VOL. 132 | NO. 258 | Friday, December 29, 2017
His Way: Tubby Smith Figured Out Who He Was Long Ago and He’s Not Changing
By Don Wade
When his visitor was about to leave, Orlando Tubby Smith had one more story. About a time his father had given him an assignment on the family farm in Maryland.
Tubby was one of 17 children. He had older siblings and younger siblings. He also, at age 12 or 13, already had a sense for what it was to lead and manage.
On this occasion, Tubby decided to delegate the assignment of tending a particular crop row. That’s what a leader does, right? Delegate where you can because no one can do everything all the time?
Memphis Tigers head basketball coach Tubby Smith chats with guard Malik Rhodes (11) during a break in a game against the UAB Blazers on Nov. 30, 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith said he is committed to running the Tigers’ program “the right way.” (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire)
Unfortunately for Tubby, his siblings did not complete the job he had given them.
So young Tubby explained to his father that he had no way of knowing they wouldn’t follow through. It wasn’t his fault. And his father explained to him, through a good old country whupping, that he was accountable. That when they failed him, Tubby should not have repeated their mistake and done the job himself.
In many ways, that story underscores all that Tubby Smith became and how sees himself today, at age 66, and in his second year as the head coach of his sixth Division 1 college basketball program.
He began this journey as head coach at Tulsa in the 1991-92 season. Eventually, he led the Golden Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament and he would do the same at all the other stops: Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech.
He has worked as a head coach continuously since he got that first job. Whether he left a program on his own, as was the case when Memphis hired him away from Texas Tech, or was fired, there was always another job waiting.
On Wednesday, Dec. 27, about 32 hours before the Tigers were to play LSU at FedExForum and then head to Cincinnati for the start of American Athletic Conference play, Tubby sat down with the Daily News for an exclusive interview in his office at the new Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center on the University of Memphis south campus.
During the course of the 53-minute interview, Tubby never brought up his 1998 national championship at Kentucky. He never reminded that he had taken three other Kentucky teams as far as the Elite Eight or a total of nine teams to at least the Sweet Sixteen. Or that he has three National Coach of the Year awards to his credit.
Nor did he anchor himself behind his desk in the center of his new office. He invited his guest to a small sitting area by a coffee table. He wore a blue Tigers sweat suit and his demeanor was about that relaxed. He was going to have a conversation, one he knew would include questions about the unrest in Tiger Nation, about the concerns over recruiting, about players that had left the program, about attendance and, at the root of it all, about who he is and why he operates his basketball program the way he does.
Here we share that conversation, which was edited for length and clarity.
TDN: When did you know you wanted to be a basketball coach?
Smith: I was in ninth grade. My oldest brother was a teacher, always looked up to him. My grandmother was a teacher. But then I had a coach by the name of Cecil Short in ninth grade, up in Maryland. He coached me at an all-black school, George Washington Carver. This is in 1965. And he’s JV coach. I’d never played basketball except in the back yard. He saw me playing one day at lunch time and said, `Boy, why don’t you come out for the team?’ I said, `Well, I have to work. I’m on a farm. But if you talk to my dad, he’s a school bus driver; please talk to him and see if he’ll let me play.’ So that afternoon he came to school bus and talked to my dad …
Now, the watershed moment was the spring of ’66, they were going to consolidate schools – integration had taken place – and I had to go to an all-white school, like in “Remember the Titans.” Played a few games JV ball and they moved up to varsity because I was pretty good. That March, I watched Kentucky play Texas Western at Cole Field House. It was the first college game I had watched on TV. It was in black and white. We had to use vice grips, outside of our window, to turn the antennae to try and get a picture. And so now I see a black team playing against Kentucky. And I knew right then I was gonna coach and play college basketball. It’s like a pianist, anybody that’s good at what they do, they start at an early age, they have a passion for it, and they continue to do it.
TDN: So you watch Texas Western, with five starting black players, defeat Kentucky for the NCAA national title, and you saw the whole path open up right before you?
Smith: Oh, my God, this can happen for me. Lo and behold, I’m the first black head coach at Kentucky. I get goose bumps every time I think about it.
TDN: And from a racial standpoint, you were often in the position of being a pioneer. Which was tougher, changing high schools or being the first African-American coach at Kentucky?
