My cell phone rang on Wednesday, and the voice at the other end just started talking.
He didn’t even say hello, but there was really no need.
It was the same voice that once called me at 1 in the morning during the 1983-’84 college basketball season.
“Just want to tell you you’re doing an excellent job,” said the voice.
It was the same voice that called me at 4 in the morning at my downtown hotel room in Atlanta, several hours before tipoff for the 1987 SEC men’s basketball tourney finals. That day, the voice’s team was playing its fourth game in four days, so he had stayed up all night each night during the tourney to prove to his team that fatigue was a state of mind.
“Mr. Higgins, this is the head of hotel maintenance,” said the voice. “Could you please tell me the current barometric pressure in your room?”
In both cases, I didn’t even blink. My reaction was, “Hello, Dale.”
Except for gametime, former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown never knew the time of day and didn’t care. All he knew was that there’s 24 hours in a day, and there’s no rule saying that you have to sleep more than four hours daily.
Dale, the second winningest coach (by victories) in SEC history – he had 448 wins in 25 seasons at LSU from 1973-’97, including two Final Four appearances (1981 and ’86) and four SEC championships – is now 75 years old.
He’s also still living every minute to the fullest. He’s packed and ready to attend next week’s Final Four in Houston with his one of his grandsons, after filling out a NCAA tourney bracket for the first time ever.
“I was 34-14 the first week,” Dale says proudly. “I pull for underdogs all the time. I’ve always had compassion for them, knowing lots of times where they come from. When I was a kid, I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan at a time the Yankees were clubbing everybody to death.”
That should be no surprise. Several underdogs won in the NCAA tournament’s first weekend and nobody loves an underdog more than Dale, the closest thing SEC basketball has ever had to Don Quixote. Well, except this Don would scream at officials, shaking his fist when his Tigers were fighting furiously against the odds. He battled to win games as hard as a coach could without suiting up.
Because of that, you think Dale’s obvious choice, when asked to pick his favorite all-time team at LSU, would be the ’86 Final Four crew, a No. 11 seed in the NCAA. It’s a team that suffered major personnel losses early in the season, went through a bout with chicken pox and somehow got a NCAA tourney bid despite having an overall record of 22-11 and a 9-9 SEC record.
Sure, Dale has always loved that team as well as the squad that followed, a No. 10 seed in the ’87 NCAA tourney that came within two points of returning to the Final Four.
But the first team Dale always initially mentions was his first at LSU in 1972-’73. That’s when Dale, a little-known 36-year-old Washington State University assistant, was hired by then-LSU athletic director Carl Maddox.
Maddox, a former LSU assistant football coach, had no clue who to pursue after he fired Press Maravich following the ’71-’72 season. It was Joe Dean, a former LSU All-SEC guard turned Converse Shoe Company rep, who suggested Dale to Maddox. Maddox, knowing Dean was probably one of the most well-connected men in college basketball, took Dean at his word.
Once hired, Dale took a program that was as dead as dead can be and breathed life into it, doing anything that popped into his mind to promote it. He drove around the state of Louisiana, stopping whenever he saw a bare basketball goal, just so he could hang a purple and gold net on it.
He called his first LSU team “The Hustlers,” promoting them by sticking the team picture on replicas of the old Wild West “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters. His promise was his team would always play hard, diving for every loose ball and taking every charge.
In The Hustlers very first game under Dale, their challenge was playing a Memphis State team that was so talented it would end up losing at the end of that season in the ’74 NCAA championship game to Bill Walton-led UCLA.
And it was just before Dale and The Hustlers debut that Brown’s players begin to learn that he was a master motivator.
The day before the game, Dale introduced himself to Memphis State coach Gene Bartow and checked to see if Bartow or his team needed anything at their practice in the then-LSU Assembly Center.
''Coach Bartow assured me everything was fine and said, 'Thanks for your help, Dave', '' Dale recalls, knowing Bartow, one of college basketball’s finest men, didn’t intentionally mean the slight.
But the next night in his pregame speech, Dale glanced around the locker room at each of his players, then took Bartow’s gaffe and ran with it.
''I looked at Wade Evans, a walk-on forward from Hinds Community College,'' Dale says. ''I said 'Wade, do you think Gene Bartow knows who you are? Do you think their team knows who you are? They don't even know who I am. Gene Bartow called me 'Dave.' ''
The psychological seed planted, LSU scored a 94-81 upset.
“The Hustlers just grabbed me,” Dale says. “They gave every ounce of energy almost every night.”
