By Mark F. Gray, AFRO Staff Writer, [email protected]
High Point University coach Tubby Smith’s basketball life has come full circle. In a career that spans almost three decades he’s won a national championship and built a resume that is Hall of Fame worthy. Smith is one of two head coaches to guide five different programs to the NCAA Division I Tournament. However, in the twilight of his career he has returned to his alma mater to try and bring it the prominence of the storied programs he’s previously stewarded while coaching in the “furniture capital of the world.”
“I owe this place so much,” Smith tells the AFRO. “I met my wife here. I played here, and it’s important for me to give something back to a place that has meant so much to me”.
Smith leads the Big South Conference school, to the District this weekend as they face the University of Richmond in the opening game of Events DC’s Holiday Hoops Fest at the Sports and Entertainment Arena in Southeast. The doubleheader also features Hampton versus Howard in the first college basketball event at D.C.’s newest sports facility.
The Scotland, Maryland native cut his coaching teeth at his alma mater Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County. Smith, the sixth of 17 children by Guffrie and Parthenia Smith, learned the value of hard work delivering furniture as an undergrad which served him well as one of the great program builders in college basketball.
This weekend’s game is the second block in the foundation that he’s building to carve his place amongst the elite programs on Tobacco Road. He’s already made a significant financial commitment to building a new 4,500 seat on-campus facility that will open in two years, as they look to become more than just the best kept secret in the Piedmont Triad.
“It’s tough because there’s a lot of great programs in this area,” Smith says. “You’re competing against ACC, Atlantic 1O, MEAC, and many other great conferences around here. We’re just trying to work hard and make our university and the surrounding community better.”
Ironically, that was the contention officials at the University of Memphis used when releasing him from his contract with three years and $9.75 million remaining on the deal. There are those on Beale St. who contend that Smith wasn’t friendly enough with the community, so he was replaced by former NBA All Star and Memphis legend Penny Hardaway. Smith, however, acknowledges there may have been other intangibles that worked against him which led to his demise.
“We’d always been active in the community wherever we’ve been,” Smith said. “The fact that [Penny] had one of the top recruits in the nation didn’t hurt his cause either. We left him with a lot of talent. I’m sure he’ll do a great job.”
Rebuilding programs has been the strength of Smith during his career. He was an assistant for 18 years before getting his first chance to lead a program when he took the reigns at Tulsa in 1991. After leading the Oklahoma school to consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16 he became a barrier breaking coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Smith was the first Black head coach at Georgia and immediately made the basketball program relevant at a football school. Consecutive 20-win seasons and appearances in the Sweet 16 caught the attention of then Kentucky athletic director C.M Newton. Newton, who played at Kentucky under Adolph Rupp –a devout segregationist who vowed never to play Black players- gave him the break to lead Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA Championship and earn a place in their Hall of Fame despite his cultural heritage.