- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- Larry Brown was still red in the face after his routine midday walk when he looked me in the eye and said he believed he could win a title at SMU.
Not an American Athletic Conference men's basketball championship. He was talking about an NCAA title.
And he was serious.
Really? C'mon, man.
Sure, Brown is one of only five active Hall of Fame basketball coaches still teaching the game to college players. But we're talking about the Southern Methodist Mustangs, who seemingly have been forever basketball-irrelevant.
SMU hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and hasn't won a tournament game since 1988. We're talking about a program that has produced just three 20-win seasons -- 1992-93, 1999-2000 and 2010-11 -- in the past quarter-century.
Brown has been a winner at every place he's coached, whether it be the American Basketball Association back in the day, the NBA, the Olympics, or college basketball. He won an NCAA title at Kansas and coached at UCLA.
Now the man is convinced he can do the same at SMU, which improved to 15-4 with a methodical 70-56 win Tuesday over Rutgers at the Mustangs' recently renovated Moody Coliseum.
"I don't see any reason why we can't compete for a national championship," Brown said. "If we get our share of Dallas kids. We'll play with anybody anywhere."
If you think about it, Brown's right.
SMU is still trying to recover from losing out on Skyline High School graduate Larry Johnson, the top player in the nation in 1987, after he signed a letter of intent with the university.
"LJ" eventually led the UNLV Rebels to consecutive Final Fours and a national title in 1990. He could have done the same thing at SMU. More important, Johnson would have been a link to the fertile recruiting ground that has been north Texas in general and the Dallas Independent School District specifically.
Think about all of the terrific high school players we've seen around here who have played in the NBA, including Seagoville's LaMarcus Aldridge; The Colony's Deron Williams; Lincoln's Chris Bosh; Woodrow Wilson's Anthony Randolph; South Oak Cliff's Darrell Arthur and Tony Battie; Hillcrest's Kurt Thomas; Waxahachie's Desmond Mason; Skyline's C.J. Miles; and Kimball's Acie Law.
None went to SMU. Few, if any, even considered the Mustangs.
This is only Brown's second year. But he's already tapped Dallas' talent, persuading Kimball star Keith Frazier to play for SMU. And he's received a commitment from Prime Prep's Emmanuel Mudiay, widely considered one of the nation's top three players.
Mudiay picked SMU over Kentucky. The pipeline already has started.
"We owe so much to Keith Frazier," Brown said. "He's a kid who could've gone anywhere, but he decided to stay home."
Frazier is honest about his interest in SMU before Brown became coach. He had none. At all.
"I want to get to the league and Coach Brown can help me get there," Frazier said. "He's one of the best coaches ever. Why wouldn't I want to learn from him and stay in my own backyard?
"He's already made me a better player. I'm more patient. I don't just come down looking for my shot. I'm playing within the offense and playing the right way. He's a great coach."
When Brown arrived at SMU, he believed the university had everything that was required to compete at basketball's highest level. He just needed to create the environment that would attract players.
That meant upgrading Moody Coliseum and getting the Mustangs into a terrific basketball conference with a TV contract with ESPN. The broadcast contract ensures he can tell high school players they're going to frequently play in the national spotlight against conference foes, such as Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati, all of which are known for their quality programs.
Brown said he has tried to pattern SMU's program after the Georgetown program John Thompson built from nothing into one of college basketball's powers for nearly 20 years.
But this also is the first program he can build into a power. UCLA and Kansas were already great programs when he arrived. He was simply a caretaker of tradition. At SMU, he can create a tradition.
"I don't see any reason why we can't. I really think we can be special. I know it's a challenge, but I believe everything's in place. We've just got to do the job."
If he stays long enough, he will. Of course, that's always the question with Brown. It's a fair question, given his history. And it's a question he doesn't dodge.
"I have to answer that question and kids should ask that," Brown said. "I have left other places. I am 73.
"My son is a freshman here, and I want to see him graduate. I've got a 16-year-old daughter and I want to see her come here, because SMU has a great school for the performing arts."
If Brown stays long enough for either of that to happen, none of us should be surprised when SMU becomes a basketball power.
All Brown has ever done is win. And he'll do it at SMU, just like he's done everywhere else.