Early Thursday evening, Dale Brown sat at home tweaking his speech before he stands before an assembled audience Friday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and enters the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame.
Forty-one years ago, Brown, who was trying to get a struggling basketball program off the ground, visited legendary UCLA coach John Wooden for a week seeking advice and insight making good on a coaching break offered up by then-Athletic Director Carl Maddox.
Naturally, Brown tossed out a simple question: How do I go about speaking in public? Wooden, ever the sage, handed down three simple steps: Be sincere, be simple and be seated.
No one, though, might accuse the 25-year coaching veteran in Brown, who retired in 1997, of always knowing how to pare back his thoughts.
Not even the man himself.
“I’m working on that right now,” Brown said. “It takes me a book longer than ‘War and Peace’ to explain myself.”
Aside from Brown, fellow inductees being enshrined at 7 p.m. Friday are diver Ashley Culpepper-Gluck, gymnast Amy McClosky-McGinley, pitcher Kurt Ainsworth, basketball player Frank Brian and volleyball setter Dani Reis.
Yet the tale of Brown’s ascent is easy to recount.
After Press Maravaich was fired in 1972, Maddox tried to entice Southern California coach Bob Boyd to Baton Rouge. Instead, he recommended Brown, a Midwestern kid out of North Dakota and an assistant on his staff. Upon taking the gig, Maddox said Brown would be required to not only coach but keep the score, stats, sing the national anthem and sweep the floor — all for a $23,000 salary.
You know the story of how Brown sold the program.
How he drove around the state doling out purple-and-gold basketball nets to homeowners with hoops in their driveways. Expectations were so low for the first team he inherited, he slapped a team photo on a wanted poster and dubbed them “The Hustlers.” In his first six seasons, LSU went 81-75 and managed to exceed expectations.
In 1978, the Tigers broke through, going 23-6 and reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. That kicked off a run of 14 consecutive seasons with a postseason appearance.
It’s a span when the Tigers reached the Final Four in 1981 and 1986, notched Elite Eight trips in 1980 and ’87 and helped LSU win four SEC titles. It turned the PMAC into the Deaf Dome with rosters laden with such stars as Rudy Mackin, Chris Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts.
Brown slid seamlessly into the community, which he always has said adopted him as if he were a native son.
“There were temptations to leave, but really my heart was in Baton Rouge,” said Brown, who compiled a 448-301 record in his time as head coach.
Asked what pieces or fragments he’ll sort out from those sepia-toned years, Brown chooses to remember the days when his 1981 and ’86 teams were recognized. Banquets where players stood up, older and slower than before, and didn’t wax poetic about racing up and down the hardwood.
“Everyone of them got up and talked about their relationship to one another and what they learned from one another,” Brown said. “That sounds almost Pollyannish, but those are my most cherished memories.”
Of course, Brown’s outspoken critiques of the NCAA and rules to protect the idea of amateurism are almost as prominent. Almost unsolicited, Brown will send along a detailed list of 43 recommended changes to NCAA bylaws that he first composed in 1983.
It includes the notion that $200 a month should go to athletes as a stipend for school supplies, dining when cafeterias are closed and other expenses — an idea hotly debated in recent years as elite college programs are awash in billions of dollars in revenues. Then there are ideas that have been adopted, such as a school providing transportation home if there is a death in a player’s family.
A four-year investigation into the LSU program in the early 1980s, which prompted a “Sports Illustrated” cover with a smiling Brown and the headline “Crazy Days at LSU,” netted only minor violations. It didn’t muzzle Brown then and doesn’t now, either.
“You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure it out,” he said. “One, they’ve legislated against human beings. Two, they’ve practiced monumental hypocrisy. Three, they’ve almost developed a gestapo mentality, and people were and still somewhat are afraid to challenge them.”
The end of Brown’s tenure wasn’t ideal, though, marked by four consecutive losing seasons and an NCAA investigation into accusations by Lester Earl, a highly touted Baton Rouge phenom who transferred to Kansas, that he had been paid by an LSU assistant coach during his freshman season.
No evidence emerged of Brown or his staff providing funds to Early, but the NCAA did find that a booster paid him $5,000 while enrolled in Baton Rouge. LSU was placed on probation; Earl was granted immunity and didn’t have to repay the money provided to him.
So there is plenty of material at Brown’s disposal to wrap into his speech. It could veer any number of directions, and Brown admits he will need to edit tightly, but he doesn’t have a problem finding a central theme to unify and sort his thoughts.
“I never ever had any problems understanding why I coached,” Brown said. “It gave me my first positive self-image of myself. It taught me discipline. It taught me teamwork. It got me an education. I saw the power in it.”
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