Some homecoming this was.
The gang was mostly all here Sunday to welcome Larry Brown back to town when he brought his No. 23 ranked SMU Mustangs — the first time SMU had been ranked since 1985 to face struggling Temple:Aaron McKie, Malik Rose, Tony DiLeo, Sonny Hill, and don’t forget Eric Snow and George Lynch, who had to be here since they’re on his staff.
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For the 73-year-old Brown, incredibly more than a decade removed from when he left Allen Iverson and the Sixers behind to take over the Pistons and promptly lead them to an NBA championship, it was too good to be true. That’s because Fran Dunphy’s Owls, still reeling from a 24-point thumping by Louisville on Friday, turned back the clock to better times with a stunning 71-64 upset despite not having their No. 2 scorer and leading rebounder, Anthony Lee.
That left Brown at his self-deprecating best, praising Dunphy and his 20-loss bound 7-17 team for their effort, while placing the blame on himself for his team’s lackluster, disinterested performance. Some things, apparently, never change.
"We got outcoached,’’ said Brown, whose 20-6 club was done in by a 38-25 rebounding disparity while missing seven straight free throws during what he always called the “guts of the game’’ during his six seasons here. "Fran did a great job of creating matchup problems for us.He’s as underrated as any coach there is.’’
Make no mistake, though, Hall of Famer Larry Brown ain’t too shabby, either.
"I had no expectations when I heard he was coming,’’ said SMU senior Nick Russell, "but I didn’t think it would be like it is now.I’m so surprised so blessed to be in this situation with him. I had no expectations of him coming in and changing this program around, but he’s done a great job.We’re learning from him every day.’’
For one thing, they’ve learned to play defense. SMU is ranked No. 2 nationally in FG percentage, defense and No. 17 in points allowed. They make the extra pass, and of course they “play the right way,’’ Brown’s coaching mantra.
"They were reluctant to buy in,’’ recalled Lynch, officially the Strength and Conditioning Coach, though he and Snow also serve as confidants who can commiserate with the kids when Brown gets on their cases. "They wanted to play their style and play their way.But once the wins started coming they could see it and accept it. It’s great to watch Coach Brown out there working with them, to see him take on the challenge of rebuilding SMU and to see it come to light so fast.’’
And great for Brown to be back in the city where his youngest children essentially grew up.
"I love Philly and I loved being part of basketball culture here,’’ said Brown, nearly 13 full years since he guided the Sixers to the NBA Finals. "I had a wonderful time here and I love coming back.But I’m not real happy at the moment.’’
It’s clear, though, no matter how much he tried to step away, coaching is in his blood — the level doesn’t matter.
"I love being a pro coach,’’ said the man who coached two ABA and nine NBA teams. "I love college [SMU following UCLA and Kansas].I don’t see much of a difference. The relationships I’ve had as a coach, that’s everything. That’s why I’m back doing this.I feel pretty lucky at my age.’’
The only ones luckier have been his players. Then, and Sunday aside, clearly now.