Through The Fire: North Dakota State advances to NCAA tournament after coach loses house to fire

(courtesy Kyan Brown)
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Suzanne Brown has a back-up plan.

She knows that there is a window in her bedroom, one right above the crate where the family’s french bulldog Penny had been sleeping. She’s on the first floor of the rambler the Browns bought six months ago. If she can’t army crawl her way under the thick, black smoke that has taken up residence in her home, or if the fire that she hears burning away in the kitchen grows too big, she has an escape route. She’s wearing boots; it is, after all, a cold February night in North Dakota. If it comes to it, she’ll just kick out the window.

Because her two daughters are standing in the driveway.

She’s not going to let this be the last time they see their mom.

But she knows what the fire is going to do. She knew it as soon as she unloaded a fire extinguisher on the flames, watching a spot next to the stove go out as the flames kept climbing. Up past the backsplash, through the cabinets, to the ceiling. This will change everything. Even if the firefighters make it in time to save the house, everything in it is a lost cause. Their clothes, their beds, their blankets, the flat-screen TVs they had just hung in their newly-finished basement.

All ruined.

Suzanne Brown knows this is going to turn her family’s life upside-down, and she’ll be damned if she is going to let that happen while her kids mourn Penny.

So off she goes, into her burning home, under the smoke and past the burning insulation falling from the ceiling, to get to that crate and free that yappy little pup from her tomb.


Khloe Brown with pup Penny (courtesy Kyan Brown)

No one is quite sure how the fire started.

What they do know is that it began in the kitchen; at the stove, to be exact. At around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 21st, Suzanne was cooking dinner for the family when the power in the neighborhood went out. Kyan Brown, Suzanne’s husband and an assistant coach on the North Dakota State men’s basketball team, had just arrived back in Fargo after two days on the road recruiting. He went straight to his practice, which ended at 6 p.m., and then was en route to watch his 12-year old son Caleb’s practice. Suzanne met him there after they lost power, and she stayed until she got the call that the power was back on in the neighborhood.

So she headed home with their daughters, Khloe and Sophie.

Not 15 minutes later, Kyan got the call.

“She was hysterical,” he said. “I couldn’t make out if she was laughing or crying. I couldn’t hear words.” It reminded him, he said, of the scene from Anchorman when Ron Burgundy was in the phone booth, trapped in a glass case of emotion. He left the gym, where he heard the words that changed everything: “The house is burning to the ground.”

Kyan lined up a ride home for his son and sped home, passing people on two-lane roads, hoping that he’d pull into his driveway and find out Suzanne was exaggerating.

“I got eight or nine blocks away and I could smell the smoke,” he said. “Holy sh-t, that’s not good.”

Their street was completely blocked by fire engines. Kyan stopped, left his car in the middle of the road and took off running. What he found when he got to his driveway was that the fire department had done their job. They put the fire out before it spread beyond the kitchen. They put it out before it compromised the integrity of the structure.

(courtesy Kyan Brown)

The house will survive.

But nothing inside the house did. None of their furniture. None of the drywall. They will hopefully be able to salvage some of the windows and some of their clothes, but not much more than that. The morning after the fire, when the family walked into the house with their insurance agent to assess the damage, the first thing she said was, “Your wife really ran back in here?” Soot stained the top three feet of sheetrock for the entirety of the main floor of the house. The insulation covering kitchen and living room made it look like the house had received a dusting of snow overnight.

Smokey (courtesy Kyan Brown)

The repairs — which, thankfully, will be covered by insurance — are not going to be cheap, they’re not going to be quick and they’re not going to be easy.

The working theory is that the fire started with the stove, that it either malfunctioned when the power came back on or that it was not properly turned off when the house lost power, but the truth is that doesn’t really matter to the Brown family.

What matters is no one got hurt.

What matters is that all seven members of the family made it out OK.

When Suzanne first arrived at the house that night, she opened the door and the family’s massive and aptly-named mastiff Smokey came sprinting out of the house, but unbeknownst to her, when she went in to save Penny, Smokey, ever the protector, followed her in. He eventually made his way into the basement, where he was taken out in his crate by the firefighters.

It wasn’t until that moment that Suzanne knew her family was intact, that whatever hardships they had in front of them they would endure together.

“We’re OK,” Khloe, who is wise beyond her 14 years, said, consoling her mom. “We’re all going to be OK. We have everything we need right here.”


(courtesy Kyan Brown)

This isn’t a story about a team rallying around a member of the program. It’s not a story about someone overcoming adversity to achieve their dreams.

This is about a community coming together to take care of one of their own. It is a story about a family trying to find a way back to normalcy when their existence is anything but.

