After 24 years, Larry Brown back on the trail

PHILADELPHIA -- At the Reebok Breakout Challenge, they wore the business uniforms of July recruiting, some in lime green or bright red, others in black or navy blue.

All had their university names splayed in full across their golf-shirted chests or neatly logoed on left corner pockets.

All, that is, except one gray-haired man, turned out subtly in an anonymous gray shirt, dark shorts and white sneakers.

“Hey Frannie, do I need to get one of these fancy shirts with a logo?” he asked Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

“No, coach,’’ Dunphy replied. “People know who you are.’’

On his first day of July recruiting in 24 years, Larry Brown both stuck out and fit right in, a 72-year-old legend squeezed among young assistants desperate to make their mark, yet a contented hoops junkie thrilled to sit back and watch kids ball.

This, the new SMU coach said, is why he came back to college coaching.

He missed it.

He’d tried to fill his time living vicariously through his many disciples, crisscrossing the country to visit Bill Self at Kansas, Mark Turgeon at Maryland and John Calipari at Kentucky. But being a casual observer is not exactly in Brown’s DNA, and the need to get back in was too overwhelming.

So when the call came from SMU, a program with empty trophy cases and woefully thin basketball history books, he said yes.

That was the easy part. Now is when it gets tricky. In 1988, when Brown last worked at a university, things were a little less complicated.

“You met a kid, his parents, his high school coach and his guidance counselor,’’ he said. “That’s not the deal anymore.’’

Now Brown, per NCAA rules, first had to call kids on the phone, though he admits he’s not sure why -- “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. I’m 72 years old. What do they wan to talk to me about. So I tell them, ‘My assistants told me I should call you,’ -- and had to take two compliance tests before he could even go out on the road.

“We had study hall,’’ assistant Jerrance Howard said, not jokingly. “Really. We had practice tests, flash cards.’’

Like every other coach, Brown will spend the month traveling around the country, a far cry from 1988, when recruiting was basically one-stop shopping. Nike held a camp at Princeton University back then, and that was really the only go-to locale.

For Brown, traveling these days is more like a grand tour. His coaching tree stretches for miles and covers plenty of bleacher acreage, so every stop is like old-home week.

On Wednesday night, he spent an hour watching a game two seats away from Turgeon, the Maryland coach who once played for Brown at Kansas.

Brown was scouting talent, looking to stockpile for an SMU team in desperate need of an infusion. He’s been around the business plenty long enough to know that growing the Mustangs won’t happen quickly.

Which doesn’t exactly suit Brown’s personality.

“Will you be patient?’’ I asked him.

“I don’t even want to answer that,’’ Brown said laughing. “I know we aren’t a factor yet, but if kids come, it will be all over.’’

As Brown started to answer, Turgeon shook his head and smirked.