Larry Brown has coached more basketball games – 2,587 and counting – than John Wooden and Phil Jackson combined.
He’s coached Allen Iverson, David Robinson and Reggie Miller and mentored assistants Gregg Popovich, Bill Self and John Calipari in an enduring career that’s included 12 coaching jobs at either the pro or college level.
Now 72, Brown is back doing his life’s work at Southern Methodist University, which sports a 9-4 record after splitting its first two games at the 46th Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara, Calif.
“I just missed it,” Brown said. “I knew I wanted to get back.”
Before this season, Brown hadn’t been on the sideline since being fired by the Charlotte Bobcats in December 2010. He hadn’t coached in college since guiding Danny Manning and Kansas to the 1988 NCAA championship.
But he landed the job at SMU – which has had one winning season since 2003 and hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1993 – and the program is beginning to come to life.
Season ticket sales are up 79 percent, according to The New York Times, and the school expects to complete a $40 million renovation of its on-campus facility, Moody Coliseum, by the end of 2013, shortly after SMU is scheduled to move from Conference USA to the Big East.
The school made enough of a commitment to basketball to hire Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich as Brown’s top aide and head-coach-in-waiting. At $700,000 per season, he is the nation’s highest-paid assistant.
Brown said his players are buying into the new regime and recruiting has gone well.
Regarded as an elite basketball teacher who has made most teams better, Brown was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Along the way, he developed the reputation of being a coaching nomad who frequently changes jobs. SMU is his third college assignment – not counting the job he took at Davidson in 1972, only to leave after one month to become coach of the ABA’s Carolina Cougars.
Since then, he’s had stints with eight other ABA or NBA teams, including the Detroit Pistons, whom he led to the 2004 NBA crown, plus UCLA and Kansas. He said Stanford almost became another stop in 2008, before the Cardinal hired Johnny Dawkins. “I love Stanford and what it’s about,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to leave my family at the time. We had moved too much.”
He went to Charlotte instead.
Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating, 41, was in diapers when Brown landed his first job. “I’ve got another life to live,” Keating joked, before the span of his coaching career equals what Brown has achieved.
Since he left Kansas 24 years ago, the culture of college basketball, but especially recruiting, has changed dramatically. No argument from Brown, who was Dean Smith’s freshman coach at North Carolina in the mid-1960s when he helped recruit Charlie Scott to become the school’s first scholarship black athlete.
For all the changes, the game itself still has a grip on Brown, who was a point guard at North Carolina, then won a gold medal with the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.
Brown will tell you he’s coached a lot of great players. Early on, with the Denver Nuggets, he coached high-flyer David Thompson. “He was Michael before Michael,” Brown said.
Perhaps no player is more identified with him than Iverson, who once called Brown the greatest coach in the world.
“People are not sure who I am,” Brown said, “but they know I coached Allen.”