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Was hiring Larry Brown really worth it for SMU?

September 30, 2015 Columns No Comments
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When SMU hired Larry Brown in 2012 after letting Matt Doherty go, it seemed a curious hire. He was 71 years old, clearly in the back end of his career, and had been out of the college game for nearly a quarter century. He was now about to lead a moribund program that had never really gained traction in Conference USA. He carried name recognition, the kind that would make them relevant even if they weren’t on the court, but whether it would pay off remained to be seen.

Three years later, that move appears to have backfired.

On Tuesday, the NCAA banned the Mustangs from the 2016 postseason for multiple violations that include academic fraud and unethical conduct. The program is also on probation for three years, while Brown has been suspended for 30 percent of his team’s games for the 2015-16 season (that comes out to about nine or ten games), and the team will lose nine scholarships over the next three seasons.

It’s not even that simple, though. This is the third time a program Brown has coached has been sanctioned, and you wonder what this means for his future at the school, as well as that of top assistant Tim Jankovich, who Brown hired away from Illinois State three years ago presumably to be his successor. Jankovich hasn’t been named in any of the violations, but being part of the staff that was sanctioned by the NCAA in this manner is never a solid selling point to a fan base that has waited years for success.

And lest anyone forget, it was SMU whose football program was slapped with the death penalty back in the late 80s. While that had nothing to do with the NCAA’s investigation or the punishment, this action by the NCAA is a big hit to the program from the public relations standpoint. Many will link the two nonetheless in their perception of the athletic department, although that isn’t entirely without merit since this is the tenth major infractions case for the school, which leads the nation.

The postseason ban is bad, especially for seniors Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. The scholarship losses will hit harder, hurting their ability to recruit and build depth. And it’s not like SMU had a lot of built-in advantages in the first place.

The hire of Brown was a gamble not only because of his age, something teams would undoubtedly negatively recruit against, but also his past. At UCLA and Kansas, Brown also got in trouble with the NCAA, making history with the latter as the Jayhawks are the only reigning national champion in NCAA history to be banned from the NCAA Tournament the following year. But that was all forgotten in 2012, as the program figured his name recognition alone would give them a boost, then his coaching ability would add to it.

This is SMU, after all, a program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament since the 1992-93 season. Back then, they were in the Southwest Conference in its waning years, and they went 12-2 to reach their fourth NCAA Tournament in ten years. After the Southwest Conference closed up shop in 1996, they first bounced around between the WAC and Conference USA, never managing better than a third-place finish on two occasions during a time when the WAC started trending downward. During their eight years in Conference USA, mostly under Doherty, they were a dreadful 38-88 in conference games, and only once did they even manage a .500 finish in conference play. After their SWC days, the program had just two postseason appearances to its credit.

In other words, this is a program that didn’t have a big history of winning and being in the postseason, especially in the last 20 years, at the time they were searching for a successor to Doherty. In the formative years of the American Athletic Conference, they have started out well on the bottom line, but now there’s this.

SMU certainly has been relevant again, as well as competitive. The Mustangs were arguably the most notable snub from the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, then they won the American Athletic Conference last season. In between, they landed one of the nation’s most coveted recruits in Emmanuel Mudiay, who went overseas amidst – what else? – eligibility concerns. They had success after some major growing pains initially. That’s what they wanted when they hired Larry Brown.

But they have gotten more than that from him, and it’s not good. The postseason ban and scholarship losses hurt, Brown isn’t getting any younger, and this is one more strike against the program. They got an NCAA Tournament appearance out of it and looked ready for another one this season that will not be forthcoming now, but one wonders if the price paid for it is a good deal. SMU took a gamble, and whether or not they are better for it is debatable.

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