Smith: I’ve gotten a few letters since I’ve been successful in the business and they’ve apologized because they didn’t believe, `you were one of the best coaches we’ve had here, thank you for your integrity.’ And they were dead-set against me being the coach there. In fact, Merlene Davis – she was an African-American writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader – she wrote an article saying, `Coach, I wouldn’t come here.’ She was fearful for my life. My secretary, she wouldn’t give me those (threatening) letters and I found out later there was quite a few. So she was protecting me.
One night, I was in my kitchen at the sink. The state police pull up in my driveway with a spotlight. I lived on a cul-de-sac and so they came back again. I finally say to my secretary, `the police pulled in my driveway. Is something going on?’ She was like, `Yeah, coach, somebody was threatening …’”
TDN: You referenced “Remember the Titans,” I guess that movie rings true for you?
Smith: No question about it. I had a chance to meet coach (Herman) Boone. He came and spoke in Minneapolis. What a great man … So people look at me and wonder, `how do you handle all this (criticism in Memphis)?’ And I’m like, are you kidding me? That’s why I can handle it. My dad was great about teaching us the value of who you are, believe in yourself, sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you. Because if you respond to every word people say about you, you won’t have a life – you wouldn’t have a life! So, `did you read that?’ Or, `did you hear that?’ I really didn’t, because I don’t care to hear it and I don’t care to read it.
That’s how I survived. At Kentucky, where I was the first black coach. At Georgia, where I was the first black coach. At Great Mills High School. I’m a pretty tough hombre, you know what I mean? I’m pretty thick-skinned.
TDN: But it’s different now. Kentucky was a bigger fish bowl, but now anyplace can be a fish bowl with social media and, in this market, the wall-to-wall sports talk radio. So you’re getting criticized by someone pretty much every day …
Smith: As long as I’m doing it the right way, that’s what matters. People don’t know (what’s true). People believe because of the social media. I remember when reporters used to go on the plane with us, your beat writer was there with you all the time. But now, social media, radio, people are making a living off sports and that’s what it boils down to – money.
Coaches, we have to do it. There’s a lot of pressure on coaches. Not just to win, but you gotta sell your program to the public, you gotta put people in the stands. That’s the measure. How do you entertain people? That’s what college sports has become – entertainment. Used to be student-athletes, getting an education, but the line is so blurred now it’s out of control.
TDN: Coaches are evaluated differently, too, right? It’s all about the postseason.
Smith: Take a Gene Keady, who’s a good friend of mine. One of the greatest coaches to ever coach college basketball. Never went to the Final Four. But the only coach to win the Big Ten (for Purdue) three straight years. You see what I mean? He’s a Hall-of-Famer, an awesome coach, a better coach than I could I ever be. And I can go on and list coaches like that. So yeah, it’s changed and I don’t think it’s for the good. That’s why you see such turnover. The administration, they’re pressured. Hell, they got boosters, they listen to talk show hosts, they’re tweeting …
TDN: Yeah, I covered Gene Keady for several years. Seems back then, when he was in his prime and Bob Knight was at Indiana, the attitude was that the measure of a great coach was somebody who could beat you with his players, but also could beat you with your own players. They had good players, of course, but it was less about what level of recruit they brought in and more about what they did with them after they got there. You know?
Smith: It was coaching and teaching. But everything changes. Villanova, they just dumped all their resources into the men’s basketball program. So, there’s a reason we wanted to get into the Big 12. It’s a whole different world. And I’ve been there, in the Big Ten, the SEC, and the Big 12. We’re one of those schools, we’re working hard, doing it the right way, but times have changed …
TDN: And then with the FBI probe, the deal with coaches and shoe companies and recruits, college basketball’s underbelly maybe gets exposed in a way it never had before, and I have to think as a guy that has “done it the right way” all these years, all that must make you mad, right?
Smith: That’s life. You’re gonna have good and bad in everything. There’s good and bad in me. There’s good and bad in you. I’ve been blessed my parents raised me that you don’t compromise your principles. Only thing I have is my name. And that’s all you’re gonna leave this earth with, your name. What are they gonna say about you? I just love the game. And it’s always been pure for me.
TDN: But people look at that approach – you know this – and now they say it’s a reason you maybe don’t have a line on the elite, Top-100 recruits – some of whom are playing high school ball just down the street, or the closest of relationships with local AAU coaches?
