Why SMU’s Headline Hire of Larry Brown Could Actually Work OutPosted by EJacoby on April 23rd, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
It’s been almost a full week since Southern Methodist officially hired Larry Brown to become the Mustangs’ new head coach, creating major headlines from a school that hasn’t had much to show from its program’s entire basketball history. The question surrounding the hire remains — Does SMU really expect Brown to turn around the program, or is the hire simply intended to draw publicity to a team in desperate need of some attention? We tend to think that the primary motive was the latter, but that it also just might be a smart move for the SMU program at this point in time.
Larry Brown is in the Basketball Hall of Fame with a decorated legacy that includes being the only coach to win both an NCAA (Kansas) and NBA (Detroit) championship, but he hasn’t coached in the college ranks in nearly 25 years. At 71 years old, and with a track record of bolting from head coaching positions early in his tenure, why is there any reason to expect that Brown will be capable of turning around a struggling college program? The truth of the matter is there probably isn’t. College basketball is not what it was back in 1988 when he won a title for Kansas. There are now over 340 Division I teams, many of which have come to expect postseason success given the widespread parity that the sport has developed. The fact that SMU hasn’t qualified for an NCAA Tournament since 1993 doesn’t give Brown any slack either — the school is headed for the Big East in two seasons and desperately needs to turn things around in a hurry.
Is Brown capable of rebuilding the program? SMU is in no position to be competitive next season, coming off of a 13-19 year in which it loses its two best players. It’s going to take massive improvements from the current crop of young players, as well as a big push in immediate recruiting, to give the Mustangs any chance of competitiveness once they hit the Big East in 2013. Brown’s age will no doubt be a factor in carrying out all the demanding tasks of a college coach but he also hasn’t been in the college ranks since 1988. Leading grown adults in the NBA is far different than helping 18-22 year old men grow as people and players, and it will be an especially challenging task for the longtime coach.
But just because Larry Brown isn’t in an opportune place to succeed doesn’t mean that SMU made a poor coaching hire. The goal is long-term success, and in order to win down the road a program needs to start making progress in the present. Brown represents progress, a coaching legend who comes in with pedigree and who will also bring in an impressive batch of assistants. Jerrance Howard, the recent interim head coach at Illinois after Bruce Weber was fired, is expected to sign on as an assistant. The Illini players made a push for Howard to remain in Champaign as the head coach and he should be a solid addition as a young but established recruiter and teacher. Rod Strickland has been alongside John Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky for the past several years, and he’s reportedly joining Brown as an assistant at SMU as well. Strickland will be a major player in recruiting the area and is another quality hire to the team. Tim Jankovich is the current head coach of Illinois State with a strong resume as an up-and-coming leader, and he has reportedly been offered a top assistant job at SMU to become Brown’s ‘coach-in-waiting.’ Bringing in Jankovich would only strengthen the caliber of the Mustang staff.
Even if Larry Brown is unable to handle the taxing responsibilities as SMU’s new head coach very long, the table is set for the Mustangs to start establishing a new winning culture there. Most losing college programs opt to rebuild with young coaches who will work overtime to learn the ins and outs of being successful, but this traditional strategy also comes with a marginal likelihood of success. For every Brad Stevens at Butler, there are many other young head coaches who are unable to succeed immediately. Southern Methodist has an opportunity to rebuild in a different way, going straight to an established name that has already been a headliner many times over. For a program that has been so bad for so long, why wouldn’t SMU take this risk? With Howard and potentially Strickland and Jankovich waiting in line as a new addition to a top conference, SMU brass have clearly thought this move through. It took over six weeks to fill a coaching void that nobody wanted, so grabbing this group of coaches as a ‘fallback’ plan is something that any struggling program would take. This all comes with the expectation that Larry Brown will have trouble with the new job, but what if he succeeds in quickly developing strong young talent? There’s plenty of upside now for the Mustangs, which is why SMU made a smart decision to bring in Brown and his staff.