University of Memphis assistant coach Saul Smith knows what it feels like to be on top, having been a freshman player on Kentucky’s 1998 national championship team that was led by his father, new Tigers head coach Tubby Smith.
But he’s familiar, too, with what life’s like when your name draws attention for the wrong reasons, as his did nearly four years ago when he pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in Minneapolis while he was an assistant coach under his father at Minnesota. Though he returned to the bench that season after being placed on unpaid leave, Smith spent the next three seasons working as a video coordinator under his father at Texas Tech.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Commercial Appeal, the 37-year-old Smith spoke openly about what he learned from his 2012 DWI, what it’s like working for his father (who’s almost certainly a future Hall of Famer) and what he’ll bring to the table in his role as an assistant at Memphis.
Q: How are you enjoying yourself in Memphis so far?
A: I’ve found a house. It wasn’t fun living in a hotel. No doubt about that. But it’s not a big deal for me. I’m single, I’m not married, I don’t have any kids. So I know the rest of these (coaches) probably have a little bit more difficult time (moving) than I do, so I don’t complain about it.
Q: What’s your typical day been like?
A: Right now we’re solidifying our 2017 — well, it’s pretty solid — and our 2018 recruiting lists and you want to make sure they’re where they need to be and find the right kind of players. It takes time, making phone calls and getting transcripts. For me, the last two and a half years, I haven’t really been doing a lot of the out-and-about recruiting (in his role as video coordinator at Texas Tech). But I had been doing it nine years before that (as an assistant at Tennessee Tech and Minnesota), so it’s not like it’s something new to me.
Plus, out of everybody on our staff, I’m the nearest one to having worked here in Tennessee, when I worked at Tennessee Tech. So I’ve made a lot of connections with high school coaches in this region and in central Tennessee. So it’s fun to get to reopen those lines of communication. I remember I used to spend days here in Memphis, just going to each high school and introducing myself to every coach. Some of them are still here. It was a lot different then (at Tennessee Tech). You had to drive everywhere. Here, you know, you can fly.
Q: Do you enjoy the recruiting part of it, the grinding and making the calls? I get the feeling (fellow Memphis assistant coach) Joe (Esposito) loves that part of it. He seems to really eat it up. Or do you enjoy the Xs and Os (of coaching) more?
A: If I had to put one ahead of the other, obviously I love the Xs and Os, the preparation on the court and the teaching and skill development stuff. The last few years I was doing a lot of analytics up at Texas Tech, which was new to me. I feel like I’m pretty decently well-versed in some of that stuff now, being that I’ve been to two or three seminars every summer mainly with NBA guys and the higher-level analytic guys.
Recruiting, to me, is the lifeblood of a program. But the great thing about working for a guy like Coach Smith is if a player is not interested or kind of puts us to the side, we don’t even worry about it. We just move on to the next kid. He’s won with less players; he’s won with great players. So when a kid struggles to figure out what he wants to do, we’re like, ‘Look, you’ve got a scholarship offer. We’re willing to take you if you really want to come. We’re letting you know we’ve got two or three other kids in mind.’ And if they say, ‘Coach, I’m gonna wait,’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s been great. Let us know if we can do something for you,’ and we’ll just go sign the other kid. We don’t have time for that.
Q: How much do you see analytics changing coaching? How important is that stuff now, as the son of an old-school head coach?
A: I would see it as a tool to assist you in your decision. I would definitely not put it as something that I’m gonna weigh more than what I see and what I know. Say for instance, we had a player that allegedly in practice — when we did the statistics — he was making shots and he was one of our best shooters. Everyone on our staff was like, ‘We need to get him more shots from certain areas because that’s the shots he makes.’
I said, ‘I don’t care what you’re talking about — he still only makes 17 percent.’ I said, ‘I’ve played with a lot of players that could make a lot of shots — in practice. But when the game comes on, some guys can’t make one.’ You know what I’m saying? So I don’t want to hear about, you know, ‘Well, when we charted everything he did in practice,’ and dah dah dah dah dah. I’m like, ‘Look, the guy’s a career 17-percent three-point shooter. I don’t want to hear that crap.’ You know what I mean?