Smith: People will (criticize), say, `you didn’t get in bed with the AAU coaches.’ No, I love the AAU coaches. My sons all played AAU ball. It’s a great resource. But now, don’t ask me to do something illegal. Don’t ask me to cheat. That’s just not in me. It is disappointing … I think the pressure, that’s what happens to a lot of folks. You gotta be able to say, `So what, they don’t think I got five-star players. So what?’ That’s it. If somebody doesn’t like it, if the program doesn’t like it, let’s go, let’s move our different ways. There’s a culture I bring to every program and you can check every program I’ve ever been in – I could probably go back to those programs as a head coach. And a lot of guys couldn’t say that. Because I left the program in better shape, took them through some tough times.
TDN: That’s not the opinion you hear the most here now, on sports talk radio and on social media …
Smith: Never ask the masses, always ask the classes. I heard that from a guy years ago. His whole take was, `Look what they did to Jesus. Barabbas or Jesus, who’d they go for? Barabbas. They crucified Jesus.’ So sometimes you gotta be a sacrificial lamb for whatever it is. I’m no Jesus, don’t get me wrong, but I’m saying in my basketball program I can’t ask, `what time do you want curfew?’ Because somebody might scream out, `oh, we don’t need curfew.’”
TDN: Everyone who cares about the Memphis program recognizes there is a serious attendance problem. Why do you think it’s so low?
Smith: Scheduling. The days we schedule. We’ve had four Tuesday games. We have to wait for the NBA schedule to come out … and you don’t want to play on Tuesdays, because that’s when high school teams play. Josh Pastner was still winning (when attendance started to drop). At every program there’s a period of time where the fans get older and you have to bring in fresh new blood. Just like with coaches. You can’t coach forever. That’s what I see. And geographically, we compete with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
TDN: When you start American Athletic Conference play did you think attendance could improve? Might the Tigers be helped by how much the Grizzles are struggling? And where is the responsibility on the program, or maybe even college basketball in general, to give the ticket-buying public a really attractive product?
Smith: I think the Grizz will get it turned around with J.B. Bickerstaff. I hated to see what happened with Fizdale. I think David Fizdale is an excellent coach.
What do we have to do to get more people in the stands? We’re winning. We’re 9-3. But we’ve got to change in college basketball. The NBA has the right formula. But they’ve got 30 (teams) and we’ve got 351.
I think it’s the economics of it, the entertainment value … when you go to a Grizzlies game, there’s something going on 24/7, at timeouts. It’s like with the College Football Playoff, in basketball we’ve got to find ways to be creative, to entertain. Even at North Carolina they don’t fill it for every game.
TDN: You’ve always emphasized recruiting players that you believe were the right fit, guys that would accept coaching, guys you could coach up, true?
Smith: That’s why you get in it. You love seeing players reach their potential, becoming a good father, a good citizen. A good basketball player is just a byproduct of all the other lessons you have to teach. First you got to teach them about work ethic, sacrifice, commitment, all those things. Most of the time you got here (as a player) because you’re just gifted. But what you going to do with it?
TDN: Your point guard, Jeremiah Martin, has talent obviously, but he’s also taken a big step from last year to this year.
Smith: Jeremiah can be a point guard in the NBA. He just needs to continue to grow. He’s gotten better as an outside shooter. He’s a better free-throw shooter. Every player I ever coached, even last year’s team, improved their stats from the year before. Look it up. Except maybe Dedric (Lawson) didn’t shoot as high a percentage of threes. But Jeremiah really matured, starting to talk more, in a leadership role. We sent him to a program with Athletes in Action this summer. And it’s starting to manifest itself.
TDN: I know you said the way you grew up, being the first black coach at Kentucky, all those things prepared you to handle the criticism or second-guessing you’ve experienced here. But it has be tougher when it’s a situation like with the Lawsons. Previous coach gives the father, Keelon, a job on staff. His sons Dedric and K.J. are on the team, the team’s most talented players. You inherit all that. They ultimately decide to transfer to Kansas and some of the things that got put out on social media about you were pretty rough.
Smith: I always use the term, `it is what it is,’ and people have choices. No one’s making you stay here. We’re trying to do the best we can and if it’s not what you think it should be for you and your family, or you as a player, it’s your choice to go. We’re gonna be fair with you. We’re gonna be honest with you.
TDN: All coaches second-guess themselves on plays or maybe lineups, but it sounds like you don’t ever second-guess the way you treat your players?
