Tuesday morning the SMU men’s basketball program received news from the NCAA that every school fears, that they’d banned from postseason play as a result of NCAA rules violations.
Head coach Larry Brown will be suspended for 30 percent of the team’s games while SMU will lose scholarships and have to deal with recruiting restrictions in the near future. All of this was the result of academic fraud involving former McDonald’s all-american Keith Frazier, who needed help from an administrative assistant to complete a class to get the core GPA to be eligible as a freshman.
Frazier was declared academically ineligible in mid-January, around the same time that the Mustangs lost Justin Martin and assistant coach Ulric Maligi. But despite dealing with those issues, Brown’s Mustangs won the American Athletic Conference regular and postseason titles and made the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1993.
Brown had legitimately built SMU — a school with no relevant basketball history — into a top 25 program.
With Tuesday’s news, the question now is whether or not it all was worth it.
“It all” refers to the school’s hiring of Brown and what comes with employing him at the college level. Despite his excellence as a coach — he’s the only coach to win a national title and an NBA title — Brown also had NCAA investigations go down under his watch at UCLA and Kansas, as he left both of those programs with one-year postseason bans in the 1980s.
To answer this question, one needs to consider the history of SMU basketball prior to Brown’s arrival. Since the program’s last NCAA appearance in 1993, the Mustangs managed to finish .500 or better seven times, with two of those being years in which SMU won 20 games or more.
Does that make it OK to do whatever it takes to achieve success, ignoring some rules along the way? Of course not. But it does explain why SMU would make the decision to bring Brown back to college basketball.
After finishing under .500 in his first season Brown led SMU to 27 wins in each of the next two seasons, making the Mustangs a major player in their new conference home. And with the number of high-level players within their own state, Brown and his staff have managed to open recruiting doors that were closed in years past.
While losing scholarships makes it even more important that SMU not mis-evaluate prospects, having the postseason ban in place for this season eliminates having to address the possibility of a future ban with 2016 (and beyond) recruits.
SMU knew what it was getting when Brown was hired, and according to the NCAA’s findings the school stated that they would make sure Brown was educated on the rules. But how far did that “education” go? With Brown being cited for “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance” and initially lying to “enforcement staff about his knowledge of potential violations,” in addition to not completing coursework in relation to that education, it’s clear that the administration didn’t go far enough.
Tuesday’s news completes what had been a nervous eight months for the SMU program, even with their on-court success. While Brown’s on-court resume certainly wouldn’t qualify his hiring as a risk, with his demand that players “play the right way” producing positive results, the prior issues with NCAA rules made it one.
And last season, SMU found itself balancing on-court success and increased fan interest with the possibility that the NCAA would hand down some serious sanctions.
SMU took a risk, one that produced results that few found surprising. The team improved a great deal, and a head coach with NCAA issues at two prior stops wound up with a third such blemish on his résumé.
At the very least SMU was projected to contend in the American and make a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance this season, thus allowing Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and company to remove the taste of last season’s bitter finish from their mouths. Now, those players who did things “the right way” and didn’t violate NCAA rules will see their season come to an end at Cincinnati March 6.
Risks can undoubtedly yield rewards, but they can produce negative results as well. SMU’s the latest example of that.