I first interviewed Larry Brown about three years ago. It was an October day at the DFW Airport Marriott. The reason was the Conference USA Basketball media day. Brown was making his return to college basketball, having been coaching in the NBA since the late-1980s. Brown’s one of those legendary coaches, known for turning just about every team he’s ever coached into a winner — except for the New York Knicks, but the New York Knicks are a dumpster fire of a NBA franchise and the only people who should be ruined by association with the Knicks are Isaiah Thomas and James Dolan.
Brown, who had previously taken UCLA and Kansas to the NCAA Championship game — winning with Kansas — had taken perhaps the most daunting rebuilding job of his career. He was the new coach of the SMU Mustangs. And the question about coaching at SMU was how could one rebuild a college program that had never actually been built — SMU was relevant for a few years in the 1980s when the school’s college sports programs went about breaking every rule in the book. But since that time, SMU had primarily served to destroy coaching careers. Now along came Larry Brown, known for taking on the challenge of teams on the junk heap, and his job was to make SMU basketball nationally relevant.
Brown’s concerns that Tuesday were simple: he was frustrated by the NCAA transfer rules and by big name schools coming in and swiping players from lesser programs by promising them playing time and a path to the NBA. He thought players were being sold an unrealistic dream. If anybody should know the path to the NBA, after all, it was Brown who’d coached just about every NBA team in existence of history.
But perhaps Brown’s hopes were misplaced. Perhaps he should’ve been more concerned about what was happening, or about to happen, on his own campus. Because once again, as happened to him at UCLA and at Kansas, his program is under investigation by the NCAA, with Brown facing allegations regarding a lack of coaching control of the program. Because, it seems, the school recruited a player who was not academically eligible, who had had problems staying eligible in high school, and is now no longer on the team.
This should surprise no one. Brown’s reputation as a magical turnaround-a-program coach is well-deserved. If you have a failing basketball team, Brown is the guy who will turn it around. He’ll get you to the playoffs, or to the NCAA tournament, then he usually leaves just as things start to get ugly. It’s one thing when this happens in the NBA, but he damaged UCLA and Kansas, two major college programs, and the NCAA sniffing around his program at SMU is not only to be expected, but kind of leaves one wondering what took so damn long.
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But colleges like to do this. Some schools are so desperate to win, so desperate to turn things around and return to relevancy, that it doesn’t matter what a coach has done in the past. If that coach can win, that coach will get hired. That’s how Tim Floyd http://articles.latimes.com/2009/may/13/sports/sp-usc-mayo13 keeps getting work. John Calipari left Massachusetts and Memphis just ahead of the NCAA cops — seeing the Final Four runs of those schools wiped from the book as punishment — before winning it all at Kentucky. Bruce Pearl survived a three year show cause penalty and returned to college basketball last year. Southern Miss just got hit hard because of Donnie Tyndall’s misdeeds. Even Dave Bliss still gets work, and he helped obstruct the obstruct the investigation into the murder of one of his own students.
And that is one of my worries about the University of Houston and Kelvin Sampson. Sampson’s last two schools, Oklahoma and Indiana, were hit by NCAA probations, and he was not allowed to coach in college for five years. Now Sampson has won at his schools, getting Oklahoma and Indiana into the tourney on a consistent basis. So in his own way he’s like Larry Brown and John Calipari and Tim Floyd. Which means the question has to be asked: Is he worth the risk of the NCAA coming down on your program?
Sampson is a good coach, like the others. And he really seemed to get the challenges that come with resurrecting the Cougars. And you really get the sense that he cares about his players. But Larry Brown really seemed to get the challenges of resurrecting SMU, and he really seemed to care about his players. But one can’t help wondering just when it’s going to happen that Sampson, like Brown, is ambushed at a post-game press conference and asked about playing an academically ineligible player, or some other NCAA issue and he’s getting hit with the NCAA accusing him of lack of institutional control.
Maybe Kelvin Sampson will be different at UH. He’s a winner. He builds programs. He’s got a history, like Brown and Floyd and Caliper and Pearl and Tyndall and on and on and on. But maybe that five years away from college basketball did to him what it didn’t do to the other coaches. And if it doesn’t, maybe UH will at least get another trip to the NCAA tournament first.