By Tim Casey
PHILADELPHIA -- Dave Bliss, perhaps the most reviled figure in a sport with some ugly scandals, drove three hours one way to Dallas on Jan. 4 to celebrate the opening of SMU's renovated Moody Coliseum and meet with a few former players. He also witnessed the rebirth of a longtime moribund basketball program last nationally relevant when he coached the team three decades ago.
That afternoon, Bliss saw SMU upset Connecticut 74-65, its first victory against a ranked opponent in more than 10 years and first sold-out home crowd in more than 12 years. Since then, the Mustangs have continued their surprising season, winning 11 of their past 14 games heading into Sunday's rematch at UConn and more than justifying for now the shocking April 2012 hiring of veteran vagabond coach Larry Brown.
SMU home games have become big attractions. Former President George W. Bush and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban were in attendance on Wednesday night when the Mustangs defeated Houston 68-64 and improved to 21-6 overall and 10-4 in the American Athletic Conference. Myles Turner, a high school center from nearby Bedford, Texas, and the nation's second ranked senior according to ESPN, was also at Wednesday's game.
If the Mustangs win one more game with four regular season games plus the postseason remaining, they will have the most victories in a season for an SMU team since Bliss' 1987-88 squad went 28-7. SMU is likely to play in its first NCAA tournament in 21 years.
Brown, who has coached 10 professional franchises and three college programs, had the Mustangs ranked in the Associated Press poll (at 23rd) last week for the first time since March 1985, although the Mustangs dropped out this week following Sunday's loss to lowly Temple.
Back then, SMU's coach was Bliss, the same man who later admitted he helped cover up a 2003 murder involving two Baylor teammates while he coached at the Baptist college. In 2005, Bliss received a 10-year show cause penalty from the NCAA that essentially bars schools from hiring him until 2015. He is now the athletics director and basketball coach at a high school near College Station, Texas, and still a fan of the college game, particularly SMU.
"With Larry at the helm, I knew they were going to have some success," Bliss said. "It was just a matter of time. … I was really impressed with how hard they play and their purpose. I know they're going to do a great job."
Few people predicted this quick of a turnaround. SMU hasn't been in a similar situation since Bliss' eight-season tenure ended when he left for New Mexico in May 1988, two months after he led the Mustangs to their third NCAA tournament appearance in five seasons and 15 months after SMU's football program received the so-called death penalty for egregious NCAA rules violations. In 1984, SMU held an eight-point halftime lead over eventual national champion Georgetown in the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing 37-36. The next season, SMU was ranked as high as second in the nation but was upset by Loyola of Chicago in the second round.
Bliss' tenure wasn't without controversy. In August 2003, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a memo prepared in 1988 by NCAA enforcement official Robert Stroup III alleged major violations within SMU's basketball team when Bliss was at the helm. Stroup told the Star-Telegram a superior at the NCAA asked him to stop investigating SMU's basketball program because the university's football team had been penalized enough. Jon Koncak, an All-American center at SMU and first-round NBA draft pick in 1985, later admitted in a letter to the Star-Telegram he received "small cash gifts" from a booster but denied ever getting cash or other benefits from Bliss or his staff. The NCAA did not charge Bliss or the basketball program with any violations.
When John Shumate took over as SMU's coach in 1988, the school was attempting to clean up its image and instituting higher admissions standards. For instance, Bliss received a commitment from Dallas high school star Larry Johnson in 1987, but SMU rejected his application after the school doubted the validity of his SAT score, according to a November 1990 Sports Illustrated cover story. Johnson went to junior college for two seasons, became a two-time All-American at UNLV and was the first overall selection in the 1991 NBA draft.
"If we would have had him, then I think [winning and getting other top players] would have just absolutely snowballed," Bliss said. "That would have snowballed, and it would have kept going."