Just like Dale did when he coached. Because of his warp-speed personality, because he never met an opinion he didn't like, because he usually spoke from his heart and not his head, because he wanted to fight every injustice he came across, it's astounding he didn't burn out after 10 years.
And in doing so, he earned the respect of coaching colleagues who sometimes made fun of Dale’s off-beat personality and motivation techniques.
''Not long after Dale announced he was quitting, I sent him a letter,'' former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson says. ''I wrote, 'At first (Tennessee's) Don DeVoe left. Then (Auburn's) Sonny Smith. Then me. Then (Georgia's) Hugh Durham. You outlasted all of us.' He had a remarkable career.''
What Dale accomplished at a school considered mostly a football factory can't be reflected in mere wins and losses.
It took seven years for the Tigers under Dale to reach their first NCAA Tournament and win their first SEC title, dropping the banner before the end of the game in a title-clinching win over Alabama. For the next 15 years after the breakthrough in 1978-’79, his teams were in postseason play with 10 straight NCAA appearances.
While most coaches talked about Xs and Os, Dale talked about everything from world starvation to the blight of communism. He quoted everyone from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King. He traveled every summer, seeking such ultimate experiences as climbing the Matterhorn, searching for Noah's Ark, pheasant hunting in Canada, riding camels in Baghdad, Iraq or traversing the length of the Mississippi River in a speed boat.
He often invited foreign coaches to Baton Rouge for extended visits. Sometimes, the end of the LSU bench during games consisted of a trainer and what appeared to be United Nations representatives.
Dale earned the reputation that he was more of a character than a coach, something that Joe Dean, who was LSU’s athletic director when Dale finally retired, said just wasn’t true or fair.
''Just because a guy doesn't like to go to the coaches’ convention at the Final Four and sit around and diagram plays on napkins doesn't mean he's not a good coach,'' Dean says. ''Dale came to LSU when the program was nothing and he made it something special.”
Dale liked being a coach, but found ultimate satisfaction using his public platform to help downtrodden people that needed the boost that might spark them to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Because at one time, he was one of those dreamers, growing up in Minot, North Dakota as the son of a single mother whose husband walked out on her two days before Dale was born on Halloween 1935. He never forgot he was once a kid who lined his worn-out shoes with popcorn boxes he picked up in theaters.
''The game was bigger than the court to me,” Dale says. “Basketball was part of the mission. I felt basketball restricted me, but I stayed with it as long as I did because it gave me the visibility to help the down-and-outers.''
And there was a laundry list of those.
In 1988, Dale asked then-Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to pardon a state convict named Ulysses Long, whom the warden considered rehabilitated from his armed robbery experience. When Edwards balked, Dale told Edwards, ''If you sign this (the pardon) and he (Long) commits one criminal act, I'll resign my job at LSU.'' Edwards signed the pardon.
There was also the time that Dale invited Mozar Cezar, a Spanish coach, to live and work with him. After a year, Cezar wanted to get a green card to stay in the United States but Dale explained he couldn't get one. When Dale went out of town on a speaking engagement, a distraught Cezar climbed over a fence next to the cage housing LSU's live Bengal Tiger.
After a crowd had gathered chanting ''Tiger bait, tiger bait,'' LSU's Spanish-speaking center Jose Vargas talked Cezar out of the cage after Cezar had been displaying a sign saying “Dale Brown is unfair.''
When Dale returned to Baton Rouge, he posted a $10,000 bond for Cezar, bought him an airplane ticket home and gave him $2,000 to pay child support so he wouldn't get arrested when he arrived. Brown never heard from Cezar again.
In the midst of such annual craziness, Dale put together some great teams. Some of his most talented squads, the ones with first-team all-Americans like a skinny 7-foot center named Shaquille O’Neal and sharpshooting guard named Chris Jackson, never made it past the Sweet 16.
Even after Dale finally got the Tigers to the Final Four for the first time in ’80-’81, his ninth season at LSU, he realized anything can happen in the NCAA tournament, both good and bad.
For instance, Dale’s ’84-’85 team won the SEC championship and entered the NCAA tourney as No. 4 seed matched against No. 14 Navy.
“I didn’t know anything about Navy and we didn’t get films on them until the day before we left for the tournament,” Dale says. “I look at the film. I see this guy scoring all over the place, blocking shots, rebounding. My coaches tell me, `His name is David Robinson.’ I say, `Who’s David Robinson?’ But they had other good players.
