By Andrew Alexander
Long before LSU men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones roamed the sidelines of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center is his signature deep purple blazer, he graced the hardwood as a player in the early 1980’s under the tutelage of the legendary former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown.
During his 25-year tenure at the helm of the LSU men’s basketball program, Brown became one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history. Along the way, he guided the Tigers to two Final Fours, four Elite Eights, five Sweet Sixteens, and thirteen NCAA tournament appearances. Only 15 college coaches have made more consecutive NCAA tournament appearances than Brown’s 10 from 1984-1993.
For that feat and much more, Brown – along with his former player at LSU, Shaquille O’Neal – headlines the 2014 Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame class.
In 1986, Brown’s Tigers became the first eleventh seed ever to advance to the Final Four, and the only team to beat the top three seeds to get there. Needless to say, Brown knows a thing or two about NCAA tournament success and DIG was fortunate enough to sit down with legendary coach.
DIG Magazine: What was the recipe for your numerous successful NCAA tournament runs with LSU?
Dale Brown: From all my years in college coaching, I would say the biggest thing is the mental preparation over everything else. More than any drills you want to use, more than any scouting report you want to put in, any changes you want to make. Your rooming conditions when you get and when you don’t. How long do you practice? I think that is the singular most important thing.
DIG: In all your trips to the NCAA tournament, can you remember a time when your motivational tactics failed to garner positive on-the-court results for LSU
DB: We had a real high seed one year, and we drew Navy. And as soon as we drew them, I said ‘Boy, this is going to be trouble.’ I didn’t even know Navy had a basketball team. We got the video and the video wasn’t on ten minutes, and I shut it off and told my assistants, ‘Who’s this number 50?’ It’s this guy by the name of David Robinson. He’s one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen. Then they had the big ole 6-foot-10 slow white kid, who was real solid. And I said, ‘The biggest problem is we’re going to have is starting today we’re going to have to get our team together, selling them on the fact that this Navy team can play because this video doesn’t even do it justice to it.’
I knew what the job was. I knew mentally I had to get that team ready. I always felt pretty good that I had the ability to do that because I always told the truth and was direct. I thought I was motivational with what I did. So I turned the video on, and in five minutes I shut it off. Nobody even knew who David Robinson was at the time.
I said, ‘If we don’t recognize this now as a team united, we’ll be home before sunset in Baton Rouge.’ Well I did everything I could. I substituted. I called timeout. All the sudden we gave Navy confidence, and Navy blasted us right off the court.
DIG: What’s the best advice you received from another coach regarding tournament success?
DB: John Wooden told me one time, ‘Everybody talks about X’s and O’s, and I’m not being modest when I tell you this, but I’m just very average on that. But I’ve always been able to practice simplicity with constant repetition with my players, keep things simple. I’ve been able to find out that your best players are not necessarily your best team. You have to find the guys that fit together, that form the best five to start. At tournament time, you really have to keep your players shielded from all the distractions: agents, relatives, tickets, the gamblers, all the things that go along with it.’
DIG: How was your motivational approach different with each team you took to the NCAA tournament?
DB: I approached it different with almost every team unless they were a veteran team. The 1986 team was criticized for being in the tournament, being a number eleven seed. Dick Vitale said we shouldn’t even have been in. We had a losing conference record. So I had to keep that fire burning. Also, I had to help them understand about the old philosophy of ‘The best potential of me is we.’ I had to really have a united spirit and belief and not be some phony evangelist in the process. I learned this as a young coach: players don’t really care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they see that in a coach, they catch on to that.
DIG: While at LSU was there ever a game that you thought your team could not win before you stepped on the court?
DB: My first response would be, ‘no,’ because I’m an optimistic person, maybe even some would consider Pollyanna. But there were times I walked out I knew it was an immense, almost impossible job. When we played Memphis State, my very first team in Baton Rouge, they wound up playing for the NCAA championship and were number two in the nation. We were so overpowered by them, and I thought, ‘Boy oh boy, it’ll take a miracle.’ Then all of the sudden when I saw our guys kind of catch on, I began to get more confidence in myself as the game went on.
DIG: What was the craziest tactic you used to motivate one of your teams during the NCAA tournament?
DB: One year we were worn out and beaten up. We didn’t even know if we had a chance to get into the NCAA tournament. I told them after they came out of the showers that night, they must have been sick and tired of my motivational talks, I said, ‘Guys I’m not even going to give you talk tonight because you must be so sick and tired of my speeches. I don’t have to suffer, so I’m going to suffer with you.’ And I looked at my watch. It’s 7 o’clock, Wednesday night. ‘I will not sleep, I give you my word to God, until you guys lose.’ We got to the championship, and I did not sleep one time. They were constantly checking on me. We got to the championship and played Alabama and went on to the NCAA tournament. Guess what that team did? Made a Final Four. That was 1986.