Larry Brown is on the phone from Texas, telling you about the two serendipitous meetings, the two times he told Danny Manning that he should probably leave Kansas.
It’s crazy, right? Brown telling Manning to leave KU?
Brown can explain … and he will explain. But first, he’s more focused on a third meeting with Manning. On Sunday night, Southern Methodist will play Tulsa at Moody Coliseum in Dallas. And Brown, the coach who led KU to the 1988 NCAA title, will coach his first game against Manning, the kid who led the Jayhawks to that miracle championship inside Kemper Arena.
Brown, attempting to resurrect a stagnant program at SMU, will face Manning, a first-time head coach who is trying to do the same at Tulsa.
“This is a game I dread,” Brown says.
It’s a little funny to hear Brown say this, though. Because as he keeps talking, sharing stories about old assistants, talking about the latest stop in a long career, you get the feeling that Brown could hardly dread anything about basketball these days.
He’s 72 now, almost 25 years removed from his NCAA title at Kansas, and more than two from his last coaching stint in the NBA. (Brown parted ways with the Charlotte Bobcats in December 2010 after two-plus seasons.) He’s at SMU, preparing for his first run through Conference USA. And when people ask why he decided to return to the college game after more than two decades away, he has a pretty simple answer.
“I wanted to get back and coach again,” Brown says.
So here he is at SMU, playing an early-season schedule that included stops at Hofstra, Rhode Island and Texas State. Not exactly a back-to-back against the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. And when Brown hears that KU and Bill Self, his old graduate assistant and protégé, have played just one true road game, he pauses for a moment.
“Yeah, I hope we’re good enough to do that soon,” Brown says.
For Brown, the old ambitions are still there. He talks about tapping into the local recruiting lines and building a winning culture in Dallas.
“I want us to win a national championship,” he says.
For now, Brown’s Mustangs are 10-5 after starting the season 8-1. He inherited a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1993. And, according to Brown, SMU takes the floor most nights with “eight healthy guys.”
But if there’s any consolation, Brown knows he’s going through the same struggles that Manning is facing at Tulsa.
“He’s had a huge impact on my life on and off the court,” Manning says. “A lot of the things he taught us when we we’re in school are still things that hold true today. You always want teams to go out together and play hard and unselfish. These are things we’ve tried to share at Tulsa.”
And this is where the two meetings come in.
The first story is more than 25 years old now, so maybe Brown can’t recall all the details. But he remembers meeting with Manning and his father, Ed, after the 1986-87 season at Kansas. And Brown remembers hearing that Manning, then a junior, was poised to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft that summer if he left school one year early.
Brown says that former North Carolina coach Dean Smith had a rule. If you’re a lottery pick, you leave. So what was he to tell Manning?
But first, Manning told Brown three things. The first two: He’d promised his parents that he’d graduate. And he wanted to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Well, Brown said, you can always come back and graduate … and you’ll probably be the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“The third thing he told me was he wanted to win the national championship,” Brown says now. “I told him the first two we can handle, but you’ll have stay another year for the third part.”
Last February, more than two decades later, Manning called Brown into his office for another conversation. Brown was in Lawrence, visiting a Kansas practice, and Manning wanted his advice: What did Brown think about him becoming a head coach?
“Danny,” Brown said, “I think it’d be great.”
And then, a few weeks later, the SMU job came open. And another one of Brown’s former players, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, called SMU and recommended Brown for the job.
“The first thing I thought about,” Brown says, “was, ‘God, if I can get this job, I’d bring Danny immediately and let him take over (for me after a few years).’”
The plan, though, never had a chance to come to fruition.
In late March, Manning was hired as the head coach at Tulsa. Nearly three weeks later, Brown was hired at SMU and former KU assistant Tim Jankovich left his post as the head coach at Illinois State to serve as the de facto coach-in-waiting at SMU — although Brown says he’s not that comfortable with the title.
Brown says he likes to think that all of his former assistants — from John Calipari to Gregg Popovich to Alvin Gentry — have been head coaches in waiting.
Manning, who spent a decade on Self’s staff at KU, also tapped into his Lawrence connections, filling his Tulsa staff with former KU players Brett Ballard and Steve Woodberry. And both programs face similar challenges. Manning’s team has been hurt hard by transfers and injuries, and Tulsa has started 8-6 after a victory over Buffalo on Wednesday.
For Manning, that makes much of Sunday’s game about finding a way to start conference play the right way. But he’s also facing Brown — the man who helped transform him from a soft-spoken kid to the leader of an NCAA title team — so it has to mean a little more.
“He made me a better person,” Manning says. “He made me a better basketball player.”
Brown says he rarely talks to Manning during the season. Busy schedules and all that. But every day at practice, as he coaches college kids once again, his mind begins to wander, back to those days at Kansas.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him,” Brown says. “Every time I’m on the court, I’m reminded about how he played — and hope that someday I’ll have a kid just like him.”