Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The missing element to SMU’s surprising hire of Larry Brown is the Hall of Fame coach’s less-than-healthy history of run-ins with the NCAA. The last time Brown walked off the college hardwood, he left Kansas in deep NCAA waters. The Jayhawks were suspended from the 1989 NCAA Tournament for infractions during Brown’s tenure. Eight years earlier, he brought damaging penalties to another blueblood program, this time leaving UCLA to relinquish its 1980 Final Four appearance after learning Brown had used ineligible players. Though he spent one-year at Davidson (1972) without stepping into NCAA troubles, Brown’s college track record gives cause for pause. In two extended stays at high-profile locales, he’s left behind a punitive footprint – whether by his own volition or otherwise. And that’s before the seedy undercurrents – before agents, runners, nefarious third-parties and shoe companies solidified their place in elite prospects’ inner circles – that define today’s recruiting landscape fully seeped their way into high school and grassroots hoops. That’s not to say third-parties didn’t exist 20 or even 30 years ago; they did, but not nearly to the extent they do in today’s recruiting culture. Brown can steer clear of NCAA punishment, even in today’s hazardous environment, but it will require a nuanced overview of NCAA guidelines and procedures for a man whose only interaction with the organization (albeit more than two decades ago) ended twice with harsh discipline.
For most coaches, a checkered past like Brown’s would elicit no small measure of skepticism and suspicion. Hiring a coach with an extended inability to follow NCAA protocol demands scrutiny, no matter the credentials of the incoming head man. But Brown has avoided any and all sorts of public backlash or cynicism. He is embarking on his new job with a litany of past NCAA baggage, carrying a free pass from an increasingly dubious national punditry and a wave of positive sentiment highlighting his every move.
Now consider by way of a counterpoint the onrush of mistrust and doubt surrounding John Calipari and his inheritance of the Kentucky job. Calipari, to many the poster boy for all things evil in college hoops –- the one-and-done rule, the way he pilfers the nation’s top high school players, his players-before-the-program approach that drew irksome reviews from the UK faithful — has never been personally charged with a major recruiting violation. He annually persuades the best high school players in the country to join his program, annually competes on the sport’s highest stage, and regularly repeats the process with a new batch of five-star imports. His system is so refined, so proven, so successful, that fans and coaches can’t help but question his practices. Because when you install and master a winning model, when rival programs suffer the misfortune of knowing their efforts simply can’t match up, criticizing and bashing Calipari’s system is the only ammunition available. When you can’t beat him, falsely accuse him – or so the saying goes…