FOX Sports Exclusive
SMU duo is building foundation
One of the most intriguing relationships in college basketball is developing in one of the most unlikely spots.
The beginning of March is about hashing out the No. 1 seeds and the possible Cinderellas, and Southern Methodist University is neither. You are not considered a nationally relevant basketball team when March sees you at 214th in RPI and next to last in a mediocre conference.
But the situation for the SMU Mustangs is also this: Their head coach is Hall of Famer Larry Brown, the only coach in basketball history to win both a national collegiate title (Kansas Jayhawks, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit Pistons, 2004). Their coach-in-waiting is the up-and-coming Tim Jankovich, who won 21 games at Illinois State a year ago and was being considered for SMU’s head-coaching job when the possibility of Brown coaching there popped up.
The separate decisions for the two coaches to join together in Dallas perplexed people on many levels. Was Brown really so desperate that at age 72, after having coached nine NBA teams and three college teams, he would head to a program that didn’t rate in Conference USA? And why would Jankovich go from being a head coach at a stable program in the Missouri Valley Conference to an associate coach at a struggling program that was switching conferences?
“I had the same question: ‘Why would he do this?’ ” Brown told FOXSports.com recently. “He said he wanted to live in Dallas. He thought we had great potential. He felt that someday this could be like Georgetown, be a special place. And I’m hopeful that’s true.”
That’s what brought Jankovich to a place that on the surface could look like a demotion. Jankovich looked at SMU as a raw, talented recruit who had a lot of room to grow. He saw what it could be. The school had just hired another ex-professional coach, former Atlanta Falcons coach June Jones, to head its football program. The school is the premiere school in the Dallas metroplex, one of the biggest markets in the country. Moody Coliseum, an arena with a striking resemblance to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena, is about to get a $47 million renovation. SMU is about to join the Big East. And former president George W. Bush is building his presidential library across the street from the arena.
Despite its embarrassing recent history — SMU hasn’t made an NCAA tournament since 1993 — all the ingredients seem to be in place for Brown and Jankovich to create a foundation for something special.
Yet there’s a more personal reason for Jankovich to come to Dallas. Not just the reported $700,000 annual deal that SMU offered for him to be an associate coach. And not just that he has a history with the school: He was enrolled at SMU’s law school after college before shifting gears and taking a job as an institutional stock broker for Cantor Fitzgerald in Los Angeles.
It’s this: All of Jankovich’s life, from his playing career at Kansas State to his dozen basketball coaching jobs across the country, Larry Brown was the coach he’d followed. He taped games Brown was coaching. He studied them closely. He copied Brown’s strategies for his own teams. He learned his style of coaching from Brown: to be innovative while still being solid.
“For me just the opportunity to be at SMU and try to build this program into a national power and get a chance to work with Coach Brown — it was too much pass up,” Jankovich told FOXSports.com.
That was the exciting beginning of this relationship.
But after the honeymoon was over, things got more difficult. How do you take a school with zero basketball reputation and turn it into something respectable? How does Brown figure out the college game, which he hasn’t been a part of for a quarter-century? How does Jankovich cope with the ever-strange “coach in waiting” moniker?
“Look at me,” Brown said. “I was at Kansas and North Carolina and UCLA. Right away you’re on every kid’s radar. The tradition, the interest, it’s all right there. That’s a change, going to SMU, because you’re on nobody’s radar. I’ve been really surprised that old coaches, the people I’ve had a relationship with from a long way back, have been so positive about us, really helped us get involved with kids we’d not believed we had a chance to recruit.”
Brown, who has been out of the college game since 1988, has learned from Jankovich how the landscape has changed since then. Jankovich has taught the Hall of Famer how to make the most out of the limited contacts coaches can have with recruits.
And Jankovich has gotten to do something many of us would love to do: To get a firsthand course in X’s and O’s from someone he has looked up to for decades.
“This was really the most unique situation I’ve really ever seen,” Jankovich said. “It was an unbelievably difficult decision to make because, No. 1, I was so happy where I was. I thought the most talented team I’d coached at Illinois State was coming back. But this situation in the end was too much to pass up. SMU was moving to Big East and at the same time gave me guarantees in terms of becoming the head coach. It wasn’t like there were a lot of unknowns. There were a lot of I’s dotted and T’s crossed.”
“On top of that,” he continued, “to get the chance to work with Coach Brown. If it had been most other people, maybe I wouldn’t have been so excited to do it. He could talk basketball with you 19 hours a day, because he doesn’t sleep all that much. Around here there’s endless basketball conversations. It’s kind of a basketball workshop. I’ve learned a lot about the NBA game as well.”
You won’t see this relationship bearing fruit this March. Odds are you won’t see it next March either. But if several Marches down the road, SMU is in the NCAA tournament conversation, you’ll be able to trace that back to when a head coach for a Missouri Valley Conference school decided to take a flier on becoming an assistant and working for a Hall of Famer.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave