Induction Year: 1999
It’s for his deeds as the LSU basketball coach that Dale Brown will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Yet, for all he did, Brown never defined himself by the program he built into national prominence.
“I never considered myself white,” he said. “I never considered myself a North Dakotan. “I never considered myself a basketball coach. I never considered myself a Yankee. I always think of myself as a human being first. I look at people that way.”
If that seems an atypical comment from a former coach, it stands to reason. Brown is atypical himself, hard to define, impossible to categorize.
He is at once a crusader, compassionate, opinionated, thick-skinned, controversial and successful.
Lest anyone forget, Brown is the second-winningest basketball coach in Southeastern Conference history behind the legendary Adolph Rupp. Between 1973-97, Brown fashioned a 448-301 record, and took teams to the Final Four in 1981 and 1986 and the Final Eight in 1980 and 1987.
He arrived at LSU as a little-known assistant from Washington State, and left almost larger than life, having lifted basketball throughout Louisiana into the public consciousness along the way.
Before him, LSU had beaten Kentucky twice. Brown’s Tigers did it 18 times. He was national coach of the year in 1981 and 1988, SEC coach of the year four times, Louisiana College Basketball Coach of the Year seven times and the District Coach of the Year on five occasions. He directed the Tigers to four SEC championships and 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 10 in a row.
“He deserves all the credit,” said LSU athletic director Joe Dean, who as a Nike representative and a television commentator warned Brown early on of the public’s limited interest in basketball. “He made the whole state stand up and take notice. It’s a Hall of Fame story.”
It’s a story told time and again, but one that bears repeating. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Brown and his mother eked out an impoverished existence in Minot, N.D. Embittered by the treatment his mother received from welfare officials and others, Brown grew up defending the downtrodden and fighting what he perceived as injustice.
It’s a stance that often landed him in trouble during his coaching days, but one that he doesn’t regret.
“I knew soon after I said or did something that I’d be criticized for it,” he said, “but I couldn’t help myself. Someone once asked me why I acted like that. I said, “I can manipulate my mind, but I can’t manipulate my heart.”
“That’s about as well as you can put it,” said Baton Rouge businessman Jim Talbot, who Brown considers “my best friend in the world.”
Talbot often has joined Brown, 63, on the many trips that have taken Brown to 85 countries. Talbot said he was with Brown when Brown was recognized in the London and Paris airports, and again when someone called out, “Coach,” as Talbot and Brown stopped at a remote rest area in the mountains of Montana.
“I never planned to coach at LSU,” said Brown, who once dreamed of heading the FBI. “I never planned to be in the Halls of Fame of North Dakota and LSU. It’s a humbling experience. Today, I can think of so many people who deserve this honor more than I do, but won’t be in a Hall of Fame because they didn’t have visibility.
“It’s sort of sad. You have to be in a high-profile position to be in anybody’s Hall of Fame.”
Brown devoted countless hours to produce the results that warranted his induction. Shortly after being hired, he canvassed the state with miniature basketballs and nets to drum up support.
“I think that had a lot to do with engendering enthusiasm for basketball,” said Paul Manasseh, LSU’s sports information director from 1970-83. “He took off running.”
Even in retirement, Brown hasn’t stopped. He now operates Dale Brown Enterprises, giving motivational speeches and writing books. He recently returned from the Far East, where he conducted clinics and met with representatives from the Asian Basketball League.
He nearly became general manager of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers before the blockbuster deal fell through, and he remains in touch with many of his former players.
“I’ll always defend coach Brown,” said Jose Vargas, who played center from 1984-88, and now works on a 2,000-acre farm in Brazil in addition to playing overseas. “Of the many things coach Brown did, he could take a boy and make him a great man. Not a great basketball player, a great man.”
Brown had his detractors, and didn’t leave LSU under the best of circumstances amid four consecutive losing seasons.
His relationship with former recruit Lester Earl turned sour when Earl transferred to Kansas and later reported LSU to the NCAA. An investigation ensued, and although Brown wasn’t implicated in any of the violations, the Tigers were slapped with probation.
Manasseh said he thinks such action was “retribution” for the many years Brown assailed the NCAA as one of its most vocal critics.
Brown acknowledged that he didn’t connect with today’s youngsters as well as in the past when he “loved my players.” And, if nothing else, Brown coached on emotion.
“He could get his players to climb a wall for him,” Talbot said. “I witnessed players of Willie Sims’ caliber who would step up, and step up, and step up and play at another level. I witnessed coach Brown take mediocre talent and get them to play above their heads.
“I’ve never tried to defend Dale, even though we’ve been close personal friends for years, but the proof is in the pudding. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame, and I’m not.”
“When I analyze it,” Brown said, “all the plusses outweigh the minuses … Most people don’t stay at a school for 25 years, especially LSU. I would never repeat it, but I learned a lot of things. It’s a tough job. People don’t know how tough it is.”
To the contrary, enough of them took notice to have bestowed yet another honor on the man who helped popularize basketball from the state capital to the far reaches of Louisiana.