Seriously, this is what I overheard Thursday during a conversation of people who generally claim to know a great deal about the history of hoops at UNC:
"Did Larry Brown coach here once before?"
"No. You're thinking of Kansas."
"No, no, I know he was at Kansas before. Wasn't he an assistant here or something?"
"No, I don't think so. I mean he played for Dean Smith, but I don't think he coached here. I think he played in the pros for a while and then was a pro assistant or something."
"Huh. Okay. So is he retired now or something?"
"Yeah, I think so."
Baffling as it may seem, the details of Brown's biography seem lost on a good many Tar Heel fans. So let's get the basics out of the way. One of Dean Smith's first star players, Brown anchored Carolina's teams from 1961-1963, and later joined Smith's staff as an assistant from 1965-67. In between, he earned a gold medal as a member of the 1964 Olympic team. His five seasons playing in the ABA included three All-Star appearances and one All-Star MVP award. When he took the reigns as head coach of the ABA's Carolina Cougars in 1972, he led his team to the championship in his first season. For an encore, he took the Denver Nuggets to an ABA title in 1975. After guiding the Nuggets' transition into the NBA, he jumped from the professional to the college ranks as UCLA's head coach in 1979 and immediately led the Bruins to the national championship game. He stayed only one more season, however, resigning after a disappointing year to take another NBA head coaching gig with the New Jersey Nets. In his first two seasons, he took the Nets to the playoffs.
In 1984, Brown returned to college yet again, this time to the Kansas Jayhawks. He quickly assembled several strong recruiting classes and lifted the program back to the forefront of the college ranks. In 1988, Brown's Jayhawks won the NCAA title, led by Danny Manning. But with NCAA investigations of recruiting improprieties and other violations looming, Brown resigned--some would say escaped--and took over as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. Since the 1988-89 season, Brown has been a proverbial journeyman coach, staying nowhere longer than a few seasons, and coaching the Clippers, Pacers, and finally the Philadelphia 76ers. Under Brown, each franchise made the playoffs consistently, and the Pacers were one of the few teams who could regularly challenge the Chicago Bulls during the Michael Jordan dynasty. In Philadelphia, where he now has found a way to co-exist, even thrive with volatile Allen Iverson, the Sixers are now one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, poised to make their fifth straight appearance in the playoffs.
Not a bad resume. In fact it reads like something you'd see for a Hall of Famer. Oh yeah, he's in there, too.
And now the most important part. Through it all--the championships, the moves, the ups, and the downs—Brown has been open about his first love: Carolina basketball. Ask Larry Brown about the Tar Heels, and you are likely to get an answer that includes profound affection for Chapel Hill, for Dean Smith, for all that Tar Heel hoops have stood for over the years. It is a love that has caused Brown to routinely refer to the Carolina head coaching position as the best job in basketball. And if you ask him about his interest in that coaching position, he is rarely coy: it is a job he has wanted, and likely wants again.
If Roy Williams is Carolina's favorite son, Larry Brown is like Dean Smith's younger brother--a little more wild and unpredictable, but unquestionably loyal, and really, really good at getting teams to win at every level. So why isn't Brown already on a plane to North Carolina, gearing up to be introduced as the heir apparent to the Dean Smith legacy?
Well, it's complicated. Complicated by the circumstances under which Brown left his last two college coaching positions. Complicated by the length of time he has been away from the rigors of recruiting today's high school talent. And complicated perhaps most of all by the way Carolina's coaching search in 2000 unfolded, with Brown the bridesmaid who never quite got Dick Baddour's invitation to the wedding. In the spirit of looking forward, we won't rehash that sorry episode here. Yet here we are again, Carolina looking for a new head coach, Brown apparently weary of life in the professional ranks, and speculation swirling. So let's take a closer look.
The Good: Brown is unquestionably a winner. Folks, he even took the Clippers to the NBA playoffs. The CLIPPERS. He wins because he is a skilled bench coach who has continued to study Smith's methods and employ them everywhere he goes. He has shown an ability to take a wide variety of personnel and deploy them into a workable offensive system, and he his teams play good defense to boot.
Brown gets the most out of his players--even the temperamental ones. Though he will be 63 in September, Brown has seemed able to relate well to his younger charges in recent years. Let's be serious. If Larry Brown can handle Allen Iverson, don't you think he can handle Rashad McCants? And the way he manages players is worthy of note: he may be tough in practice, and he may lay down the law in the form of a benching or suspension when necessary, but he is not a screamer, and with few exceptions his players have been very loyal to him. This bodes well for a Carolina team that badly needs mature, authoritative, yet understanding leadership.
