Larry Brown was no visionary back in 1985 when he hosted the first Late Night in Kansas University history.
“We had no idea it’d become this,” former Jayhawks coach Brown said of Late Night in the Phog, one of the most popular events in the entire KU school year.
“You look around the country and so many people are copying it. I don’t think any compare to this.”
Brown in fact says he had no way of knowing Late Night would grow and grow and today would be celebrating its 25th anniversary in Allen Fieldhouse.
“We took the job and had a couple tough years prior to us coming to KU. Mark Freidinger (KU assistant) and some guys wanted to bring some enthusiasm to the program. We just did it,” said Brown, current coach of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Brown’s first Late Night With Larry Brown drew 6,000 fans. At the time that was considered a huge success.
“It was fabulous. I was thrilled with the students,” said Brown, whose first Late Night came in Year Three of his five-year KU tenure. “The students made it all worthwhile, and I know our kids enjoyed it.”
As to why Brown assistant Freidinger even approached Larry with the idea ...
“We did Late Night at Wake Forest,” said Freidinger, a former Demon Deacon assistant coach, who currently works as color analyst on Wake radio broadcasts and also is a scout for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
“We had Late Night in our practice gym (at Wake) in front of 3,000 kids. Our guys warmed up, dunked and played 20 minutes. The students went crazy.
“I mentioned it to Larry. I said, ‘As crazy as KU fans are for basketball, we may sell it out.’ He thought I was crazy. The fact we got 6,000 fans convinced him it was a good idea. The first one we rolled out some basketballs, dunked and scrimmaged.”
Current KU coach Bill Self was a graduate assistant on Brown’s 1985-86 staff for the historic first Late Night.
“I do remember it. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first year they did Late Night,” Self said. “That was when Jams shorts were a big fad. I remember the whole coaching staff wore Jams, those Hawaiian looking shorts.”
“Jams were big. The wilder the colors the better,” Freidinger recalled.
Self remembers a funny prank played at Late Night 1985.
“I remember we had a guy named Jerry Johnson on that team,” Self said of the 6-foot-7 freshman from Omaha, Neb. “The seniors, who were led by Calvin (Thompson), told Jerry Johnson they wanted him to lead us out on the court for Late Night.
“Everybody was all excited, jumping around. When it was time to go out there, he runs out full speed and nobody else is with him. He was the only guy on the court. It was a little joke on the freshman. I remember all those good times,” Self added.
KU’s fans played a huge role in that first Late Night.
Many students wore T-shirts that read: “Late Night With Larry Brown. Starring the 1985-86 Kansas basketball team ... all the way to Dallas.”
That team did make it to Dallas and the Final Four, where KU lost to Duke in the national semifinals.
“I remember the T-shirts. I still have one from each year,” said Freidinger, who worked at KU two seasons and jokes he’s “the only coach in KU history to never lose a game in Allen Fieldhouse.”
The crowd, by the way, doubled to 12,000 for the second Late Night With Larry. Guest of honor was David Letterman foil, “Larry Bud Melman,” who told a few corny jokes to the crowd after signing autographs at the Burge Union for an hour.
KU assistant Freidinger and Melman performed one of the first skits in Late Night history. Freidinger drank some wild concoction of chocolate milk, raw eggs and pepper, mixed in a blender by KU players, eager to kid their coach before the start of the season.
“I remember we talked to CBS to try to get David Letterman. We couldn’t get him to come,” Freidinger recalled. “I think the student government got Larry Bud Melman. I remember doing a skit with him. He put on a KU uniform and said he wanted to try out for the team. I said, ‘We don’t need you to try out. We have the best team in the United States.’ The crowd went crazy,” Freidinger said.
“Then we had a contest that was rigged. I lost and had to drink a concoction. There was Coke in it. Corn in it. I had to chug it. I almost gagged. I remember it vividly. How can I forget? I almost died.”
Freidinger has scouted games at KU in his position with the Spurs, but has not seen a Late Night since the mid-1980s. He’s stayed in contact with Self.
“You knew Billy would be a good coach. He paid attention at the meetings. He had the drive,” Freidinger said. “I believe he’s one of the best recruiters in the United States. He has the ability to connect with young people and understands the great tradition of the University of Kansas.”
Freidinger remembers phoning Self immediately after KU’s coach accepted the post seven years ago.
“He said, ‘Dinger can you imagine? A 25-year-old grad assistant is now sitting in the big chair. Isn’t America great?’”
• Today, of course, is not the 25th anniversary of Late Nights across the land.
Maryland held the first Late Night back in 1970.
“Everybody gives Kentucky credit for having the first one. They weren’t even close,” former KU coach Roy Williams said. “Lefty Driesell had the first one. It was his first year at Maryland about 1970. He did it and it was not a big affair. Lefty had ’em out there at 12:01 a.m. for practice. I don’t even know if people watched it, but they practiced.”
Many of the 6,000 fans at the first-ever Late Night wore T-shirts that read, “Late Night With Larry Brown. Starring the 1985-86 Kansas basketball team … all the way to Dallas.” The team reached the Final Four in Dallas.
Guest of honor Larry Bud Melman of the “Late Night With David Letterman Show” signed autographs at the satellite union before a huge throng of fans.
Current KU assistant coach Danny Manning and teammate Scooter Barry sang The Temptations’ song: “My Girl.” KU went on to win the national title.
“Later With Roy Williams” drew 10,000 fans. Alonzo Jamison shattered the backboard in warmups.
KU officials charged a $5 fee to gain admission to what was billed as a concert and season-opening basketball celebration. Admission never was charged again.
More than 13,000 fans showed for the late Sunday night/early Monday morning proceedings. Rex Walters scored 16 and amazed the crowd with violent dunks.
Williams decided Late Night would be better suited on a Friday night, not Monday, the first day KU could practice in accordance with NCAA rules. The fans responded by packing the building. It has been “sold out” ever since.
Seven-footer Greg Ostertag dressed up as Frankenstein.
This Late Night marked the debut of freshmen Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, B.J. Williams and Nick Proud, as well as Cal transfer Jerod Haase. It’s about the time recruiting became a major hobby/obsession with fans, who were quite eager to see the newcomers in action.
Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett and golfing great Tom Watson joined former Royals' center fielder Brian McRae and ex-Chief defensive back Deron Cherry as honorary coaches.
Football coach Glen Mason was honored on a Saturday night event, held after KU’s win at Oklahoma during a 10-2 season.
Scot Pollard proposed to his girlfriend, Mindy Camp. She accepted.
A transfer from LSU, Lester Earl wore a black leather jacket in a spoof of 1950s music. He had several dunks in warmups.
The theme was “Night at the Naismiths” — an awards show in which guest judges rated acts and presented not an Oscar, but a “Naismith’’ to the winners.
Big men Eric Chenowith and Jeff Carey played electric guitar as Nick Collison sang vocals for the Limp Bizkit song, “Faith.”
Drew Gooden sat in a canoe with John Crider as the canoe was pulley-ed across the fieldhouse floor.
Keith Langford, Wayne Simien, Michael Lee, Aaron Miles and Jeff Hawkins serenaded their mothers in a song and dance.
KU senior Nick Collison played Texas Tech coach Bob Knight in one skit, and senior Kirk Hinrich played Missouri coach Quin Snyder in another.
The 1988 title team, led by coach Larry Brown, was introduced at Bill Self’s first Late Night in the Phog.
Tuxedo-clad Kansas University seniors Keith Langford, Michael Lee, Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien bowed their heads reverently while grasping KU's 1988 national-championship trophy at the conclusion of a dramatic skit to start Late Night. KU fell in the first round of the NCAAs that season.
For the first time ever, the festivities started at 6:30 p.m. instead of 10 or so according to new NCAA rules.
The junior class of Jeremy Case, Sasha Kaun, C.J. Giles, Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson and Rodrick Stewart “waltzed” their way to a dance competition victory over the Jayhawk sophomores, who “tangoed,” and freshmen, who twirled to the “swing” in front of judges Self, Manning and Aaron Miles.
Players were carted to the fieldhouse in a Corvette, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, BMW, Hummer, Avalanche and stretch limousine onto a Red Carpet for interviews with “Survivor” winner and KU grad Danni Boatwright.
Kansas University unveiled its national championship banner to the delight of the fans.