Ex-Cats

Tubby Smith returns to Tulsa, where it all began

Memphis head coach Tubby Smith watches his team during the first half against Connecticut at the FedEx Forum in Memphis on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. Memphis won 70-61.
Memphis head coach Tubby Smith watches his team during the first half against Connecticut at the FedEx Forum in Memphis on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. Memphis won 70-61. Hartford Courant/TNS

Donna Smith will think back to the tears initially shed at Tulsa, as she eavesdropped in the family basement, while her husband told a group of basketball players they would not be allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. Memphis assistant Pooh Williamson is reminded of the well-timed tirades, during Tulsa’s consecutive Sweet 16 runs, when his coach kept demanding more. These were their favorite moments, during Tubby Smith’s first head coaching job, that set the tone for his entire head coaching career.

But at some point Wednesday, when the Memphis men’s basketball coach leads a game at Tulsa for the first time since leaving more than 20 years ago, he’s going to think about how it tore at him to leave.

“Probably the toughest move I’ve ever had to make,” Smith said Monday.

Before he arrived last April promising to turn around Memphis basketball with his national championship pedigree, and before he became one of two coaches to lead five schools to the NCAA Tournament, Smith was a 40-year-old worried he might be stuck after a dozen years as a college assistant.

He was Tulsa’s second choice at the time, only hired once former Coach Nolan Richardson elected to stay at Arkansas. Smith’s initial contract, according to Donna Smith, was written on a table napkin during negotiations at a fast-food restaurant. It was the first time they had enough money to open a savings account after the year-to-year uncertainty of being an assistant coach.

“I was anxious,” Tubby Smith said.

Smith, and Richardson before him, ultimately set a foundation at Tulsa that still lingers today. During Smith’s four years (1991-95) at Tulsa, he led the school to its first two Sweet 16 appearances and two Missouri Valley Conference titles. A string of successful head coaches got their start there after that, including Bill Self (Kansas).

Williamson, now a Memphis assistant, was the starting point guard on the 1993-94 team that upset UCLA and Oklahoma State before losing to eventual national champion Arkansas in the Sweet 16. He is the first player Smith recruited to the Golden Hurricanes. Shea Seals, the school’s all-time leading scorer, began his career with Smith and serves as an assistant under current Tulsa coach Frank Haith.

“Every day he approached every practice like we were about to play UCLA. I think if he did that now he’d be out of gas because no one can do that every day,” Williamson said. “That’s how he came in, but he kind of evolved into the Coach Smith who is now going to be a Hall of Fame coach. He had it, and you knew he had it.”

This credibility is already having an impact 16 games into his tenure at Memphis. The Tigers are shooting the ball better, turning the ball over less and defending more effectively of late. Smith is also beginning to see similarities to how his best Tulsa teams developed. This week, he compared redshirt junior Markel Crawford, in the midst of the best stretch of his college career with Memphis, to former Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Gary Collier because both went through late-career shooting breakthroughs.

Whereas the Tigers are limited by a thin roster, Smith’s Golden Hurricanes overcame a postseason ban levied by the NCAA to the entire athletics department for mistakes made by the track and field program. He nonetheless lauded Tulsa for providing “a basketball coach’s training” and still leans on those experiences today, even after going from the Tulsa to Georgia to Kentucky to Minnesota to Texas Tech and now Memphis.

“The biggest impact I’d say is the discipline and the leadership,” redshirt freshman K.J. Lawson said. “He lets you make your own mistakes as an individual, as a human being and a young man. He definitely plays a big role in this team winning.”

Smith and Williamson both flew back to Tulsa in March 2014 when the school recognized the 20th anniversary of their Sweet 16 teams during a halftime celebration. For Smith, it was a reminder of his fondness for Tulsa.

He is looking forward to seeing old neighbors again, and might visit the steak restaurant that used to give discounts to Tulsa’s coaches. Donna Smith still raves about the private school sons Brian, G.G. and Saul, now a Memphis assistant coach, attended. They could walk to class and Tubby remembers their Sunday basketball games together vividly.

These days, the empty nesters live in a neighborhood near campus at Memphis, only a few minutes’ drive away from the players’ housing. It’s another fresh start, built in part on what took place at Tulsa two decades ago.

“He did something there as a coach that had never been done,” Williamson said. “Obviously, they remember it and you know what, he better get a whole bunch of claps. He deserves a bunch of claps and appreciation for what he did for that program when we go back on Wednesday.”

Wednesday

Memphis at Tulsa

8 p.m. (ESPNews)

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