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UCLA Basketball Faces Larry Brown for the First Time

Larry was an under-sized point guard 50 years ago who turned into one of the all-time great coaches. What are some of the keys to his success?

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I was trying to think what to write about with regard to Larry Brown, coach of a SMU squad that faces UCLA.  Of course, here he is fondly remembered at UCLA for his 1979-1980 KiKi Vandeweghe led team that featured four freshmen that went all the way to the tournament final and lost 59-54 to Louisville.  I was kind of at a loss where to begin and then I heard an interview of Rod Foster, a freshman guard on that team who was second on the team in scoring that year. Foster,who is very articulate, was asked who he would be rooting for with regard to the upcoming game and I was a bit surprised when he indicated that he had to think about it and then he said he would root for both.  35 years later Rod Foster still had such appreciation for what Larry Brown did for his game that he was torn between pulling for his alma mater  and his old coach.

Foster said that Brown was an excellent teacher, that he was willing to give the freshmen an opportunity to show what they could do, and they could tell that they were going better.  He said that Brown made him feel like he was part of the family, that he was very demanding, but that players felt that he cared about them and their future.  You could tell the gratitude that Foster had to coach Brown for allowing him  to compete and for sharing the knowledge that he had to make Foster the best player possible.  Gary Maloncon, who was recruited by Brown, recently said that he does not know anyone that either played or who was recruited by Brown that had anything bad to say about him.

In an old interview Brown talked about playing the game the right way, the maxim that Brown's teams are known for. "You've got to share the ball or play unselfishly.  You've got to try to guard, make an effort to defend to the best of your ability. You have to rebound the ball, which was an area that was so critical."  It is no accident that SMU is at at the top of the rankings in assists, defense and rebounding.

Brown getting teams to play the right way is part of the reason for his success but I would also point to his ability to reduce the inherent friction between individuals in a team game.  Phil Jackson was a coach who had great insight into how to do this. When constructing a team he would find veterans who could fill certain roles on the team that would not conflict with the stars.  Younger players wanting to prove themselves and  playing for big contracts would-- even though more talented than role-player veterans--take shots and touches  from the more talented stars, hence leading to a less efficient team.

And I think Brown has those same type of friction-reducing skills.  First, he is well-known for his relationships with his point-guards.  Brown was a 5'9" point guard that played for North Carolina in the early 1960s for Frank McGuire and Dean Smith.  Because he has control of the basketball a point guard can dictate to a certain extent how a team plays and thus a coach can express his coaching philosophy through his point guard.  You may recall the Allen Iverson led Philadelphia team that lost to the Lakers in the finals. That might have been one of the least talented teams ever to make it to the finals, but Brown engineered the team to take full advantage of its best asset--Iverson.  The other players accepted their roles and that allowed the team to over-achieve.  Brown also built his national championship Kansas team primarily around one player--Danny Manning.

I don't know the exact psychology that coaches use to reduce friction.  I am quite certain that Coach Wooden was brilliant at it. I think at some level players must trust that the coach knows best.  When the coach allows fair competition, does not play favorites, and is providing players with knowledge that is making players better, then that engenders the trust that reduces their individual inclinations or desires to achieve individual goals for the good of the team. Some coaches are just better at this than others.

Brown gets his players to play the game the right way, has vast knowledge of the game to enable him to fit individual players into roles that best benefit the team and take advantage of match-ups in particular games, and the ability to gain the trust of players to reduce the friction that would prevent him from making the moves that make the team the best it can be.  It's no wonder that he can win with lesser talent at a school not known for basketball.