Smith: If I did something wrong, if I personally attacked … I just apologize. And they’ll tell you, ‘Coach Smith came and said I’m sorry and this is what’s going on.’ Maybe it’s in my personal life. Maybe something happened, fellas. And they have that, too. It’s why maybe they’re a certain way on a day.
TDN: So you didn’t lose sleep over the Lawson situation?
Smith: No. no. I’ve had transfers before. Anytime there’s a new transition, there’s going to be people that are wanting to leave. There’s a lot pressure on the Lawsons. It’s just a tough situation.
TDN: Meaning, a lot of pressure on the kids?
Smith: Yeah, and the dad, and the family. It’s tough. And I’m sensitive to that. And they’ve got a great family. And Dedric and K.J. are very talented players. Hated to lose them, that’s for certain. But it happens.
TDN: A lot of places you’ve been, there was a point where fans wondered if you’d get it done. But time ticked more slowly in the 1990s or even five, 10 years ago. With social media, sports talk radio, just the pace everyone lives, impatience comes faster now. How do you deal with that?
Smith: Well, the minute they start paying my salary then I’ll be concerned. Yeah, it’s disappointing. But I’ve been the same person everywhere. I’ve been very cordial. I’m polite. I’m gracious. I’m humble. I mean, what do you want? I don’t know what they want. I just do my job, that’s all I do. I don’t have to worry about what others’ expectations are. I have enough expectations. Nobody living wants to win the Louisville game more than me and this team. Nobody works harder. They just don’t know what goes into it. Like any family, you don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.
TDN: At some level, it seems like fans and some media do want you to change. They do want you to get out of your comfort zone, maybe create a grander presentation, or have more sizzle, or whatever word you want to use?
Smith: Well that’s what we have a marketing group for, a promotions group for. I don’t necessarily measure my worth by social media. And that’s it, who are you relying on to measure your worth?
TDN: What don’t fans know about Tubby Smith?
Smith: I’m pretty open-book. What you see is what you get. I was the one out there dancing during the Memphis Madness. That’s me. I’m a fun-loving guy. I know in any program to restore and rebuild it takes time. It’s not going to happen in a year, or two years, or maybe in three years. I don’t know what attendance was year before last year and the year before that, but there’s a lot of factors that influence attendance. Economic woes. Location. One thing about this, we’ve got the best fans. Memphis has always had people that supported it. I remember that coming here when they played at the Mid-South Coliseum. I think things that will help us will be to continue to grow our athletic department, and obviously what Mike Norvell has done with football is a big help.
TDN: What’s your go-to for music?
Smith: I’m into the Four Tops, The Temptations, The Isley Brothers, good gospel.
TDN: And movies?
Smith: I like anything with Denzel Washington. I wasn’t big on the one he got the award for, “Training Day” was off the charts, but the other ones I’ve been very impressed with.
TDN: Your go-to places in Memphis?
Smith: I love the Peabody. We go to a bunch of barbecue places.
TDN: Strange question: If you had a basketball-only tombstone – you know, take out loving husband and father – what would you want it to say?
Smith: Oh, that he was a man of his word, a man of integrity. He did it the right way. I would think that’s all I want. There’s not much more in your life than that.
TDN: So these coaches who got caught up, made bad decisions, you think that was out of fear? Did they not trust they could keep up if they kept everything between the lines?
Smith: That’s part of it. It was a lot of young coaches, trying to make a name for themselves.
TDN: But not all young coaches. You were an assistant under Rick Pitino a long time ago.
Smith: Rick and I are great friends. It’s just a tough thing. It’s concerning. I’m concerned about him because he’s had a brilliant, unbelievable Hall-of-Fame career … things can trip you up.
TDN: And is there a lesson in that for you? That anybody can be tripped up, as you say?
Smith: It can happen easily. You have to be aware and constantly in thought and prayer. You have to have someone that can mentor you, a round table that can keep you honest, keep you humble. That does help a lot. And organizations like Nations of Coaches, organizations that minister to coaches. Athletes in Action. I talk to them. And they send me things to read.
TDN: Last question. There’s that old line from long-time NFL coach Bill Parcells, you know that you are what your record says you are. That’s true at a practical, competitive level, but it also feels like there might be a danger in it. You know, if you begin to believe you’re as good as your record, or your best years?
Smith: Well, it’s not my record anyway. And that’s what I tell people. It’s the players’. I always keep that in mind. It’s those guys that come together as a unit and play. And we benefit from it. As long as I can keep that number one, I’ll be OK.