Brown's long sojourns in the pro ranks may be viewed as a disadvantage by some, but it's important to remember how large "The League" looms in the minds of high school and college players today. Carolina's now departed staff had exactly zero games of NBA experience among them, playing or coaching. Brown alone brings decades. He can immediately walk into the home of a recruit and tell that player and his parents not only about the virtues of the UNC way and the power of the Carolina family, he can also explain with a straight face that he knows what it takes to make it at the highest level.
Finally, Brown wants the job. He wanted it in 2000, and called Dick Baddour's refusal to carry through on Dean Smith's recommendation to interview him "humiliating." Those who know Brown best have talked openly about how much that coaching search embarrassed and pained him. But while there may be some bad blood between Brown and Baddour, that apparently has not soured Brown on the opportunity he views as the chance of a lifetime. While he has not exactly campaigned for the job, which would have been inappropriate given the level of strife that is surrounding Doherty's resignation, the signals have been clear. If Baddour wants to end the search today, many knowledgeable people close to the Carolina program have said he could do so by making one call to Philadelphia.
The Bad: One skeleton has remained easily visible in Larry Brown's closet: when he departed both UCLA and Kansas, the two fabled programs ended up on NCAA probation. In the case of the Jayhawks, the violations were particularly serious, including a range of primary and secondary violations in recruiting and relating to special benefits to players. Brown's defenders claim that his role in these violations was relatively minor compared to those committed by boosters and assistants, and Brown has not been plagued by the "dirty coach" label--he has retained a reputation for integrity. But the skeptics claim this is as much a factor tied to Brown's uncanny knack for making a quick exit when the water gets hot.
It has been widely speculated that when Baddour snubbed Brown in 2000, Brown's NCAA compliance track record played a major role in Baddour's thinking. This question was raised again at the press conference announcing Doherty's resignation, when a reporter asked if Baddour would consider a coach with NCAA violations on his record. Baddour's initial answer would have ruled out Brown as a candidate, but when asked specifically about Brown, Baddour quickly backtracked and would not close the door on any individual as a possibility. Still, the questions remain, and even if Brown were hired, there would be questions about his oversight abilities. You can trust that he would have someone looking over his shoulder at all times, and one wonders how quickly he would tire of such observation, especially considering the perceived disrespect Brown has already received from the Carolina athletic director.
While Brown may be the youngest 63 imaginable, his age also remains a factor. Even in the best of circumstances, Brown would likely coach no more than five or six years, leaving the Tar Heels facing another potentially tumultuous transition. There are ways to plan for such things, but as 2000 showed, the best-laid plans often fail. Of course Carolina tried to go for the young coach last time, and we know how that ended, so perhaps a veteran is more appealing this time around. But there is a difference between a veteran outside the family--a Tubby Smith or Bill Self--and Larry Brown as a veteran who will be eligible for Social Security only a few short years into his tenure in Chapel Hill.
Brown has complained at times of being tired in Philadelphia, worn by the rigors of the 82-game schedule, frequent bickering with Iverson, and the media glare. While the college season is notably shorter on the court, it is every bit as grueling off, with recruiting now a year-round grind of travel, assessment, planning, and public relations. Coaching Carolina, especially today, is no sabbatical, and Brown has been away from college for a long, long time. His name will carry a great deal of clout on the summer camp circuit and with prep coaches, but it has been a long time since he has been responsible for sealing the deal with a blue-chipper. The Tar Heels need someone who can immediately restock the cupboard in case any of the talented sophomores and freshmen decide to depart early. Whether Brown is that someone is open to debate.
The Question: Whether or not Brown is careful enough to keep the program clean, and whether or not he is too old, the bottom line is this: will Brown even get a chance? No matter how many fans and prominent alumni cry out for Brown as the perfect solution to the Tar Heels' problems, Dick Baddour and James Moeser reportedly are very much uncertain whether Brown is the right person for the job. After the embarrassment Brown suffered last time these questions were raised, you can be sure Baddour will only get one chance to get it right. The wheels have been greased about as thoroughly as possible behind the scenes. It is now in Baddour's hands to make the next move. And that, for many Carolina fans, is a very risky proposition.