Jayhawks Moving Four-Ward

SAN ANTONIO — Kansas basketball is well-represented during this historic Final Four.

The Jayhawks are of course making their first Final Four appearance since 2003. But take a close look and you’ll see that the three other No. 1 seeded teams all have Kansas ties. The site of the Final Four at the Alamodome even has a KU connection.

And the link all goes through Hall of Famer and former KU head coach Larry Brown.

Brown, who coached KU to a national title in 1988, is a former star player at ‘Carolina and assistant there under Dean Smith. He has great respect for both Smith and North Carolina head coach Roy Williams, who coached at KU for 15 years.

Smith is Brown’s mentor and the one who introduced Brown at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. Brown also tried to hire Williams (then a UNC assistant coach) away from Chapel Hill as his assistant when he first got the KU job in 1983. Eleven years later, Williams served as Brown’s assistant on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team.

As for UCLA, Brown coached the Bruins for two years from 1978-80. He led underdog UCLA to the national championship game in 1980. Then we come to Memphis, which is coached by John Calipari, a former assistant at Kansas under Ted Owens and Brown from 1982-85. Calipari is one of Brown’s closest friends.

“(There’s) a lot of Kansas flavor,” KU coach Bill Self said of the Final Four.

And wait, there’s more KU ties. Kansas will be playing in the Alamodome, home of the defending World Champion San Antonio Spurs. Former Jayhawk standout Jacque Vaughn is the Spurs’ backup point guard, and San Antonio’s general manager is R.C. Buford, a former assistant under Brown (1983-88) who also is one of Self’s best friends and the father of Jayhawk freshman walk-on, Chase. And don’t forget, Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich did a sabbatical under Brown at Kansas in 1986-87 when he was coaching at Pomona-Pitzer.

Brown will definitely be rooting for all four teams in San Antonio.

"I think coach Brown is a pretty smart guy,” Self said. “Think about this: He played and coached at ‘Carolina, he coached UCLA to the national championship game, he coached Kansas to a national championship and John Calipari is probably closer to him than any other person. He's going to go 1-3 this week, that's what he told me.

“So no matter who wins, he's 1-3 because three teams are going to lose. I would personally think that he's really proud of all the schools. He'll be a proud person watching the games and I bet he'll be watching from a very neutral, tied in knots position because he would want everybody to do well."

That, of course, includes Calipari, who got his coaching start under Owens as a part-time assistant in 1982. When Owens was fired after the ‘82-83 season and replaced by Brown, Calipari stayed on the staff and spent two years as a full-time assistant. He also coached the KU Junior Varsity team in 1984-85. Calipari idolized Brown and used many of his animated mannerisms as JV head coach, prompting the KU students behind the Jayhawks’ bench to call him Larry Jr.

“Obviously, Cal is proud of his time at KU,” Self said.
 
Calipari came to Kansas after a standout career at Clarion State College in Clarion, Pa. He started at point guard from 1980-82 and led the team in assists and free-throw percentage. After his last year at Kansas in 1985, Calipari moved back home and became an assistant at Pittsburgh. After three years at Pittsburgh, Calipari was head coach at the University of Massachusetts from 1988-96 before becoming head coach and executive vice president of the New Jersey Nets.

In 1999-2000, Calipari was reunited with his mentor in Philadelphia as an assistant with Brown’s 76ers. After one season in Philly, Calipari was named Memphis head coach and has been there ever since.

Through all of their various stops over the years, Calipari and Brown have stayed in close contact.

Brown has also kept a close eye on the Bruins since leaving UCLA in 1980. He used to say countless times that he never should have left UCLA. In fact, Brown almost took the Bruins’ job again immediately after KU won the national championship in 1988. However, he changed his mind, citing the bad timing of the situation. He will no doubt have mixed rooting interests in the UCLA-Memphis game.

R.C. Buford certainly won’t have any mixed interests when KU and North Carolina battle on Saturday. He and Self have been close friends for 28 years. Buford’s wife, Beth, is also a former KU standout golfer.

R.C. and Beth will be cheering hard for their son and the Jayhawks.

“It’s amazing how things play out,” Self said. “Chase decides to come here, and his (R.C.) whole deal is, ‘You better make it to San Antonio’ because of Chase getting to come back (home).”

Self talked about his longtime friendship with Buford.

"When I visited Oklahoma State on my official visit, he was a walk-on at OSU and he was my host,” Self said. “I knew him when I was a senior in high school and he was a junior in college. When I went to Oklahoma State, he was still there and when he left to come here (to Kansas in 1983 as a graduate assistant), we were obviously still close friends and he basically got me to come work camp. Because I was up here, I had the great opportunity to hurt my knee and get a job (as graduate assistant at KU in 1985-86). But we've known each other since I was 18 and been close since then.”

“Unfortunately, now that his son plays for us, I get to see him too much,” Self added with a smile. “R.C. and Beth will be there (in San Antonio) and I'm sure they'll be entertaining a lot of Kansas people because they love KU, but I won't spend much time with him. I'm going to hunker down and try to spend as little time with people as possible."

Interestingly, Buford played at Texas A&M for two seasons before transferring to Oklahoma State in 1980. His Aggies lost to Louisville in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament in ‘80, the team with superstar Darrell Griffith which beat Brown’s Bruins in the national title game.

Now, KU must beat North Carolina to return to the championship game for the first time in five years. With Brown’s ties to all four teams, it will likely be difficult for him watching the Final Four. After all, Brown always said when he coached at Kansas that he didn’t like playing friends.

But make no mistake, Brown will be smiling no matter who cuts down the nets in San Antonio on April 7.

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