Larry Brown's trek visits Huntington
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In all his wide, wide experience as a player and a coach, Larry Brown has come across Marshall more than a few times.
Actually, he is privy to one of the more obscure, entertaining trivia items in Thundering Herd history.
"[Actor/comedian] Billy Crystal is from my hometown [Long Beach, N.Y.], and he had a baseball scholarship to Marshall," Brown said Tuesday. "He's like family to me."
More evidence of a small world: One of Brown's assistants from his Kansas days was John Calipari, which automatically links him to former MU athletic director Bob Marcum. (Calipari, now coaching at Kentucky, worked for Marcum at Massachusetts, and the two have remained close since.)
Brown is a big fan of Mike D'Antoni, the early 1970s Marshall point guard and current Los Angeles Lakers coach. He counts Charlie Slack, the Herd's rebounding machine of the 1950s, among his friends from his playing days. He enjoyed the movie "We Are Marshall."
When Brown was coaching the New York Knicks, that put him in preseason camp at the College of Charleston - and did so at a time Tom Herrion was coaching the Cougars.
Tonight, Brown and Herrion renew acquaintances at Cam Henderson Center, as Brown's Southern Methodist team arrives for a Conference USA contest at 7 against Herrion's Herd.
With the bulk of his coaching career in the pro ranks, Brown has yet to coach a game in Huntington. Tonight's patrons will get a rare chance to see the only coach to win an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit Pistons, 2004), and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Shoot, Brown was inducted to that shrine a good decade ago. That just might qualify the 72-year-old as a living, working legend.
Herrion, head coach in 2,625 fewer games than Brown, would agree. Neither Herrion nor most Herd fans never guessed this nomadic coach would make his way to the Henderson Center's visiting bench.
"I don't think that was ever part of the grand scheme of things," Herrion said. "That's what's great about the game - you've got a Hall of Fame coach, Coach Brown, and now he's coming to Huntington at this stage of his life and coaching career."
Brown's coaching career took one of the craziest turns since his last miracle, guiding the Charlotte Bobcats to the NBA playoffs in 2010. He was fired 28 games into the 2010-11 season and remained in retirement last season.
Sort of. If he couldn't coach a game, he had to be around other coaches. Having 13 different head-coaching gigs might do that for you.
But why did Brown return to college coaching, which he left on the highest of notes 24 years earlier?
"I wanted to get back in and coach. I didn't care which level, to be honest with you," he said. "The two years I was out of coaching, after losing my job at Charlotte, I visited with so many guys who have coached with me and played for me that were college coaches.
"I went to Kansas [Bill Self], Kentucky [Calipari], Maryland [Mark Turgeon]. I was at Villanova [Jay Wright] almost every other day. I was involved with Tad Boyle [Colorado], just a lot of programs. And I watched people coach and learned a lot, and just being with them and being a resource in some ways just made me want to get back in some capacity."
So what brought him to SMU, a program languishing since its last NCAA tournament in 1993?
Brown said Turgeon recommended him to then-SMU athletic director Steve Orsini, who had engineered big-name hires of football coach June Jones and the just-ousted Matt Doherty. Unbeknownst to Brown, Jones knew him from the mid-1970s.
As a student living in Portland, Ore., Jones had a job driving vans to transport NBA teams coming to town to play the Trail Blazers. One day, the Denver Nuggets arrived and Coach Brown rode "shotgun" for the trip to the arena.
And so Brown began his 14th head-coaching job, with a program needing a serious talent upgrade before its 2013-14 move to the Big East. The school's financial commitment is unquestioned - a basketball practice facility opened in 2008 and the 57-year-old Moody Coliseum is about to be overhauled.
One of his assistant coaches, Tim Jankovich, is a designated coach-in-waiting, making a reported $700,000 a year.
"When I got the job, we were only going to lose one guy, and we had to change the culture in terms of kids we recruited," Brown said. "We lost four players that I think might have been better suited to play at a different level, and that was difficult.
"Speaking to a lot of my friends in coaching, that's a normal process when you become a head coach at a program. You've got to be honest with guys, where they stand."
So far, the Mustangs (11-10 overall, 1-5 C-USA) have followed a script similar to that of the Doherty days - rack up wins against a perceived week nonconference schedule, than struggle in Conference USA play. Most of those losses have been close, starting with a 48-47 setback to Tulsa and his most prized player from his Kansas days, Danny Manning.
More recently, the Mustangs lost to Southern Mississippi 74-70, at Texas-El Paso 63-54 and 74-65 at Central Florida last Saturday. The Mustangs were down by a point with 1:49 left at Orlando but failed to score again.
Tonight's game will be the Mustangs' third road game in a row, and they are the last C-USA team that has yet to defeat Marshall. The Herd is 8-0 in the series, including a 74-56 dismissal in the first round of last year's C-USA tournament.
But most of those games have been close - Herd fans may recall Markel Humphrey's 74-footer at the buzzer, for instance. Herrion expects a "grinder" of a game tonight.
"They're very disciplined," Herrion said of the Mustangs. "They play at a good pace. They'll be deliberate at times, run a lot of clock in the halfcourt. They have some guys with a lot of minutes - they play with an 'iron five.'"
That "iron five" - Ryan Manuel, Shawn Williams, Nick Russell, Cannen Cunningham and Jalen Jones - have started all 21 games and average 30-plus minutes. Russell, a Kansas State transfer, leads all SMU scorers with 13.7 points per game, with sophomore Ryan Manuel averaging 11.8. Manuel averages at least seven foul shots a game, hitting 80.1 percent.
Six-foot-7 Texas transfer Shawn Williams is the top 3-point shooter, making 22 and while shooting 41.5 percent.
Marshall (9-11, 2-3), coming off a mind-bending two-loss road trip to Southern Miss and Memphis, may try to make that starting five run. Herrion said his team regained its focus last Saturday in a one-point loss to Memphis, but also rebounded in tangible areas.
"Our patience, our offensive execution," Herrion said. "We were much more efficient of an offense against a better defense."
MU is generally healthy for tonight's game, though Elijah Pittman missed practice Monday with flu-like symptoms. Pittman is the Herd's second-leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, behind DeAndre Kane's team-leading 15.0.
Kane still leads Conference USA in assists by a wide margin, averaging 7.06. Second-place Miguel Paul of East Carolina averages only 6.0.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
Some facts about Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who brings his SMU Mustangs to Cam Henderson Center to face Marshall tonight: