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