Instead, Shumate, a former power forward at Notre Dame and in the NBA, inherited a difficult situation and struggled in his first four seasons before the Mustangs won the 1992-93 Southwest Conference regular season title and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
"With all of the restructuring and the changes and all of the things that had to be implemented and done, it took time," said Shumate, who resigned in April 1995 and is now a college scout for the Phoenix Suns. "Were there some tough times? Yeah, absolutely. But through it, when we won the Southwest Conference championship, that made all of the tough times and the difficulties that we had to go through worthwhile. That's a great experience."
Until Brown arrived, SMU hadn't had too many recent positive moments. Since 1993, the Mustangs have made only two postseason appearances: the NIT in 2000 and the CollegeInsider.com tournament in 2011. After SMU fired coach Matt Doherty in March 2012, the school reached out to several big-name college coaches, all of whom rejected the overtures. The Mustangs then turned to Brown, a 2002 inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He hadn't coached since resigning from the Charlotte Bobcats in December 2010 and hadn't coached in college since leading Kansas to the 1988 national title.
"I think we all felt everything was in place here," Brown, 73, said at a news conference last week. "The school's great, Dallas is great, what Mark [Cuban] has done with the Mavericks helps anybody that's part of basketball, there's great talent around here, we're in a great conference. All the things were in place, but I didn't know we could assemble a group like this."
SMU went 15-17 last season, but its difficulties were soon forgotten in August when Brown secured a commitment from 6-foot-5 point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, a Dallas native and one of the top-five high school players in the nation. To help persuade Mudiay to turn down scholarships from Kentucky and other premier schools, SMU signed Jean-Micheal Mudiay, his older brother who averaged 3.5 points last season at a junior college in Texas. Jean-Micheal Mudiay, now an SMU junior, has only played in eight games and hasn't scored in 13 total minutes.
Even before signing Emmanuel Mudiay, who will join the team next season, Brown and his staff had re-shaped the roster with the type of kids who used to never consider SMU. They convinced players to transfer from Villanova, Illinois and Illinois State and recruited Scout.com's 24th ranked class for 2013 that included current freshmen Keith Frazier (a McDonald's All-American from Dallas) and starting guard Sterling Brown.
In late January, local television station WFAA reported that a Dallas Independent School District investigation found a high school teacher changed a grade for Frazier, allowing him to graduate last spring. SMU released a statement to USA TODAY Sports, the Dallas Morning News and other news media outlets indicating assistant coach Ulric Maligi had inquired about Frazier's grades but the University received Frazier's final transcript on July 1 confirming his graduation and college eligibility.
Frazier continues to play and is coming off the bench for a deep team that has victories over three ranked opponents and is 14-0 at home. The winning hasn't gone unnoticed. Typically overlooked in a region with four major professional franchises, SMU is now receiving unprecedented attention. Five home games have sold out, and there are no tickets available for the two remaining games at the 7,000-seat Moody Coliseum. The Mustangs' average home attendance was 3,443 last season, up from 2,013 the previous season.
Last Monday morning, Brown passed out doughnuts to students who camped out to buy tickets, two days after fans ran onto the court following SMU's 21-point upset of then-seventh-ranked Cincinnati.
"Dallas has changed overall for SMU basketball," senior guard Nick Russell said. "You see it everywhere. You see it on billboards, you see it on posters. The hype is big in Dallas now about SMU basketball, and that's all because of coach Brown."
Still, the rebuilding process isn't complete as was evident on Sunday when SMU lost 71-64 to Temple, which entered the game 6-17 overall and 1-10 in the American Athletic Conference. Brown, a former 76ers coach, said he enjoyed returning to Philadelphia and reuniting with several old players and friends. He didn't like the result or the Mustangs' effort, though. He was disappointed SMU only had four offensive rebounds and blamed himself for getting outcoached by Temple's Fran Dunphy. He planned on working the Mustangs hard the next day in practice. No one's ever questioned Brown's love for basketball.
"I'm not real happy right now, but I'll get over it." Brown said. "They're going to be unhappy on Monday. I won't."
Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.