Crazy SMU search makes impact locally

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By Joe Henricksen

When I received the call and then the question, “How about SMU?” on a Sunday night a little over a week ago, the response I gave to former Illinois assistant coach Jerrance Howard was, “Are you serious?”

I mean isn’t that the response most everyone would have given at the time? Especially with three other attractive offers Howard had on the table, including one that would have been a whole lot more intriguing to discuss from a fan’s perspective.

But SMU? Tough, tough job. We are talking about a program with zero history or tradition and coming off a dismal year with a roster full of nothing, including a 4-12 record in Conference USA.

Average home attendance last season? How about 2,013. Plus, it’s clearly more of a football school than basketball, while the athletic program is best known for Eric Dickerson, the Pony Express and its football program receiving the “Death Penalty” from the NCAA in the late 1980s.

The basketball program hasn’t been above .500 in conference play since 2003 and hasn’t been to a NCAA Tournament since 1993. SMU has had only five 20-win seasons in 44 years. And after failing miserably in C-USA for years, the Mustangs are set to move to the rugged and much tougher Big East in 2013.

Then the news went public the following Tuesday afternoon, with twitter and internet stories running wild about the SMU hiring plan. Here are just a few of the printable texts from college coaches I received in the 60 minutes following the breaking news, straight off my phone:

“JH to SMU??? Huh?”

“What the hell is going on there in Illinois?!?!?!”

“What the #%&@ is going on in the home state?”

“Never heard of something so crazy! Explain please!”

“I don’t get it, Joe. … Is this #@&% true?”

“I love Jon Koncak!”

That last text did make me chuckle, only because Koncak, who led SMU to its best run in the mid-1980s under coach Dave Bliss, and Jeryl Sasser are the only two former Mustangs I can even name.

Howard still is not officially a Mustang. But back to 10 days ago…

As the details were relayed and a closer examination of all that was going down with the job, including the opportunity and timing for everyone involved, it started to make a little more sense. I played devil’s advocate for Howard in conversations over the next 24-48 hours. But that excitement Howard so often shows started to permeate through the phone. He was ecstatic about the chance to work under a coaching icon and legend like Larry Brown. Plus, those closest to Howard believed it was a strong career move.

And make no mistake, no matter his age, this basketball conglomerate starts with Larry Brown. The 71-year-old now appears as an ageless basketball coaching icon that just keeps ticking with one more go-around as the head man in charge of a college program — nearly 25 years after his last season in the college game. The endless and tough-to-match basketball knowledge and experience Brown can offer up was attractive to those prospective coaches set to join his staff. And the connections and ties Brown has in the game is as impressive as it gets and a huge coup going forward for any up-and-coming coach.

Then there is the money. It’s always a factor. And SMU was, pardon the pun, willing to pony up with an impressive bankroll. The Mustangs are in the midst of putting together an impressive staff for a downtrodden program because it was willing to invest some serious coin when it came to hiring assistants, along with a plan to go with hiring and propping up a 71-year-old coach with valuable assistants. They all will be making significantly more money than their previous jobs.

Then there is Tim Jankovich, the Illinois State coach who has been the center of attention as the so-called “head coach-in-waiting” under Brown. While there is nothing official, it would be very surprising to the Hoops Report if Jankovich does not take SMU up on this windfall … Uh, I mean opportunity.

The common question raised from those familiar with Illinois State basketball and the Missouri Valley since the story broke publicly is this: Why leave a team you built over the past five seasons that will be a Missouri Valley Conference contender next season with the return of every player from a 21-win, NIT team from this past season? Why go from a head coach of a potential NCAA Tournament team to an assistant/coach-in-waiting of a dismal basketball program?

In a word: security.

In college basketball coaching, security is something you take as soon as you can get it because it’s simply fleeting. Is there another field or career where an employment contract is broken as easily as it’s made than in college basketball?

There are two types of great coaches in the college game: the ones who win big all the time and the ones who keep getting paid as head coaches all the time. And neither is easy to do.

When you combine both the financial security and job security that Jankovich would immediately receive at SMU, the move becomes more than just calculated when looking at it from the outside. Jankovich will have a new lease on life as a head coach the minute he takes over for Brown, whether that’s in a year, two years or longer. That type of security doesn’t come around very often.

In addition, Jankovich would leave the pressure of being a head coach behind for two or three years (does anyone believe Brown will last longer than that as head coach?) as he collects much more money at SMU as an assistant than he would as head coach at Illinois State.

Are you kidding me? Lets see, you get a huge raise and you eliminate the role of answering questions after losses? And you rid yourself of endless public speaking engagements to clubs, boosters and fans throughout the community? And you are no longer front and center as an alumni glad-hander, a television and radio personality and whatever else an AD asks a head coach to do? And you get to live in Dallas, where Jankovich is familiar after spending four years as head coach at North Texas?

All of this while assured of being a head coach again in the very near future and setting your family up financially for the rest of your life? That’s quite a gig and a whole lot of security to pass up.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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