On April 19, 2012, Southern Methodist University introduced Hall of Famer Larry Brown as its new head basketball coach. Brown was replacing another coach with North Carolina ties, Matt Doherty, at the helm of the SMU Mustangs.
Preparing to enter the Big East (later shifted along with other football schools to form the American Athletic Conference), one of college basketball’s power conferences, and being located in Dallas, a city flush with high school talent, SMU had all the resources necessary to sustain an elite basketball program. Yet the school could never manage to maintain consistent success.
Hiring the esteemed Coach Brown, SMU hoped to end a stretch of basketball mediocrity. After the Charlotte Bobcats let Brown go in 2010, many perceived that he was done coaching. But his thoughts about a possible retirement “probably lasted about a week,” he says. “I got a little antsy and thought maybe that retirement isn’t for me.”
Coming out of his semi-retirement, the legendary coach has been as successful as ever at SMU. Thanks to his first recruiting class, a refurbished home arena in Moody Coliseum, and a reinvigorated fan base, Brown has catapulted SMU basketball into the national spotlight. Wins over ranked teams like Cincinnati, Connecticut (both home and away), and Memphis have the Mustangs ranked in the top 25 and likely headed to the NCAA tournament. But on the subject of the tournament, Brown told me that he tries to keep the team locked in on the present: “We just have to focus on the next game, and if we play well, I think people will recognize that.”
That focus has been spot on at home this year, with the dedicated student section leading the Mustangs to an undefeated home record with one game remaining. “It’s a tough place to play,” Brown says. “I don’t think we beat Connecticut or Memphis or Cincinnati without the fans and the support from the students.” The only times this young team has faltered have been road games against conference opponents. Their only bad losses came at Temple and South Florida, teams with losing records. But according to Brown, those losses serve as motivation for the young Mustangs. “Since we lost at Temple and at South Florida,” he says, “every game we play now is like a tournament game.”
Following those losses, the Mustangs bounced back with a huge road win, beating then Number 21 Connecticut 64-55 at Gampel Pavilion on February 23. That win moved the Mustangs to Number 18 in the national rankings.
Brown has “The Mob,” SMU’s student section, thinking about a tournament berth, but what’s really amazing about the job he has done is the way he’s set the Mustangs up for future success. Soon after arriving on campus, Brown began reeling in touted recruits. Top talents now give SMU a legitimate look thanks to Coach Brown’s presence and other top prospects’ interest in the school. Brown’s success recruiting Dallas Kimball High School star guard Keith Frazier, a McDonald’s All American and the Dallas Morning News’s high school player of the year in 2013, has led to more recruiting success. As a freshman this year, Frazier has been a three-point specialist off the bench. But his impact on the basketball program extends past his production on the court. “Keith being a Dallas kid, everybody grew up reading about and hearing about him,” Brown says. “He’s made all the other kids around here think, ‘Wow. SMU’s good enough for Keith Frazier. Maybe I ought to consider it.’”
One of those Dallas kids is point guard Emmanuel Mudiay of Prime Prep Academy. Ranked as the number 5 recruit in the country by ESPN.com, Mudiay signed with the Mustangs thanks in part to Frazier. “I don’t think we would have gotten Emmanuel [without Frazier], and I think Emmanuel’s the best player in the country,” Brown says. “We think we can appeal to the best players in the country.”
The future looks bright for SMU and Coach Brown, and when asked about where he thinks SMU basketball will be in five years, Brown has this to say: “I hope we’re a top 25 team every year, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t be.”
As for how long Brown, a coach who’s moved around a lot during his career, plans to stay at SMU, he says he’s “not looking to go anywhere else. My boy’s a freshman here, and I promised him that I’d see him graduate. My daughter’s a junior in high school, and I wouldn’t mind if she went to school here. I told her that if she comes here, I’d like to see her graduate. I don’t feel like I want to stop, so hopefully this will be my last stop.”
I think SMU fans would be just fine with five more years with Brown, but as for right now, we’re just enjoying having our first top 25 basketball ranking in 29 years.