Commentary

Once a coach, always a coach

Why does 71-year-old Larry Brown want back in? Howard Schnellenberger knows

Originally Published: April 19, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Three years ago, my mother, a very young 70 at the time, decided it was time to retire. She'd spent her entire working career at the same place, a tiny high school in suburban New Jersey.

Hired out of college as an English teacher there, she finally left, one master's degree and more than 40 years later -- or, as I used to joke, just before they renamed the building after her -- as a guidance counselor.

And she was terrified, convinced she'd be bored and worried that she'd never have enough to fill the hours she used to cram with work.

Larry Brown
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonFor the first time in 24 years, Larry Brown is a college coach again.

I understood her fear. I imagine I'll feel it someday, too. We are, by our nature, creatures of habit. Change is scary, and an open calendar for the foreseeable future is downright daunting.

Here's what I don't understand: Larry Brown.

We have spent the past week asking the same question in various forms: Why in the world does SMU want Brown? It's a legit question, considering the last recruit the 71-year-old inked was his wife, Shelly.

But from AD Steve Orsini's seat, you can see where Brown would be pretty appealing. Arguably the greatest basketball coach still kicking, he's also a big name for a program that is trying to create its absentee history in the present day. On many levels, this hire makes sense. It could blow up, but it could also work. And if you're a program with no tradition, why not?

The real question: Why does Larry Brown want SMU?

Why does a man in his golden years want to deal with teenagers and their angst, or worse, coerce and cajole them to come to his school? Why does he want to glad-hand alumni and schmooze boosters? Why does he want to put his head on random hotel pillows and swap a lazy July at the shore for a hard bleacher on the recruiting road?

Howard Schnellenberger might have the answer.

The football legend spent 52 years stalking college and NFL sidelines, including an assistant's gig during the Miami Dolphins' perfect season and as head coach of the University of Miami's 1983 national championship.

Most figured Schnellenberger was headed for retirement when he up and left Oklahoma in 1995 after an unsuccessful one-year run there.

Instead, three years later he resurfaced as the director of football operations at Florida Atlantic, charged with literally building the program from scratch -- including as head coach. "Well, I guess it goes back to the saying -- once a priest, always a priest; once a doctor, always a doctor; once a coach, always a coach," Schnellenberger said, who retired at the end of last season at the age of 77. "Coaches, like doctors and priests, are inclined to do what they do best, and they never look at it as a job but as a vocation. A vocation is something you do because you love it."

The job description for this particular vocation, though, is constantly evolving. The demands on a college coach are endless, extending far beyond the baselines and doorways of a practice facility.

Brown isn't going to just be "coaching them up." He's going to be recruiting them and dealing with their girlfriend troubles, academic woes, their entourage, parents and constant cacophony that surrounds college athletics today.

Most coaches today will tell you it is the peripheral duties that wear them out.

Howard Schnellenberger
Kim Klement/US PresswireHoward Schnellenberger coached FAU in his 70s and can understand why Brown wants back in.

And Schnellenberger will tell you that's a bunch of rubbish.

"Who's decided that's unpleasant?" he said. "Why, just because we're older, would we be unwilling to do the normal things you're supposed to do in a job? The X's and O's aren't very exciting. The exciting part is the recruitment of kids, meeting and evaluating them and their parents, because ultimately we're responsible for helping these kids achieve a higher goal. It's a very satisfying job."

And therein lies the real truth, the honest pull of the profession.

The job is heady and intoxicating. There is not just a fear of boredom, like my mom faced, but a fear of irrelevance, of the absence of the adrenaline rush.

There isn't a person among us who doesn't like to feel important, who doesn't enjoy being a "player" in whatever game of life we choose. I spent two years doing something other than sportswriting, trying out the 9-to-5 university world for a spell.

Watching March Madness from afar nearly gave me an ulcer.

Now multiply that by 500 for guys like Brown and Schnellenberger, who spend their entire adult lives as The Guy only to become like Brown in recent years, sitting on press row at Villanova games, a Hall of Fame coach reduced to being the old retired guy and casual observer.

It is why so many outstay their welcome, why hardly any leave early, and why many keep coming back.

Why Rollie Massimino, at the age of 77, is coaching an NAIA school. Why after winning a national title at the age of 68, Jim Calhoun returned. Why Joe Paterno never quit.

Schnellenberger was the exception. His contract ended in 2011, so he decided on his own to retire, to become FAU's ambassador. His current charge, he said, is to raise $15 million over the next five years to pad the athletic budget and hopefully make FAU more attractive to a BCS conference.

"I had more than 50 years of glory and 98 percent of it was great," he said of his decision to retire. "I wanted a smooth transition. I didn't want to put FAU through what Florida State went through with Bobby [Bowden]."

Yet even armed with that rare insight, Schnellenberger didn't hesitate when asked if he thought Brown was crazy, if the finally retired football coach could offer any explanation as to why a 71-year-old man would want to tackle the listless basketball program that is SMU.

"It's what I said to start," he said. "Once a coach, always a coach. It's who we are."

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball