Jewish sports fans may have a hard time choosing a favorite team in one conference of college basketball when the 2012-13 NCAA season opens next week. Three of the head coaches in Conference-USA are Jewish.
Larry Brown, the well-traveled, championship-winning former coach of several professional and collegiate teams, is guiding the Mustangs of Southern Methodist University, located in Dallas. He joins, in Conference-USA, Ben Braun at Rice University in Houston, and John Pastner at the University of Memphis.
The phenomenon of three head coaches in a single athletic conference — most Conference-USA schools are in the Bible Belt South and Southwest — is the first-known time that this has happened in any collegiate sport. Even in basketball, the “City Game” dominated by Jewish athletes in its early days.
“It’s an aberration,” says David Kufeld, a onetime star on the Yeshiva University basketball team who has promoted sports in the Jewish community.
What’s remarkable, says Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at YU and a former YU basketball player and coach, is that no one seems to pay attention to coaches’ ethnicity, besides a few sports devotees and some journalists. “The selection of these coaches is not identified as a Jewish story by those who hired them or cheer for their teams.”
“I never thought about” the fact that he is establishing an obscure Jewish first, Brown tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “It’s a neat thing.”
Neither did Pastner, who received the Jewish Coaches Association’s Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award last year.
“It reflects very positively on the acceptance of Jews, across the board,” Kufeld says.
Braun, arguably the least prominent of the trio — Brown has ranked in the top echelon of basketball coaches for several decades; Pastner’s team usually finishes high in the NCAA tournament every year — is a former head coach in the Maccabiah Games; his 1989 U.S. team finished second, to Israel. Brown is a former Maccabiah player.
Braun came to Rice, a small, century-old private school that places among the nation’s top universities, in 2008. The coach, who early in his career also served as an English teacher, always brings an international flavor to his teams, holding clinics in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and recruiting players from abroad. This year’s Owls include players from Iran, Egypt and Lebanon. “Sports can be a bridge,” he says.
Many of his overseas recruits are Muslims; all are aware that he is a Jew. “It’s never been an issue,” the coach says.
Braun says he maintains a friendly rivalry with his Jewish head coaching peers; he’ll wish them a “Good Shabbos” at courtside if a game occurs then.
“I’m not crazy about playing against friends,” he says.
For Jewish fans, the prospect of Jewish-coached teams competing against each other is no problem, Larry Brown says — one of their favorite teams will always win.