The competitors on the basketball court at Princeton University, and the college coaches whose attention they sought, were all pawns in a larger game.
Nike, engaged in a battle for supremacy in the burgeoning sneaker market, brought an array of top national recruits to the Ivy League school for a few days of intense, if undisciplined, competition. Dozens of the game’s most prominent coaches and their programs, and all 120 players on hand that July, wore Nike gear as part of an emerging corporate strategy to attract consumer interest.
The approach helped catapult the company to a dominant position in the industry. Nike’s Air Jordan brand alone, originally pegged to Michael Jordan’s oncourt exploits, now generates $2 billion annually.
Among the coaches drawn to the Nike/ABCD camp was Larry Brown, then at Kansas. After nearly everyone left Princeton’s Jadwin Gym one afternoon, Brown sat in the wooden bleachers and ruminated quietly about student-athlete benefits and exploitation, 1980s style.
His views would ring across the decades as the gifted coach and Southern Methodist University landed in trouble again just last week. SMU further burnished its reputation for chronic but inept cheating, incurring penalties for unethical conduct, academic fraud and lack of control by its basketball head coach – the very same Larry Brown, committing his third transgression in three college stops.
Despite widespread expressions of outrage, by some measures the benefits justified the cost. In three years at the Texas school Brown, a Hall of Famer since 2002, also posted consecutive 27-win seasons, reached the NIT finals, and earned an NCAA bid. “If he quit at noon, I would hire Larry Brown at 12:01 p.m. — baggage and all,” opined a writer for Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram.
Brown had ushered UCLA to probation at the start of the eighties, leading the NCAA to vacate the Bruins’ appearance in the 1980 Final Four. He left for the NBA, then landed at the University of Kansas, where he fretted about the welfare of California players he recruited to live in Lawrence’s winter cold.
Coming from a balmier climate and families of modest means, some Jayhawks lacked overcoats, a deficiency beyond the coach’s remedy in an era before cost of attendance allowances and other legitimate funding streams simplified such problems. Still, Brown refused to leave the issue unresolved. “Of course I’m going to see they get coats,” he promised at Princeton, edging toward enduring status as a serial violator of the rules.
Larry Brown was from the genre of Frank McGuire and the streets of New York where people cared for each other, they covered for each other. So when you’re up against an institution like the NCAA, are you kidding me?
Author Art Chansky
Brown’s jaded view of NCAA regulations mirrored Frank McGuire, who recruited him to play basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Larry Brown, truth be told, thinks that all the NCAA rules that hinder the players are absurd, he doesn’t believe in them,” says Art Chansky, the author of six books about North Carolina’s basketball program and a student of Brown and his career. “Larry Brown was from the genre of Frank McGuire and the streets of New York where people cared for each other, they covered for each other. So when you’re up against an institution like the NCAA, are you kidding me?”
History of hot water
On the plus side the charismatic McGuire took St. John’s to the 1952 Final Four (and its baseball team to the 1949 College World Series), North Carolina to an undefeated season and the 1957 national championship, and South Carolina to the 1971 ACC title. His college teams won 69.9 percent of their games over 30 seasons, and the Tar Heels’ NCAA championship established the new ACC as a basketball power.
But the Hall of Famer also landed North Carolina, then South Carolina in hot water with the NCAA. His Heels were punished in 1961 for recruiting violations and improper benefits, and McGuire was eased out the door at Chapel Hill.
Whether Brown ever arranged for his KU players to get warm coats, like his first college coach he did get caught violating other NCAA rules. After winning the 1988 national championship behind star forward Danny Manning, Kansas was hit with a 3-year probation, becoming the first reigning champ denied an opportunity to defend its title. By then Brown was back in the pros, where he’s made 10 stops in all (including Charlotte) in a peripatetic career. In 2004 his Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship, making him the only coach ever to win both college and pro titles.
Brown’s departure from Kansas precipitated a series of gyrations in Carolina coaching circles sufficient to make anyone’s head spin.
Just as the probation-plagued Tar Heels turned to unsung assistant Dean Smith to replace McGuire, so the grounded Jayhawks hired another anonymous North Carolina aide, Roy Williams, to follow Brown. A dozen years later Williams, en route to a Hall of Fame career, was the top choice when Bill Guthridge retired at North Carolina. Williams declined the opportunity. Brown was seriously considered for the job, but it eventually went to Matt Doherty, a Smith player and Williams assistant at KU. When Doherty faltered, Williams returned to his alma mater in 2003.
Meanwhile, Brown stuck with the pros until 2012. Given his track record, it was no surprise he flouted the rules soon after rejoining the college ranks. Yet SMU, which endured the so-called death penalty during the mid-eighties for paying football players while on probation, hired him anyway.
Brown remains in top form at age 75. Not only are his Mustangs creditable on the court, but he’s apparently presided over a program willing to take unsanctioned risks off it. The 3-year probation for SMU basketball includes a loss of scholarships and a ban on postseason play in 2016.
Brown, who was accused by the NCAA of lying to its investigators, was ordered off the sidelines for 30 percent of SMU’s games this season. Later, Brown said he was clarifying his statement to the NCAA, not lying. By some arcane magic, his nine-game ban exactly matches the number of ACC contests another repeat NCAA offender, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, must sit out this year.
The big losers in these situations are the players, whose limited eligibility is circumscribed to punish officials they should be able to trust. Also hurt are those who actually care about the reputation of their university.
By contrast, coaches invariably land on their feet, particularly if, like Brown, they have a reputation as winners.
Lou Holtz, who broke NCAA rules at several coaching stops, now plays the role of a folksy football guru dispensing wisdom on TV. Echoing Brown, Bruce Pearl dissembled to NCAA investigators and got Tennessee on probation. Yet he was immediately scooped up as a basketball talking head, glibness trumping integrity where TV is concerned. No laws were broken, after all.
Pearl is now head coach at Auburn after an NCAA-mandated period away from the bench. Kelvin Sampson, who got caught cheating after leading an effort to promote NCAA compliance while head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, is back on the sidelines at Houston. And SMU is sticking with Brown.
These shenanigans leave the rest of us ever more cynical and distrustful, numbly tuning out all but the games, wagging our fingers and expressing outrage, or displaying some combination of all those reactions. Sooner or later we also tend to vilify the NCAA, which deserves its fair share of criticism. Unfortunately by now we’ve so thoroughly challenged the validity of the organization’s actions and judgments, it’s no wonder so many schools, coaches and athletes take its strictures lightly when there’s an almighty dollar to be made.