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He Thrives on Controversy : LSU Coach Dale Brown Won't Take a Back Seat to Indiana's Bob Knight or Anyone Else

December 17, 1987|JOHN FEINSTEIN | Washington Post

Once there was a basketball coach who went in search of Noah's Ark. He didn't find it. This same coach went into the Amazon jungle and called a recruit from there. He didn't get the player, but he did get the phone bill--$112 for six minutes.

The same coach went to the Soviet Union to try to convince the government that its best basketball player would look much better in purple-and-gold than in red. These days that player hasn't been seen in uniform anywhere for a long time.

The coach is Louisiana State's Dale Brown. Outside of Bob Knight--a man he openly admits he can't stand--Brown may be college basketball's most controversial coach.

A week ago on his TV show, Brown introduced a segment on the season-opening tournament LSU hosted--beating up on two patsies--by saying, "You know, we all have to walk on this earth." Then he showed the Tigers walking all over the opposition.

Brown is a saint or a sinner or perhaps both, depending on whom you talk to. Without question, he is charming, and he also knows how to win.

In 15 years at LSU, Brown has won 283 games. He's done it at a school where football has always been the dominant sport. He has taken two teams to the Final Four and two others to the final eight. But that doesn't begin to tell the Dale Brown story. He's almost as much evangelist as he is coach: either you believe in him or you don't.

"I've watched him in action for years and there's no one else I'd want to work for," said Craig Carse. "I told him when I came here, I would stay with him until he retires. The only thing is, the way he goes at it, he may retire me."

Carse is a rookie assistant coach at LSU who asked Brown for a job and got it. Brown detractors, and they are legion, like to point out that Carse is unusual in that he didn't bring a high school star with him to LSU.

Next year's rookie assistant coach will be Jim Childers. He is currently the high school coach of Stanley Roberts, a 6-foot-11 South Carolina player who is generally rated among the top prospects in the country this year. Guess where Roberts will be enrolling next fall?

By no means is Brown the first coach to hire a high school coach while in pursuit of a player. However, he may be the first coach to have done this five times.

"I've done it before and if the circumstances were right, I'd do it again," Brown said just before Roberts formally signed. "The test is whether the coach stays with you after the player has left. Ron Abernathy came here under the same circumstances 12 years ago and he's still here and my No. 1 assistant."

Others have come and gone. The NCAA looked into the situation this summer, but, Brown rhetorically asks, "What were they going to find wrong? Were we hiding anything? Did we do anything illegal? I said to the (NCAA) guy on the phone, don't you people have anything better to do?"

"It's unethical," said Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe. "That's just my opinion. There may be a time when someone genuinely wants to hire a high school coach who happens to have a good player. But it doesn't happen often. And it doesn't happen five times in 15 years."

Brown and DeVoe have been trading swipes for a long time. And, when DeVoe brought up the ethics issue recently, Brown couldn't resist a shot back. Asked to comment on DeVoe's remarks, Brown answered, "Well, I think divorce is unethical." DeVoe was divorced several years ago and is remarried.

Brown is a street fighter. He talks often about his mother raising him alone in North Dakota and the hardships of his boyhood. That toughened him, he says, and he doesn't ignore his critics. He goes right back at them.

His most recent target has been Knight, whose Indiana team beat LSU at the buzzer for a spot in the Final Four last season. Knight received a technical foul in the first half of that game, but after pounding on the scorer's table and breaking a phone, was not disciplined further. Brown is still incensed.

"He's a bully and he intimidates people," Brown said. "He gets away with things and no one will criticize him. Well, I will. I'm not afraid of him and I don't like the way he operates. And every time I have a chance, I'll say so."

Knight is a powerful and influential enemy. Brown knows this and, frankly, doesn't care. He has survived too much, fought too many fights, dealt with too many critics, to worry now. He is 52, he is wealthy and a year from now he probably will have a good team.

"I don't worry about winning the national championship," he said. "We'll win it. The only question is when, not if."

And whom would he like to open up next season with? "The same team I tried to open with this season," he said. "Indiana, in the Hoosier Dome. Knight wouldn't do it. I'll play him any place, any time."

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