DALLAS — When SMU hired Larry Brown in April 2012, it was a curious marriage of a perpetually job-hopping Hall of Fame coach and a long dormant men's basketball program.
But all Brown talked about were grand ambitions. He wanted to win, and win big.
He knew it was critical SMU find a home in a nationally competitive basketball league. He knew he just needed one breakthrough signing – one – to change recruiting fortunes in arguably the most talent-rich state in the nation. And he needed to give fans a product worth watching to lure the Dallas community out to what would soon be a renovated Moody Coliseum.
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Just 56 games later, midway through his second season, Brown has achieved all of the above. As a result, he has become part of the national coach of the year conversation.
The 73-year-old Brown, the only coach to win NBA and NCAA titles, has the Mustangs (19-5) poised to reach their first NCAA tournament since 1993. And after Saturday's dominant performance, a 76-55 victory over No. 7 Cincinnati, SMU could be ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since the 1984-85 season.
What Brown experienced Saturday was an electrifying college basketball atmosphere. A crowd of 7,278 packed modernized Moody Coliseum, which underwent a $47 million renovation. The crowd was ear-splitting. Press row seats were shaking. And fans watched SMU earn its first win against a top-10 team in the Associated Press poll since Dec. 3, 1987.
"I didn't imagine it would be like this this quickly," Brown said. "But I was hopeful we could get it where people wanted to see our team play and would appreciate the fact we are playing hard and playing the right way. So this is much quicker than I imagined."
When Brown was hired, some lampooned it as gimmicky. Brown, who had last coached in college at Kansas in 1988, joked that some of his current players knew him only as that NBA coach who made Allen Iverson practice. He said he needed to pass two compliance tests – the hardest tests of his life – before he was allowed out to recruit at SMU.
But this was no gimmick. Brown assembled a very strong staff, led by associate head coach Tim Jankovich. Former NBA players George Lynch, the strength and conditioning coach, and Eric Snow, the director of player development, were also key additions.
Cannen Cunningham, a junior from Arlington who played a season at SMU before Brown arrived, said, "We have seen the bottom. It could not get any worse than it was. Our goal is to win the national championship this year, which might have sounded crazy a couple months ago. We are trying to get to the top. I think we can do it."
SMU, which moved from Conference USA into the American Athletic Conference this season, figured to be a competitive middle-of-the-pack team. The Mustangs have been much better than that, having already beaten likely NCAA tournament-bound teams Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati, which entered Saturday's game on a 15-game winning streak.
This marks the first time since the 1984-85 season that SMU has beaten three ranked teams in one season. SMU has yet to lose at home this season. And since Brown was hired, SMU has added more than 2,000 season ticket holders. Saturday marked the fourth sellout of the season. And SMU will at least have one more, March 5 against Louisville.
"We have a beautiful building," Brown said. "If we didn't have a good team, all we would have is a beautiful building."
SMU has made a tremendous impact on the recruiting front. The Mustangs signed current freshman Keith Frazier, a McDonald's All-American, from Dallas. And they signed heralded Dallas native Emmanuel Mudiay, the nation's top high school point guard, who will play next season.
"It's not a shock to me that he was going to be able to get good players," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "If he gets good players, he is going to win. The guy is a great coach, one of the best to ever coach the game."
Saturday marked a milestone for Brown's program. After wading through students after they stormed the court, Brown said he hopes one day a victory like that will not be considered a milestone.
"They don't storm the court at Kansas," Brown said. "They don't storm the court at UCLA. I'm so happy we had that opportunity. But I'm hopeful, if we ever get this program the way we would like, that we expect to win games like this."
Soon after, Brown ended his news conference, but not before standing up and looking out at a room packed with reporters and television cameras. Brown's SMU renaissance has become one of the sport's most intriguing story lines.
"I can't believe this," Brown said about the assembled media, smiling. "Wow. Thank you."
SMU fans are saying the same to him.
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