Yesterday, SMU introduced the biggest hire in its benighted basketball history: Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown will be taking over the Mustangs hoops program next season. The 71-year-old Brown is being asked to turn around a team that hasn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament since 1993—before many of its current players were even born.
Although Brown’s signing provides a welcome PR splash for the beleaguered Mustangs, fans shouldn’t expect much from their new coach. Brown’s success has rarely come with long-term improvement, especially at the college level.
In the first place, any recruits (or their parents) who have even a passing familiarity with Brown’s career know that he can’t be expected to stay in Dallas for long. Based on his track record, the most well-traveled coach in NBA history will be a long shot to stay more than four seasons, meaning that any players he recruits should be ready for a possible regime change soon.
SMU has been trying to stave off such concerns by hiring an official “coach-in-waiting” to pair with Brown, but at present, no such addition has been made.
A far more dangerous worry with Brown is the way his last two collegiate jobs ended. After he left UCLA, the Bruins had their 1980 Final Four trip vacated, and after he left Kansas following the 1988 national title run, the Jayhawks were hit with sanctions that included a ban from the 1989 tournament.
There’s certainly no guarantee that Brown will repeat those particular mistakes (involving both player eligibility and improper benefits), but it’s hardly a resume that inspires confidence in the future long-term health of SMU athletics, a program already synonymous with player scandal.
There’s also the simple fact that Brown hasn’t coached a college team since leaving Lawrence over 20 years ago. The nature of the game has changed, most crucially when it comes to the ages of the key contributors.
Brown, notorious at the NBA level for keeping talented rookies rotting on his bench, won the 1988 national title at Kansas with a rotation whose top six players included three seniors, two juniors and a sophomore. If he can’t get over his obsession with rewarding experience over talent, he’ll never be able to recruit the kind of high-level freshmen that SMU must court in order to survive in the Big East.
And that, of course, brings us to the biggest problem Brown faces: he’s being asked to lead the Mustangs from Conference USA (where they were already an also-ran at best) into the nation’s toughest basketball league. There isn’t a coach in the country who wouldn’t struggle with bringing this school and this team into the Big East, and Brown—especially given some of the baggage he brings—is certainly no exception.
Assuming that Brown has learned from his previous run-ins with the NCAA rulebooks, his hiring isn’t going to make SMU any worse off than they already were. On the other hand, anyone looking for him to rescue a team facing one of the country’s toughest uphill battles is set to be sorely disappointed.