Rising from the humblest of beginnings in North Dakota, Dale Brown credits perseverance for a career that eventually resulted in a 25-year coaching stint at LSU that featured a 448-301 record and two Final Four appearances.
During his time at LSU, he was credited with integrating the basketball team, building the program, finding Shaquille O'Neal and taking on the NCAA as one of the organization's harshest critics. In the history of the SEC, only Kentucky's Adolph Rupp has won more games.
Today, Brown remains active as a motivational speaker who runs a non-profit organization designed to help the underprivileged gain college educations. He recently wrote a book, "Getting Over the 4 Hurdles of Life," about ways of getting past common obstacles that block the paths to success, happiness and peace of mind.
I grew up with no father, abandoned us two days before I was born. My mother on welfare, lived in a one-room apartment above a bar and hardware store. Went to a small little state teachers college. Got into coaching in a tiny town on the Montana-Canadian border in North Dakota called Columbus.
I was the high school principal, head basketball coach, head wrestling coach, head track coach, taught five subjects. I made $4,700 and I thought I was robbing them when I got my check every month. I thought, ‘I can't believe they're paying me to do this.'
Rick Pitino, the book he wrote, ‘Born to Coach,' I never thought I was born to coach. I just kind of wound up in teaching and coaching to make a living, because I didn't have any income. And I fell in love with it.
I don't know if there are such things as saints, but my mother not one time talked about the man that left her. She was never bitter. She came off a farm in North Dakota with an eighth-grade education. She had to go on welfare, babysit, clean people's homes. She was the most pathologically honest human being I've ever seen in my life.
Two times, in the dead of winter, I saw her bring those paper sacks home and take out the teas and the peas and the potatoes and the bread, then go get her coat. I said, ‘Where you going, momma?' She took two quarters and a dime to the Red Owl and the Piggly Wiggly because they gave her too much change. So she was unique.
Edgar Guest, one my favorite poets, described my mother perfectly when he said, ‘I'd rather see a lesson, than hear one any day. I'd rather have you walk with me than to merely show the way. The eye is a better teacher and more willing than the ear. And the counsel you're giving me be very fine and true, but I'd rather get my examples by observing what you do.' And that's the way she was. She lived a good lifestyle.
I never slept in a bed the first 21 years of my life. My mom had a bed that pulled out from the wall. Not one of those like the hotels that swing down, but one that was actually in the wall. And I had a sofa I slept on, about 5-foot, 6-inches long that I could touch her head every night. But the apartment was clean and neat and she provided the best she could.
One of biggest regrets I've ever had in my life – the biggest – is not really telling her enough how grateful I am and how much I loved her. You grow up and you think you've got all the answers, she was the beacon light for me.
I met Mother Teresa. Fantastic experience. After we were there a day or two, I said to a couple men who were with me, ‘You know, what this woman's done is just incredible. How can she do this, in this terrible city and the poverty and death? She's got to either be crazy or a saint.' After being with her another day or two, it was easy to see she was a saint.
I think the biggest break I ever had in my career was I met Joe Dean, who was the vice president of Converse Rubber Company at Final Fours and coaching clinics. And we just hit it off. When the LSU job opened up, the athletic director Carl Maddox called Joe Dean and said, ‘Get me a list of the five best head coaches in the country, and a list of the five best assistant coaches in the country. I want to build this program.' Well, Joe gave him my name.
No way Carl Maddox would have known me. I was only a college coach for six years as an assistant, five at Utah State, one at Washington State. But I think Mr. Maddox had great respect for Joe Dean, because Joe Dean played basketball at LSU, was an All-American, got drafted into the NBA and was a catalyst for Converse's success.
I never had any (coaching) heritage, but I always felt confident I could do it if I got a break. I think Joe Dean's recommendation gave me the break.
I met with Joe Dean and he said, ‘Let me tell you what you've gotten yourself into. There's no interest in basketball. There was fleeting moments of greatness when Pete Maravich was here, but they haven't won in a long time. You're going to have to sweep the floor, sing the national anthem and probably keep score or something.'
At first, I thought he was being facetious. Well, he was pretty close to that.
The first practice I ever had, October 15, 1972. I go down to the gym, the baskets weren't down, there was lint on the floor. The managers, trainers and us coaches had to put the baskets down, Windex them and sweep the floor. They forgot practice started.
It was really the bastion of racism. They only had one black player, they had just integrated. Other schools had integrated more fully. The Louisiana black basketball players didn't even want to visit. It was a hard sell.
There just wasn't any interest, so I thought I had to create that with certain events and entertainment. The first thing I did was buy some purple and gold nets from a company in Korea. I think I bought 1,000 of them. I put a little business card in there and a schedule. We were going on our drive, we called it the Tiger Safari, “We're on a mission to make LSU basketball good.'
(My assistants and I) got in our cars, went different directions in the state. Three different cars. Anytime we saw a goal in the yard, we'd get out, introduce ourselves and give them a purple and gold net, a poem, this business card and our schedule.
It took time. They hadn't won a conference championship in 25 years. They'd been to one Final Four. They hadn't beaten Kentucky at Kentucky, and the average loss was 25 points a game.
(When we finally had success) it was a feeling of gratitude, a wanting to really repay what they gave me. That was a good marriage, 25 years. That doesn't happen much.
It wasn't easy, but it was fun. I wouldn't have gotten the job if it had been easy. I'm sure not very many people wanted the job.
It was a fun run, the good and the bad.
I met Shaquille when he was 13 years old. He's very unique. He's one of the most benevolent, kind, sensitive guys. He looks like he has the strength of King Kong, but really he's Bambi. He's lovable. He's for the underdog. Loves children. He'll do the nicest things without telling anybody.
During the period of Communism, the U.S. Military sent over 90,000 troops and placed them on the East German border. They reached me and wanted to know if I would go work in southern Germany and work my way up to northern Germany. I was at my last place, finish my lecture, I get a tap on my shoulder and turn around and here's a giant of a man, 6-9, 250.
He said, ‘Coach Brown, I've been trying out for the team here and I can't dunk the ball. I run up and down the court three or four times and my lower extremities tire. Can you show me some exercises?' I told him sure. About 10 minutes later I asked him, ‘How long have you been in the service?' A big old smile came across his face and he said, ‘Coach Brown, I'm not in the service, I'm only 13 years old.'
The NCAA for years has legislated against human dignity and practiced monumental hypocrisy.
Frank Deford, the great writer, described them perfectly. They're the largest legal cartel in the world.
I fought them for years because of the way they legislate. They've come a million miles, but they have five light years to go. It's amazing that they've gotten away with what they've gotten away with.
My final years at LSU, it's what happens when you lose players, they go early to the pros. We lost two players to knee surgery. Suspensions. It didn't go like you wish it would.
But I find out in life, adversity only visits the strong. It stays forever with the weak. We have to make a decision whether we're going to be strong or we're going to be weak.
You've got to take the good with the bad, that's life. I count my blessings, being able to stay in one place for 25 years.