DALLAS – SMU isn't good at sports.
That was at least the general consensus since the NCAA levied a 'death penalty' against the school's football program in 1987, a specter that still haunts the university. Since then, SMU has rested its laurels on its business and law programs while its two major athletic programs, football and men's basketball, have wallowed in insignificance. However, there has been a resurgence SMU athletics is no longer a forgotten relic.
It all started in 2008 when the school hired June Jones to be the head coach of the football program. Jones led an innovative, pass-heavy offense at the University of Hawaii, netting the school six bowl appearances with four wins.
His time with the Mustangs has been even more fruitful. In six seasons, Jones took the team to four bowl games, winning three of them. Obviously, his high profile signing has much to do with the turnaround of the football program. It is not the only program to recently emerge from obscurity.
Two years ago, SMU was in the hunt for a new head coach for their men's basketball program. Brad Doherty was out as the head coach after six seasons. During his tenure, the team amassed a record of 80-109 with just one winning season. On the surface, Doherty's teams did not perform well on the court. Yet, it was he who spearheaded change within the program, raising funds for a new practice facility on campus for both basketball programs and being one of the catalysts behind the renovations to Moody Coliseum.
Still though, the program was without a head coach. Coaches like Buzz Williams, Tommy Amaker, and Tony Benford, among others, were rumored to be targets of then Athletic Director Steve Orsini. Neither wound up taking the position. Instead, Larry Brown eventually accepted an offer to be SMU's next head coach.
Brown was never the first choice to head the basketball program. In fact, he was rather low on the list; the school all but ignored his interest in the opening. This may be hard to believe now, with the Mustangs' current success and Brown's basketball provenance. He is the only coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship and is in the Hall of Fame. His credentials are enviable, but Brown carries with him quite a lot of baggage.
In almost every place that Brown coached, he left or was asked to leave for one reason or another. He has often clashed with players and drawn the ire front offices. This helped him gain a reputation of a man who is either never satisfied or one that is never interested. To some, it was simply a matter of what day it was which Brown would show up.
Hiring Brown seemed to be a risky gamble, if not an out-right mistake. His last head coaching stint was with the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats in December 2010. The last time that Brown coached at the collegiate level was in 1988, before any of his current players were born.
SMU's men's basketball program isn't a storied one. The pregame video featured on the jumbotron in Moody touts just 12 players who attended the school and were drafted by professional teams.
Quinton Ross is the most recent of these players, appearing in 458 NBA games from 2005-2011, including a brief spell with the Dallas Mavericks. SMU has also made it to the NCAA tournament 10 times, a fact that the video reminds you of. The last time the school went dancing was in 1993.
These accomplishments are nothing to frown at; plenty of small private universities would love to emulate this level of success. However, it would be difficult to find anyone who can readily cite the basketball team's achievements. This is Texas, after all. Football is king here.
Brown has given the program relevance. Led by sophomore guard Nic Moore and sophomore forward Markus Kennedy, SMU has upset four ranked opponents this season and been listed in the AP's Top 25 twice, each time ranked 23. The team's success is not going unnoticed.
On a warm February night, Moody Coliseum was packed as the Mustangs prepared to take on the University of Houston Cougars. Raucous students decked in mostly red and boat shoes drank beer while alumni sat and conversed. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and players DeJuan Blair and Jae Crowder were in attendance. So too was former President George W. Bush, who sat in the front row at midcourt with former First Lady Laura.
SMU's remaining home games have been sold out for weeks and, for one night, the Mustangs were the hottest ticket in Dallas.
The Mustangs will likely receive a bid to the dance but the team will have to remain ranked to receive automatic entry or win the AAC Tournament. With Brown at the helm anything seems possible for this team. Why can't they be this year's Cinderella?
SMU's success story is wed to Brown and his presence looms larger than the program. With him the basketball program is no longer irrelevant. Moody Madness has returned to The Hilltop and the doubters have been silenced.The question is how long will it last?