clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Larry Brown's departure from SMU is fittingly abrupt and bizarre

New, comments

Nothing about the marriage between SMU basketball and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has been normal, so we probably should have seen Friday's bizarre divorce coming.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Just as strangely as it began, the Larry Brown era at SMU has ended.

With Dallas still in the midst of one of the darkest 24-hour periods in city history, Brown announced Friday that he was walking away from the area's most prominent college basketball program because they wouldn't offer him a long-term contract extension. Brown is 75 years old.

The timing of the move isn't just bad for sentimental reasons. Like all programs, SMU is in the midst of the July evaluation period, arguably the most important month of the college hoops calendar outside of March. The duty of evaluating and recruiting the future of the Mustang program now falls on the shoulders of Tim Jankovich, the former Illinois State head coach who has served as Brown's top assistant since 2012.

All of this feels like the appropriately imperfect ending of a story whose genesis is the only coach in the history of basketball to win a Division I title and an NBA championship taking over a program that hadn't (and still hasn't) won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1988.

Everything that took place in between those two peculiar bookends was equally bizarre.

After a pedestrian debut season in 2012-13, Brown somehow made a team that was more than two decades removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance the hottest ticket in Dallas. The nationally ranked Mustangs couldn't lose in Moody Coliseum, a building that was suddenly home to celebrity guests like George W. Bush, Jerry Jones, Tony Romo and Jason Garrett. The average ticket price for the team's regular season home finale against No. 5 Louisville went for $184, more than any Dallas Mavericks home game in 2013-14.

The madness extended off the court and into the recruiting world, where Emmanuel Mudiay, the top-rated point guard in the class of 2014 and then-considered a potential No. 1 overall draft pick, committed to SMU over Kentucky in late 2013. Mudiay never made it to Dallas, of course, electing to spend his one year after high school playing overseas instead of dealing with both the competition in the American Athletic Conference and the unwanted attention he would have received from the NCAA. He would later say that he was "confident" SMU would have won a national title had he played college ball in the states.

SMU didn't end up needing Mudiay to make a national splash in 2014-15. Led by point guard Nic Moore, the Mustangs won 27 games and both the AAC regular season and tournament championships, resulting in the program's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1993. Even that wound up being bizarre.

After appearing to be in control of their tournament opener against controversial No. 11 seed UCLA, SMU imploded in the game's final minute. Still, they would have lived to play another day had it not been for Yanick Moreira's decision in the final seconds to reach up and grab a wild three-point attempt from the Bruins' Bryce Alford that appeared to be headed well right of the basket. Moreira was called for goaltending, and the Mustangs were dealt an excruciating defeat in the one of the most abnormal NCAA Tournament finishes of the last decade.

As it turned out, that would be SMU's lone shot at March Madness glory under the direction of Brown.

Just weeks before the start of the 2015-16 season, the NCAA announced that it was banning SMU from all postseason play and suspending Brown for nine games due to academic misconduct involving shooting guard Keith Frazier. The NCAA had discovered that ex-SMU assistant Ulric Maligi, who had also played a major role in landing the commitment from Mudiay, had assisted (or allowed a secretary to assist) in online coursework that Frazier had completed in 2013 to become eligible to play at SMU.

The fine details of Frazier's situation are what made the whole saga so appropriately Brown-era bizarre.

For starters, the courses in question that Frazier completed were hosted by National University Virtual High School, which is an institution that really exists. You can look it up. Also, the courses actually did nothing in helping him to become eligible to play at SMU.

So to sum up, one of the best teams in SMU history wasn't able to participate in the NCAA Tournament because a coach helped one of the players cheat in a National University Virtual High School online course that the player didn't even need to take.

Frazier wound up transferring to North Texas in the middle of a season where SMU, despite its postseason ban, won its first 18 games and was the last undefeated team in college basketball in late January. The Mustangs ultimately wrapped up their campaign with a 25-5 mark and a 13-5 league record, good enough for a second-place finish in the AAC. That response to adversity had the fans in Dallas excited for another successful run in year five under Brown, a season that will instead be dominated by the storyline of the Hall of Famer's abrupt departure.

Leaving programs and franchises in obscurely unanticipated fashions is nothing new for Brown. In fact, outside of the dual championships, it might be what he's most known for. Still, SMU was supposed to be the pre-retirement retirement project that Brown was going to see through to the end, because what else was he going to do? Instead, it might be remembered as his most outrageous stop and indefensible departure yet.