- Jason King
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DALLAS -- For Tim Jankovich, the offer couldn't have been any more attractive.
SMU was willing to make him the highest-paid assistant in America -- with a contract worth approximately $800,000 per year -- to leave his head coaching position at Illinois State for a job under Hall of Famer Larry Brown. And as soon as the 71-year-old icon retired, Jankovich would move into the lead chair.
For many coaches, the decision would've been simple.
Jankovich described it as "gut-wrenching."
"It was one of the hardest choices I've ever made, without question," Jankovich said. "I was happy where I was. I had great friends and a great life. All of our players were coming back. It would've been our best team."
"I had two great opportunities staring me in the face," Jankovich said, "and I wanted them both."
Four months later, Jankovich couldn't be in better spirits as he finishes up a bowl of crawfish étouffée at Dodie's, a popular Cajun restaurant a few miles from SMU's campus. As each day passes, he said he realizes more and more that he made the right choice by leaving Illinois State to join the Mustangs' program.
Construction is set to begin any day now on a $57 million renovation project at Moody Coliseum. By December 2013, the 56-year-old arena will feature luxury suites, a new sound system, video boards and all sorts of other bells and whistles.
The school's move from Conference USA to the Big East after this season should boost recruiting, Jankovich said. Considering the Mustangs' location, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to lure top players.
Jankovich was the coach at North Texas from 1993 to 1997, and also spent time in the Lone Star State as an assistant at Texas and Baylor. He said he always viewed SMU's program as a "sleeping giant."
"We have everything to offer kids," Brown said. "The best players in the country there's a lot of great players [in Texas]. If we can just get a few of them every year, we can compete for a national championship. We have everything in place."
Along with Jankovich, SMU hired two of the country's top assistants in Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi, both of whom have helped the Mustangs make noticeable inroads on the recruiting trail the past few months.
Of course, the biggest draw at the moment is Brown, the only coach in history to win an NCAA title (Kansas in 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit in 2004). Brown hasn't coached at the collegiate level in 24 years, and he has a history of bouncing around. His stints at each of his past three jobs -- all in the NBA -- have lasted two years or less.
We have everything to offer kids. The best players in the country there's a lot of great players [in Texas]. If we can just get a few of them every year, we can compete for a national championship. We have everything in place."
”-- SMU coach Larry Brown
When Brown agreed in April to become SMU's coach, questions immediately arose about how long it'd be before he retired or bolted for another opportunity, leaving Jankovich to run the program.
Jankovich, who has a five-year contract to coach the Mustangs after Brown leaves, is hardly expecting a short stay from Brown. He said he doesn't even think about his "coach-in-waiting" tag.
"Right now, that's completely irrelevant," Jankovich said. "I mean, obviously, it was a huge part of my decision. But right now my job is to be the best assistant coach that I can. Whether I had a tag of coach-in-waiting or not, my daily job is the same either way. That has nothing to do with anything.
"Coach Brown is the head coach right now and I think it'll be that way for a long while. A lot of guys would be hoping he'd hurry up and go, but I've told him from day one that I hope he coaches for a long, long time."
For Jankovich, the opportunity to work under and learn from Brown is the cherry on top of a great situation. Jankovich said he always admired Brown during his early years as an assistant coach. He studied tapes of Brown's NBA teams and molded some of his philosophies based on what he saw.
Jankovich already has worked under two of the game's best coaches in Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and Bill Self at Illinois and Kansas. Adding Brown to his list of mentors, Jankovich said, will only enhance his knowledge before he becomes a head coach again -- this time in the Big East.
"I've always put him on that pedestal as one of the best coaches of my lifetime," Jankovich said.
Brown has long known Jankovich was a good coach, and it helped when Self offered a strong recommendation.
"If I got the job, [SMU] wanted me to bring someone who'd be ready to take over for me," Brown said. "I've always admired Tim. He came with me to a clinic when he was 26 or 27 and it was obvious he had something special. When Bill brought this up to me, I thought, 'This is a no-brainer.' "
Excited as he is about the future of SMU's program, Jankovich also will be rooting from afar for Illinois State. He spent five seasons rebuilding the Redbirds, making three Missouri Valley title-game appearances while going 104-64 overall.
Illinois State never reached the NCAA tournament under Jankovich, but that was expected to change in 2012-13. With nearly every key player returning, the Redbirds likely would have been a fringe top-25 team had Jankovich stayed -- and they still may be. ESPN's resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, has Illinois State receiving an NCAA at-large bid in his offseason Bracketology.
"Coaches talk all the time about loving teams," Jankovich said, "but I really, really loved that team. They were just so special in terms of character and personalities. It truly felt like an extended family."
That's what made leaving them so tough.
"I honestly didn't know if I could tell them," Jankovich said. "I had to do it in person. I wasn't about to sneak out the back door. Standing in front of them it was one of the toughest half-hours that I can remember in a long time.
"They were unbelievable. They were absolutely unbelievable and, truthfully, that made it worse. I wish they'd been really mad at me. That would've helped. They were so supportive. There were a lot of emotions, a lot of tears. That's why I loved them so much, because of how good of people they were. They weren't thinking selfishly."
Jankovich figured a few folks at Illinois State may be upset when standout point guard Nic Moore transferred to SMU about a month after Jankovich's hiring. But he said he never heard a negative comment.
"I think people realize I didn't try to recruit him," he said. "I told everyone that I hope they all stayed because I thought they had something incredible. A lot of time went by before we ever talked to Nic.
"Everyone knew that I didn't try to steal him away. Nic wanted to do it. He knew he wanted to leave when I left and made it clear that he wanted to go to a BCS school. Time passed, a month or more, and we got word that he was interested. We asked for the release and they gave it to us. The way that was handled says a lot about the people there. Illinois State is a great place.
"And this is a great place, too."