Larry Brown was in unfamiliar territory at the end of Saturday’s game. It wasn’t that his team had pulled a major upset; he’d seen that before. It was that he had to fight through hundreds of students rushing and dancing their way onto the court after his SMU Mustangs had beat the then-No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats.
“I love the students being involved, I want them to be excited for what’s going on, but they don’t storm the court at Kansas, they don’t storm the court at UCLA,” he said after the win. “I’m so happy that we had that opportunity, but I’m hopeful if we get this program the way we would like, that we expect to win games like this.”
The following Sunday, however, Brown was informed of something he was likely more used to seeing from student fans: Many of them were camped outside Moody Coliseum in order to snag tickets for the Mustangs’ remaining games. Brown’s response – show up that Monday morning with coffee and donuts for those who had braved the cold, damp conditions for the chance to see what his program is doing.
That relationship between the 73-year-old Brown, the NCAA’s oldest head coach, and the kids at Southern Methodist University, is just part of the feel-good story that surrounds the small private college in Dallas and its basketball team that is gradually turning heads in the Metroplex and the country.
College sports in a major metropolitan area can often struggle to gain attention. But with the Cowboys having recently completed another disappointing finish, the Rangers still two months away from Opening Day and both the Mavericks and Stars struggling with mediocrity, folks in Dallas may be getting desperate for anything that can give them some hope of success. And it’s turned the Mustangs into the hottest ticket in town.
Men’s basketball and winning have not gone hand in hand very much here in the last couple of decades. Any students at SMU who were even alive back in 1993, the last year the Mustangs made the NCAA Tournament, were too young to notice. Moody Coliseum’s most famous moment didn’t even involve an SMU team but the NBA’s Mavericks in a 1984 playoff game they had to play there due to Reunion Arena being already booked. And the school’s athletic department in general may never completely remove the stigma of being most known for its football team receiving the NCAA “Death Penalty” in 1987 above all else.
But no one in the small, enclosed town of University Park, situated along U.S. Highway 75 about five miles north of downtown Dallas, cares about that now. All that matters is that the Mustangs, at 19-5 with seven regular season games left following the win over Cincinnati, their third win against a ranked opponent, have cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1985 and appear on their way to securing a spot in the Big Dance.
And there is no doubt who the student body credits for this amazing turnaround. Chants of “Larry, Larry,” regularly rain down from the student sections of Moody, including one group that has called itself “The Mob” after Brown’s nickname of The Godfather. (The Mob itself is quite the colorful group, featuring fans that regularly show up dressed in costumes including Fred Flintstone, Sulley from the Monsters, Inc. movie and video game characters Mario and Luigi.) At the same time, Brown continues to get praise from everyone from ESPN’s team of analysts to Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
“That’s awesome for Dallas,” said Carlisle, who Brown replaced as Detroit Pistons head coach in 2003. “You knew Larry was going to do a great job. He’s been good everywhere he’s been.”
Larry Brown can flat out coach, that has never been questioned. Every place he’s been (and there have been many) has seen success, leading him to being the only man to coach an NCAA champion (Kansas, 1988) and NBA Champion (Detroit, 2004). But many may have seen this as a challenge even too great for him: Come back to the college game after nearly 25 years and turn around a program that has seen one NCAA berth since 1989 and has to fight for attention in a major metropolitan area that features every major league pro sport and three other Division I colleges. To say apathy ran in the small campus of less than 11,000 might have been an understatement, though Brown shrugs that off.
“I hadn’t seen fan apathy my first year. The people that came were great, but we weren’t a good enough team for them to come see.”
Still, that first season was admittedly one Brown was not used to, as the Mustangs finished 15-17. It was his first season as a college coach that his team didn’t make the NCAAs. But this season, everything has just seemed to come together for SMU’s program.
Just from watching the team, it’s clear the winning, which includes beating Connecticut and Memphis in addition to Cincinnati, is no fluke. Leading the American Athletic Conference in both offensive and defensive field goal percentage, the Mustangs have truly embraced Brown’s message of “playing the game the right way.” When center Yanick Moreira went down with a partially torn MCL, all that happened is Villanova transfer Markus Kennedy stepped in and routinely produced double-doubles.
