Less than two years ago, Larry Brown was a retired basketball coach with a golden NBA resume and Southern Methodist University was a basketball wasteland, a school with no significant hoops history situated smack dab in the middle of the football hotbed of Dallas, Texas. In Texas, basketball ranks somewhere behind baseball, bull riding, demolition derbies and competitive cheerleading on the sports totem pole. But when the NCAA Tournament tips off this month, SMU will be among the schools with potential to make a run at the Final Four. And they as they do, they’ll be coached by Brown, the 73-year-old New York native who is one of the most storied hoops coaches of all time—and who in just two seasons has transformed the program from losers to winners.
So how did a septuagenarian Hall of Fame coach so quickly reinvent himself and a decrepit basketball program at the same time? And what can we learn from his journey?
1. Never stop working, even if people assume you will.
Brown’s long career has been as nomadic as it has been successful. Since taking his first coaching job with the Carolina Cougars of the now-defunct American Basketball Association, he has held 13 different head coaching jobs at the college and pro levels, winning at just about every stop. He’s the only coach who has ever won both an NCAA championship (coaching Kansas in 1988) and an NBA title (coaching Detroit in 2004). He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. So in December of 2010, when he resigned at 71 (or was fired, depending on which reports you believe) as the coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, most assumed his coaching days were done. But nobody told him that. “After about a week, I was bored to death,” he admitted recently. Instead of hitting the driving range to work on his golden years golf game, Brown hit the road, visiting his coaching pals and helping out at their practices.
2. Find untapped potential and opportunity.
In SMU, Brown saw what he considered to be a perfect match for his skills. Sure, the school’s hoops program has been consistently mediocre—the Mustangs last made the NCAA Tournament in 1993 and last won a tournament game in 1988. But in 2012 the university joined the Big East conference, which required a big investment in the program and a big step up in basketball competition. Brown knew that the state’s huge population meant it must produce lots of talented, talented basketball players. And the success and popularity of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks—the Mark Cuban-owned team won the title in 2011—showed that the city would support a winning basketball team. Brown set his sights on the SMU job.
3. There’s no room for “No.”
After he left the Bobcats, Brown experienced something brand new: After a career of bouncing between some of the most attractive gigs in coaching, he was unwanted. His phone wasn’t ringing. So he picked it up himself and made a call to SMU to ask about their coaching search. This is akin to Tom Hanks phoning his local dinner theater to audition for a part. The school’s athletic director ignored his messages for months, and when he finally returned the call, he bluntly told Brown he wasn’t high on the list of candidates. After other candidates turned down the gig, Brown finally was asked to interview, and successfully convinced the school’s Board of Trustees that he was committed to the rebuilding project at SMU. “I was not their first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice, fifth choice,” he has said. Sixth choice is the charm! His perseverance paid off.
4. Be quick, but don’t hurry.
This seemingly contradictory advice comes from another renowned basketball coach, the late John Wooden. But Brown took it to heart after his hiring at SMU: Immediately, he met with several of his new players to tell them that they didn’t fit his style of play and would be better served finding a new school. The move was controversial, but it certainly signaled that Brown meant business. It was a considered, not rash, maneuver. He continued rebuilding his roster, pulling in transfers from powerhouse hoops schools like Villanova and Illinois. Last season, his first at SMU, saw a slight improvement in won-loss record, but this season has been a breakout one: the team is 22-6 and ranked among the top 25 teams in the country for the first time in 29 years. Even Brown is surprised at how quickly things have turned around. "I think we all felt everything was in place here," he said recently, “but I didn't know we could assemble a group like this."
5. It takes talent, passion — and help.
The steady stream of talented players to SMU will continue—Dallas high school star Emmanuel Mudiay, one of this year’s top-rated prep players, will play for the Mustangs next season (Brown recruited his older brother to woo the young superstar—a little ingenuity helps a turnaround, too). And Brown surrounded himself with a talented group of assistants, including Tim Jankovich, whose contract includes a “coach in waiting” provision that guarantees him Brown’s job when he retires. Given the head coach’s age, logic says that day must be coming. But right now, it doesn’t seem like it. Moody Gymnasium, the Mustangs home court, has been sold-out all season. “When I was a freshman, it seemed like just our parents were here,” senior forward Shawn Williams marveled after a recent game—and Cuban and George W. Bush are among the bold-face names to be spotted at games. “I never imagined it could be like this for me, at 73,” Brown recently told HBO’s Real Sports, and he could well have been speaking for SMU as well. No matter what happens in March, SMU’s basketball life has been reborn. “What Larry Brown has done at SMU,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last week, “is really remarkable.”