to Lincoln, Nebraska, to play. I can’t imagine Kansas not playing Missouri, Texas not playing Texas A&M, Maryland not playing Duke or North Carolina. I mean, it’s not right in my mind.
JC: Has the football culture in Texas been any kind of challenge for you?
LB: No. I mean, I love June—the better success we have in football, the better success we’ll have. But we do have a basketball culture in this state. We don’t need to get 60,000 at every game.
JC: Has your family moved here this year?
LB: No, my son’s a freshman here. My daughter’s still finishing high school. My son is my roommate, so that’s been great.
JC: That must be interesting.
LB: It’s an interesting dynamic, but it’s great having an opportunity to be around him. I talk to him every night. I don’t want him to feel like because he’s with me, I’m restricting him. I want him to be a normal college student, and he’s fine with it, and I’m thrilled. Last year was hard, coming home and being kind of lonely every night. I was going out, recruiting, and seeing a lot of high school games, and that was great, but now I don’t come home to an empty house. I’ve got his dog there, so it’s pretty neat.
JC: Does he want to go into the family business, as it were?
LB: No, no, he’s wanted to make movies since he was six years old. He’s at the Meadows School here. He went to NYU Film School in the summer, and USC, and he’s done internships. He’s had this passion from an early age, just like I had a passion. He’s also interested in making video games.
JC: Do you have numerical goals for this season—wins, tournament seed?
LB: No, I just want us to get better with every game. And I want us to build a foundation where we’re gonna be good all the time. We wanted to improve on last year [SMU went 15-17]. I didn’t know what our record would be since we were going into a much better conference, but we’re on the right track. We haven’t learned to play at the highest level no matter who our opponent is, and great programs generally do that. But this is all a learning process for a lot of us. We’re still a young team.
JC: Is coaching effort and commitment the hardest part of your job, rather than strategy?
LB: There are a lot of things that are: getting them to go to class, getting them to go see their tutors, and especially being on time. There are a lot of challenges. But you hope you recruit kids that play hard all the time. I have this saying: I coach execution, not effort. If you’re gonna come here, I expect effort. For the most part, we try hard, but that’s gotta be a signature of your program. I don’t think we’re there yet. But we’ve made leaps and bounds.
JC: You had a famously dramatic relationship with Allen Iverson when you coached the Sixers but you are on great terms now. Was coaching him transformative for you, in terms of relating to a new generation of players?
LB: God put me here to coach him, I know that. You know, at the time I was coaching him, there were so many challenges, because he’s such a unique player and individual, but his competitiveness is what makes him great. The more I’m away from him, the more I realize the impact he’s had on my life and our sport in a positive way. At the time I didn’t know that, but I can’t go anywhere where people don’t identify me with him. I can’t go into any gym where the kids don’t ask me about him, once they know I was his coach, and I’m so thankful for that. I wish there were some things that I would have done better, in terms of helping him, but I’m proud of the relationship I had with him.
JC: So people want to talk about “AI” even more than your NBA championship team?
LB: The real basketball fans, the Pistons might have been one of their favorite teams. You know, I was the first one to say “play the right way.” I said it a long time ago. I wish I would have coined that phrase officially. To me, the Detroit team was a true team that most people look at and say, “That was the way basketball is supposed to be played.” And that makes me proud.
JC: Spurs GM R.C. Buford worked for you at Kansas and in San Antonio and with the Clippers. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was a graduate assistant at Kansas, and your assistant on the Spurs. Do you still see some of yourself in that team?
A: Oh, no. I don’t see me there.
JC: I mean do you still see any of the things that you taught them?
LB: Pop, you know, he was best man in my wedding, and he’s one of my closest friends. I’m in awe of what he’s done. I admire him so much—so proud of him. And, you know, David [Robinson] let me induct him [into the Basketball Hall of Fame]; George Gervin and I were asked to present David—that was, like, one of the highlights of my life. So I have a lot of great memories about San Antonio. Red McCombs, he’s a phenomenal owner; he stuck with me. You know, we had a terrible first year and most NBA owners would have fired me on the spot, and he gave me a chance. So now to see what San Antonio is like and what they’ve done—I feel pretty good about that.