Not that numbers mean that much to Brown, who quotes his old North Carolina coach Frank McGuire, “They wrap dead fish and garbage with stat sheets the day after,” which is why he still praised Kennedy’s effort against the Bearcats despite being limited to four points in 26 minutes due to foul trouble.
And it’s not like the Mustangs didn’t start with some difficulties the biggest of which was that they were displaced from their home for the first two months.
The school had decided that Moody Coliseum, which does have a lot of similarities to the famed Cameron Indoor Stadium, needed a major reboot from its wooden pullout bleachers along the floor, poor lighting and makeshift media center placed in the practice room. So major renovations took place starting at the end of the 2013 season, forcing the team to play all its non-conference home games about 15 miles away from campus away from campus in Garland. But they finally came home in January for a brand new atmosphere. The high-dollar boosters were now treated to new luxury suites, and press members now have their own meeting room accessible from the concourse, but also, the wood bleachers were replaced with more accommodating steel-and-plastic benches to hopefully draw more students in and create the closest atmosphere DFW could have to Cameron.
Brown, however, knew that would mean nothing if the product on the floor was no good.
“We have a beautiful building, but if we didn’t have a good team, all we’d have is a beautiful building.”
Brown didn’t have to worry about that. The Mustangs opened their refurbished home with a 74-65 win over UConn. Five weeks later, they still have yet to lose in their new-old home (They also went unbeaten at their temporary home of the Cullwell Center). And the 7,000-seat arena has been regularly selling out, with people enduring the up-and-down weather conditions and the heavy on-campus construction as more new buildings are currently being added to the school.
The big question regarding whether SMU can keep this up long term is whether Brown can do what almost no one else at SMU has done before: Recruit locally. Despite North Texas having one of the richest pools of high school basketball talent, neither SMU, TCU, UT-Arlington or the University of North Texas have been able to successfully recruit out of it. It’s been especially tough for SMU with the harsh recruitment restrictions and regulations the school had imposed on all programs since the infamous football scandal. The late Jimmy Tubbs was fired as coach after less than two years for a relatively small offense of mishandling program funds, which greatly alienated the people in the Dallas ISD that Tubbs had connections to.
Brown may have changed that atmosphere when he successfully recruited the highly touted but controversial Keith Frazier to come to the Hilltop. (Frazier spent his high school years dealing with allegations of an illegal transfer to Dallas’ Kimball High and then possible academic fraud; SMU has not been implicated in anything as of yet.) So it appears Brown has a longer leash in recruiting than many predecessors.
His colleagues aren’t surprised by the improved recruiting. “It’s not a shock to me that he was going to get good players,” says Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin. “If he gets good players, he is going to win. The guy is a great coach, one of the best to ever coach the game.”
And he’s not against giving his freshmen big minutes, as Frazier has been averaging more than 16 minutes a game while fellow freshman Sterling Brown has averaged nearly 18 and Ben Moore more than 14.
“None of these kids really are freshmen, when you consider all the AAU games they play, the exposure they get,” Brown explains. “I look at Keith and ben and Sterling – they could have gone some place and played 25-30 minutes a game. My thing is, play quality minutes against great teams and then your growth will be much better. I don’t look at them as freshmen.
“But then I’ll go look at the tape and I’ll say, aw!” as he slaps his forehead, indicating when he notices an obvious freshman mistake.
SMU basketball, like many of its other programs, has had to deal with hardships at a school that sort of frowned on athletics since the football scandal in the 80s. Since the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1996, the school has been in three other conferences, suffering the same relocation crisis that TCU, Rice and Houston have dealt with. The program has had five head coaches since 1988 before Brown, with only Mike Dement posting an overall winning record in that time.
But now, Brown is simply having fun watching this program grow before his eyes. He enjoys seeing the amount of media grow with each passing game. And he uses his past experience at he likes of UCLA and Kansas to gauge when SMU basketball will truly be the biggest thing on campus.
“We have a girl who works for us, North Carolina girl, she works in our office,” he tells the press after the Mustangs’ win over Memphis. “I said ‘Lucy, you coming to the game today?’ She said ‘I can’t, I have a chapter meeting.’ We will be a quality team when they cancel those chapter meetings.”
The way things are going on The Hilltop, those meetings may be getting rescheduled pretty soon.