“I said, of course North Carolina, but I didn’t ever want to see him step down,” Brown recalled. “So I said Stanford, Northwestern, Princeton and Vanderbilt. … Great academically and great conferences and great areas to live.”
A record nine NBA jobs later, and a quarter century after leading Kansas to an NCAA title, the 72-year-old Brown found that kind of fit in his return to coaching this season at SMU.
“We don’t have the tradition of Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA,” said Brown, whose Mustangs are off to a 9-4 start. “But I don’t think we’ll shortchange a kid in terms of getting an education and coaching them up and giving them a chance to be successful.”
For anyone who thought the Hall of Fame coach went to SMU as a figurehead for a struggling program with a pending move to the ever-changing Big East Conference, it quickly becomes clear why he’s back in the game.
“The only reason I took a job is because I love to coach and teach, and this school afforded me this opportunity,” he said.
Brown had to be told during early games to stay in the coaching box. He holds out his hands questioning a non-call by a referee, tries to prompt his team to run its play at the right pace and chides a player for hanging on the rim after a dunk.
During practice, Brown gets right in the middle of his post players to demonstrate what he wants them to do. He swishes a shot to start a drill, then moves up and down the court, waving his hands to direct the action.
“We all thought that he may come in, be like the GM figure. … That’s so wrong,” SMU junior guard Nick Russell said. “He’s in practice, and he’s screaming, and he’s running and he’s dribbling and shooting hook shots. He’s doing it all. He’s involved and his presence is felt day in and day out.”
While home in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two high school-age kids, Brown spent many days at Villanova games and practices with coach Jay Wright. Brown also visited friends like Kansas coach Bill Self, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, but stayed away from NBA arenas.
“He’s a piece of work,” Wright said. “I do miss him, but I know how happy he is down there.”
Tim Jankovich was Illinois State’s head coach the past five seasons after working on Self’s staff. He had one of his best Redbirds teams coming back this season, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with Brown, a coach he has always followed and studied.
“What’s struck me is the amount of energy that he has,” said Jankovich, SMU’s associate head coach and Brown’s expected successor. “His energy is that of someone 20 years younger. … He’s still passionate about the game.”