“I bring in our team the following day and tell them, `When we first drew Navy, I was already looking ahead to see who we would play in the second round. Then, I watched this film. Watch this film. We play at 1 tomorrow and if you don’t wake up after watching this film, we’ll be back in Baton Rouge by sunset.’
“We play Navy, get behind and they really beat our butts (78-55, Dale’s worst NCAA tourney loss ever).”
The next season in ’85-’86, it’s amazing Dale’s team even rallied to get a NCAA tournament bid.
“We started the season with two 7-foot centers and a 6-8 center,” Dale recalls. “I suspended one of the 7-footers, Tito Horford, and he transferred to Miami. The other 7-footer, Zoran Jovanovich, has knee surgery and we lose him for the year. Then, we lose unfairly lose 6-8 Nikita Wilson to academic ineligibility because a teacher screwed up. And then we get chicken pox.
“We have to play four games in five days in February. The team was whipped and it was depleted. So I called Ricky Blanton in my office.”
Blanton was a 6-7 shooting guard from Miami, Fla. He never had ever played center in his career until. . .
“I said, `Ricky, I’ve got nowhere to go, I’ve got to play you at center’,” Dale remembers. “I can still see his eyes widening. He says, `Coach, are you kidding?’ I said, `I believe in you. You might have to put on a little weight.’
“Ricky went out and believed he was a center. It turned around the back half of our season enough to get in the NCAA tournament.”
Which is where LSU made the greatest run of any Cinderella in NCAA history, a double digit seed that got the enormous break of playing its first two tourney games on its home floor. This was back in the day before the NCAA insisted solely on neutral sites for tournament play.
In Baton Rouge, the 11th seeded Tigers beat No. 6 seed Purdue, 94-87, in the first round, and then used a game-winning shot by Anthony Wilson after a scramble for a loose ball to beat No. 3 seed Memphis State, 83-81. Memphis State coach Dana Kirk was so angry he slapped away Dale’s hand when it was offered for a postgame handshake.
The Tigers got another break that the Southeast Regional semifinals and finals were in Atlanta.
LSU handled No. 2 seed Georgia Tech, 70-64, in the semis and then beat top-seed and fellow SEC member Kentucky, 59-57, in the finals after the Tigers had lost to the Wildcats three times during the season. Kentucky ended the year 32-4. Georgia Tech’s entire starting five eventually played in the NBA.
In the Final Four semifinal against Louisville in Dallas’ Reunion Arena, LSU led the Cardinals by nine points in the first half before losing 88-77. Louisville, led by freshman center Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison, then beat Duke for the national championship two nights later.
“We just simply ran out of gas, our guys gave everything they had,” Dale says. “That ’86 team was disappointed, but it had a peace about it, because it gave everything.”
Dale thought his ’87 team was even better. Though he had to revamp his lineup, it went 24-15 and lost to eventual national champ Indiana, 77-76, in the NCAA Midwest Region final. It was a game in which then-Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight pounded on a phone at the scorer’s table while complaining about officiating, but he never received a technical.
“I think the ’86 team was unique, but the ’87 team was even more miraculous,” Dale says. “If we had beaten Indiana, we would have gone to a Final Four that was being held in New Orleans.”
Once there, Dale, surrounded by thousands of LSU fans, would have been a good bet to get his first national title. Yet it never happened and the Tigers never got at least to the Sweet 16 the rest of his career.
When he retired, Dale had no regrets, finishing as only one of three coaches in SEC history to coach 25 or more seasons at one school. He is the only SEC coach to have ever appeared in 15 straight national tournaments, and he and Kentucky’s legendary Adolph Rupp of Kentucky are the only SEC coaches that had 17 consecutive non-losing seasons.
Since his retirement 14 seasons ago, as you’d figure, Dale has continued to travel the world, always searching, always learning, always seeking new viewpoints and making new friends. Yet he and his wife Vonnie have always stayed in Baton Rouge because they love the city, even though local traffic has crawled since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 forced many New Orleans residents to move up the Interstate.
Most of all, Dale has never forgotten how his career in South Louisiana started. Just this week on Tuesday, he called Joe Dean, the man who recommended him for the LSU job.
“I said, “Joe, I just want to thank you for a day that made everything possible for me’,” Dale says, “ `because it was tomorrow, at 1 o’clock 39 years ago, Carl Maddox came out of that meeting with the Board of Supervisors and said, `The Board’s vote was unanimous, you’re our new basketball coach.’ ”
Pretty smart people, that Board of Supervisors.