The life of a college basketball coach is never going to be simple. For six months out of the year, they see their co-workers more than their families, a dynamic that is exacerbated once February and March come around. There are games to scout, players to recruit, practices to plan, flights to catch.

Put another way, scrambling to keep a household with three kids that have jam-packed schedules running smoothly is the norm for Suzanne.

“The hardest part,” she said, “was feeling displaced. At the end of all the crazy, we always have home. That’s our safe place. The hardest part is knowing that at the end of the day, you’re not going home. You’re going to sit in a hotel.”

It’s more than just the comfort of your own couch or the privacy of your own living room.

It’s impossible to fathom just how much stuff you need to keep life running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and Suzanne was facing the impossible task of trying to replace all of that without a home. She didn’t want her kids to fall behind in class so they were back in school the Monday after the fire, but they needed clothes — shirts, pants, underwear, socks — to wear.

Take Khloe, for example. Her safe space is on the volleyball court. That’s where things are familiar. That’s where she can find normalcy, by going to practice during the week and traveling to games on the weekend. She wasn’t going to stop playing volleyball, but her gym bag with all of her volleyball gear — from a ball and shoes and a jersey to things as simple athletic socks, spandex and sports bras — was sitting on the kitchen table just feet from the fire. Hell, she needed a new gym bag to keep it all in.

Even Kyan needed help. The Bison played that Saturday, and he needed a suit. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he can’t exactly buy off the rack.

“You don’t think about all the things you need,” Suzanne said, “until you don’t have them.”

Head coach Dave Richman helped him out with that. He made a call to Halberstadt’s in Fargo and got Kyan lined up for a suit the next day. The NDSU women’s volleyball program hooked Khloe up with the gear she needed. Caleb’s teammates made sure he had what he needed and always had a ride to and from games. A GoFundMe for the family has raised nearly $10,000 to date. When Suzanne was moving into the house this week, Richman’s wife loaded up their minivan with two loads of stuff — all the things that you need to make a house a home. Cleaning supplies, toilet paper, all the way down to the simplest things in life, like a bottle of ketchup for the fridge.

“My wife, the coaches’ wives, they’ve been doing laundry and soaking clothes, going over and over and over again, to try and get the smoke out of them,” Richman said.

Even the players did their part to help out. Junior forward Deng Geu asked Kyan what his favorite restaurant is to take someone on a date, and then he and junior guard Chris Quayle surprised Kyan and Suzanne with a gift card for dinner, a night out on the guys.

For Kyan, the impact and amount of what they lost didn’t hit him until someone offered to help him move.

“There’s nothing to move,” he said.

There were some things that the family was able to salvage. Sophie’s old stuffed animals aren’t exactly in mint condition, but Suzanne was able to keep them. A blanket she had made out of all of Caleb’s old t-shirts survived, although it may not be clean enough to be anything other than a memento that’s kept out of sight. Kyan’s father passed away six years ago and the dresser he passed down survived, although it’s no longer functional.

The saying goes ‘things can be replaced, people can’t.’

But that’s not entirely accurate.

A hard drive can be replaced.

The thousands of pictures on that hard drive that documented college sweethearts becoming parents three times over?

Those can’t.


(Loren Townsley/Argus Leader via AP)

March Madness has come to take on an entirely new meaning for the Brown family this year.

They spent nearly three weeks living out of a hotel room. Mom, dad, three kids and two dogs tasked with navigating the unrelenting schedule of a sports family without any semblance of personal space.

But that, mercifully, came to an end this week, as the Browns were finally able to move into their rental home on Tuesday. They will be there for the foreseeable future, and while it isn’t their home, it is a home.

That’s a start.

Suzanne did most of the heavy-lifting herself; Tuesday night just so happened to be the night of the Summit League tournament title game. NDSU, the No. 4 seed, knocked off Omaha to earn the program’s second trip to the NCAA tournament under Richman.

It was the first time in 20 years in college basketball as a player and a coach that Kyan earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“I had been in this game once as a player and three times before as a coach,” he said. “Never broken through. She’s been with me the whole time.”

She was not with him on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t just because of the move. “I had already taken some days off work,” Suzanne said. “I wanted to save the rest of my days off for the NCAA tournament. I just had a feeling we were going to win this.”

When the final buzzer sounded, as everyone’s family started making their way down to the court, deputy athletic director Todd Phelps noticed that Kyan was the only guy that wasn’t hugging his wife, or his kids, or his mom.

So Phelps did the only thing he could do.

He FaceTimed Suzanne.

“She was crying,” Kyan said. “I was crying.”

“It’s something I’ll never forget.”

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.