JC: It’s kind of astounding to think that, during the entire time you’ve been with all these other NBA teams, San Antonio has been basically the same.
LB: Think about this: I got the Philly job, David got hurt the year before. San Antonio was in the lottery, which they never would have been if David hadn’t been hurt. It came down to Pop and myself. And my kids told me, “Dad, this is gonna be alright. You get him, and it’ll be great, or Pop gets him, it’ll be great.” And I said, “Ohhhhh.” Fifteen years later, they’ve won four championships and Pop’s winning fifty games every year.
JC: Does it bother you when people focus on your reputation for short stays at so many jobs?
LB: No, it bothers me that everyone tries to psychoanalyze you and figure out why you left. I thought I had a great reason to leave every place. Some I didn’t have a choice: the Knicks and Charlotte. But at the end of the day, I did it! So they have every right to assume things. The one thing I really know is, everywhere I’ve gone, I made it better than it was when I got there. I never shortchanged anybody. I did the best I could. And my intention was never to take a job and leave. But it happened, so people have a right to assume whatever they want.
JC: What’s your favorite thing about the students this year?
LB: My favorite thing is that they’re involved—so much school spirit going on. There’s a buzz around campus that I didn’t experience last year at all. I’m hopeful that it grows to where we help all the sports. After losing to Temple and flying back, and everybody’s kind of down, and then we go by [the Loyd All-Sports Center] and see all the students camping out [for tickets to the next home game], acting like, “It’s alright guys, you know we’re behind you.” That was . . . that was something. You were hopeful you would have that kind of atmosphere, but until you experience it and feel it—it was pretty special.
JC: Have they named the camp-out line yet? Is it “Larryville,” or anything?
LB: They named it something with my name. I’m just thrilled that they care enough to want to come to our games. I wish our place could accommodate more of ’em.
— Liz Blumberg (@the_BLUM) February 16, 2014
JC: You were sort of famous in the NBA for your designer glasses; have you consciously decided to tone down the look?
LB: I just had cataract surgery, so a lot of the glasses that I have, I haven’t been able to use. I’ve got one more eye that has to be taken care of. But once it gets corrected, I’ll try to figure it out.
JC: You’ve got a big collection of frames then?
LB: Oh my god, yeah. Yeah. But you know, the older I got, the more times I had to change lenses. I guess that’s why people laugh at all the different styles. But it’s always been because I’ve had to change.
JC: I think the Kansas-era ones are coming back, if you look around Oak Cliff or something.
LB: Yeah. They look big as hell. My favorite pair of glasses was Oliver Peoples—I had these really neat gold ones. I’ve never lost a pair of glasses, except for those favorite ones, one time.
JC: The Final Four that your ’88 Kansas team won was at Kemper Arena, in Kansas City. Are you thinking about the fact that this year’s Final Four is in Arlington?
LB: (Hesitates) I’ve thought about that. That ’88 team was so special. We just had our twenty-fifth reunion last year. And it happened that we had the tournament in Kansas City. I’ve thought about it, but . . . this is just year two. I want our kids to aspire to get there and think that we can, and I wouldn’t tell them that we can’t, but you gotta be real lucky to get there. Until I got there, I was a college coach nine years. I went four times, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Two of the times we lost, I thought we had the best team. But it’s an awesome accomplishment, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have our chances some day.
JC: Do you still keep an eye on Kansas, or are they competition?
LB: Oh, yeah. All the guys that played or coached for me, that are doing this, I follow them all. [LA Clippers coach] Doc Rivers called me the other day. He said, “Hey Larry, you coached half these guys that are coaches in our league, or half of them worked for you.” I look at college, and so many guys that have been a big part of my life are coaching. That’s the best feeling you could have. I want all the guys that work for me to have the opportunities that I’ve been given. ’Cause having this job is like stealing money.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)