Date story was published: Monday, January 19, 1987
The man has always mastered the unexpected. Who else, before playing Kentucky, would have Happy Chandler speak to his troops? Who else, after whipping the stuffings out of the mighty Wildcats, would dare say Adolph Rupp, the Baron himself, might have been rooting for LSU? You know who. Dale Brown: The Master Blaster.
And, yesterday, LSU was dynamite. Kentucky got blasted. The final was 76-41. And through the shock and the embarrassment -- "It was horrible," said Eddie Sutton, a red face trimmed in blue -- this came through: No one does the unexpected quite like Dale Brown. No one.
Remember last season? Kentucky beat LSU twice in the regular season, then once again in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Then when it counted most, in the finals of the Southeast Region, the Tiger coach throws up something called "The Freak" defense and LSU runs off with a 59-57 win and the Final Four trip.
So what does Brown do yesterday? He junks "The Freak." Not once did the Tigers play the defense that killed the Cats a year ago. "Knowing what an outstanding coach Eddie Sutton is, I thought Eddie would prepare for our 'Freak' defense all week," Brown said. "So I took a calculated risk and decided not to use any freak at all unless we had to. I told Ron (Abernathy, LSU's assistant coach) two days ago, 'Let's go with a straight man defense and see what happens.' "
If what had happened had been failure? "I would be in here pleading insanity," Brown said.
Instead, the result was Cat chaos. UK committed 26 turnovers, 19 in the first half. Kentucky hit but 12 field goals -- five of them three-pointers -- for an even 25 percent from the floor on the way to its worst defeat since any Wildcat fan could bear to remember.
"I don't want to sit up here and act like we've got something magical or anything," said Brown at the post-game press conference. "What worked for us today might not work for us tomorrow. I don't get into this stuff about coaching geniuses and all that."
Then how's this? For all his zaniness and wild statements and crazy proclamations, Dale Brown can coach a little. Better still: Dale Brown coaches best from the bottom.
Which is exactly where LSU was, 9-8 overall, a pitiful 1-5 in the Southeastern Conference. "We had nothing to lose," Brown said. "We were in the cellar. That's not a fun place to be."
But he knows the place. He was there last year, taking a team once 9-9 and coaxing it to the Final Four. "A testimony to the human spirit," he called it. And here LSU was again. The Tigers had lost three straight and four of their last five. Tuscaloosa on Thursday was the latest stop. The Tigers played well but lost, 69-65 to Alabama, the conference's best team.
It was after that game, and in the Marriott in Lexington and on the practice floor at Rupp ("Can't we take up a collection and get some heat in this building," said Brown) that Brown laid the plans for the Tiger comeback.
"I thought there were two key things," Brown said. "Last year we played Georgetown at Georgetown and played so well and lost. It was at a time when we were falling apart. We had the chicken pox and all that. And we went there and played well and I felt like it was a turnaround game. Don Redden called me the other night from Switzerland -- he's playing pro ball over there -- and he told me he never forgot what I told the team after that game. I told them that we could crawl to the Final Four. The Alabama game was the same way. After that game, I told them that we could go back to a national tournament."
That was the first part. Psychology. Brown's forte. Just to be sure, he pulled one more emotional string. Brown had ex-Kentucky governor Happy Chandler, a good friend, speak to his Tigers before yesterday's game.
Strategy was the second part and there Brown came through again, pulling two unexpected moves, which no doubt caught UK off its guard.
The first was the absence of the "Freak." The second was a high-post offense the Tigers had practiced on for only three days. "No one could have seen it," Brown said, "because we've never used it."
Defense took care of the first half. Kentucky had the basketball for 35 possessions. About 54 percent of those ended in a turnover. In fact, the Wildcats had three more errors than field-goal attempts (19 to 16).
"It worked so well," Brown said, "at halftime I told our team that we weren't going to play one ounce of zone. We were going to win this game on guts."
Reportedly he told the team something else. Something along the lines of their having the front yard mowed. Now they were going to mow the backyard. "Then," Brown supposedly told his team, "we're going to go into the house and mow the carpet."
Offense carried the second half. LSU shot 71 percent from the floor. The visitors scored the first 11 points and outscored the Wildcats 45-15 through 17 minutes of the second half.
Then Brown kept right on with the unexpected. He didn't gloat. He didn't jump up and down and proclaim this the beginning of an LSU dynasty.
"I think the mistake we make is that we think we have to grasp everything and you don't in this game," Brown said. "We could play tomorrow and maybe they beat us by 30."
But Kentucky losing by 35? At home? What would Adolph Rupp have thought?
"Adolph and I were very close," Brown said. "Our emotions were so close I'm not so sure he might not have been cheering for us today."
If so, late yesterday, he would have been about the only one. At the end, few were cheering. UK fans were either quiet, or leaving, or gone.
"I told our team, 'Watch for it,' " said Brown. " 'If you weather the storm and the showers and everything, there'll be empty stands.' "
And there were.