DALLAS (AP) — When Larry Brown decided to get back into coaching, he was drawn to SMU by the school, the city and the Mustangs' pending move to the Big East.
Now the veteran coach is just hoping the league can keep everybody together at least another basketball season or two so SMU can get a real taste of what it expected and has a chance to prove itself.
"I always thought about going to a school that was great academically, great city and in a great conference," said the 72-year-old Brown, who previously held a record nine NBA jobs and led Kansas to the 1988 national title. "This had all those criteria. But now with the landscape of athletics, I don't understand what's going on."
Even before SMU and three other Conference USA teams move to their new league next season, seven Big East schools — the so-called Catholic 7 — are planning to leave and form their own basketball-based league. The departures of 20th-ranked Georgetown, 24th-ranked Marquette, St. John's, Villanova, DePaul, Seton Hall and Providence could happen in the next two years.
SMU (12-11, 2-6 C-USA) plays C-USA co-leader and future Big East foe Memphis (18-3, 7-0) on Wednesday night. Houston and UCF are also moving to the Big East, but the makeup of their new league isn't going to be exactly what they expected.
"I don't know where it's going, but I'm hopeful that maybe it could stay together for a little while, then you figure out if we can become relevant as a basketball school and a football school," Brown said. "We'll be appealing, because we've got everything in place. We've got a new arena, we've got a practice facility, great city, great school. Hopefully (football coach June Jones) and us can make our kids realize we're going to be as good as anybody. That's our goal."
Jones has led the Mustangs to four consecutive bowl games, a first in school history.
Moody Coliseum, the basketball team's home for 57 seasons, is undergoing a massive $47 million renovation. They will play there until Feb. 27 and the redone facility is scheduled to re-open in December, in time for their first conference game in the Big East.
While the Mustangs have struggled in Brown's first year, they are starting three sophomores and no seniors. There are three transfers, including players from Villanova and Illinois State, sitting out this season. A top-notch junior college player and two Chicago-area high school standouts have already signed letters of intent for next season.
"This year, I guess we knew it was going to be tough. ... We don't have much depth, but we've got great kids that try," Brown said. "And when I watch our transfers play and I see the kids we've got coming in, I know we're going to be good."
Brown still sees plenty of reason for optimism about SMU's future, even with the pending loss of several basketball powers from the Big East. He's seen too many other teams succeed regardless of conference affiliation.
"I've seen Gonzaga do it, I've seen Butler do it, I saw Memphis when John (Calipari) was there," Brown said. "I don't see any reason why we can't play great schools, but we've got to get our program to a point where we're competitive. And I think we're all confident."
Rick Hart, the athletic director who has been at SMU since last summer (less time than Brown), is confident that Brown and the Mustangs can still compete at a national level even if the Big East winds up not being the same league the Mustangs pledged to join.
"Conference affiliation in basketball is probably less important to your ability to win a national championship or compete at a national level than any other sport," Hart said, adding that the Mustangs can bolster future schedules with games against non-conference powers.
Brown still has a hard time understanding all the conference realignment, whether it be Maryland playing a conference game in Nebraska — while not playing North Carolina, Virginia or Duke — or Texas A&M going to Florida for SEC games but not facing Texas.
"It's just mindboggling to me what they've done," Brown said. "I know it's probably helped football, but it's killed every other sport in my mind."