Q: What do you think of the roster you have this season?
A: Obviously, this is not ideal of what you would like. We’re not coming into a full roster of sophomores and juniors. The good thing is, though, you can come in and kind of make the roster the way you want it. We got a late start with the recruiting. I believe we’d be in a different situation had we gotten here a month earlier.
But the one thing Coach Smith is good at is making sure we don’t take the wrong kid late, you know? Because a lot of times you try to fill that roster out and you get some bad apples. I don’t really know the history of it here, but I know what we’ve known in the past. That’s the beauty of having a veteran, seasoned, wise coach and leader like Tubby Smith.
Q: I notice you call him ‘Coach Smith’ and ‘Tubby Smith.’ Never dad?
A: Only when we’re at home, man. It’s out of respect.
Q: Has it been fun, learning from him and being a son who gets to work with his dad?
A: That’s the fun part. The fun part is you’re learning and you’re sharing that experience. There’s obviously some not-fun parts. (Smith laughs.)
Q: Is he tougher on you because you’re his son or does he treat you just like one of the other guys?
A: He treats me like every other person, but he also has pretty high expectations. It goes all the way back to when I played for him at Kentucky. I’m not saying he was on me harder, but, like I said, he had higher expectations. If I didn’t win that sprint or work my tail off in that weight room or go harder in that drill, obviously he’s not just my coach at that time — he’s also my dad and he’s like, ‘Look, I expect more out of you because I’ve seen you grow.’ Any father would tell you that — ‘I want my son to work the hardest.’ Plain and simple.
Q: The 2 1/2 years you weren’t on the road recruiting (after the DWI), how tough was that?
A: That part was extremely tough for me, being that the best part about coaching, to me, is the fact that I’m on the court, trying to share my knowledge with the players and let ‘em know the one thing I was great at as a player and as an assistant coach was motivating and getting the players playing at a peak level. Anybody that’s ever played with me will tell you that. The 14 NBA players that I (played with) when I was in college, they all will tell you that, ‘Hey, I love playing with that guy because he’s gonna get me the ball; he’s gonna put me in the right situations; he’s not gonna let me do nothing stupid.’ If (players) needed a swift butt-kicking, I would’ve done it. If I needed to bump you up, I’d bump you up. That’s just the way I am, man. I’m a team guy all the way.
Q: What did you have to do for the community service part of your DWI?
A: When it occurred, I didn’t just wait until I went to court. I immediately started. I did about 65 hours (of community service). I did some counseling. I went to an alcohol assessment person. I sat with this lady twice a week for a couple of weeks before I went to court. I wanted to get an assessment, and it worked out well because the lady helped me prioritize some things. Obviously, I worked hard at my job, and when I left work I wanted to have fun. I wanted to do dumb stuff.
I started volunteering at this shelter in Minneapolis. Then I went to this AA (Alcoholics Anonymous meeting place) and volunteered there and answered the phone from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. All the while people would come knocking on the door looking for a place to sleep or a place to rest or they just wanted some coffee or they had just come down from a binge or something. And I was there to help. I was there to meet them at the door. Then I would leave there and go to work. I did that for a few weeks and obviously it accumulated into a lot more hours (of community service) than what was required of me. It’s helped me put things in perspective.
Q: Is that the biggest takeaway? That experience helped you put things in perspective?
A: I don’t get any passes. When I made that one mistake in my life for doing that, obviously not many people are going to have it on the ESPN ticker when it happens, like me. It’s not gonna be front-page news. So, to me, I’ve always known who my father was. I’ve always known I was a former athlete and things like that. But you don’t really know until you screw up. Like I said, it opened my eyes. I learned so much from that mistake. If anything, I hope it’s given some other people some examples, even if it was my closest buddies.
Q: Is it something you’ll talk openly about with players as far as not making the same mistake?
A: I talk openly all the time about it to players. I’m like, ‘Look, man, you gotta realize — you cannot make this mistake.’ I said, ‘I never made it in college, but I made it when I was 33 years old, and I’m telling you now — first of all — it’s going to be expensive. Second of all, it’s gonna be tough to recover from this when it comes to getting a job somewhere.’
Or, just, when you make those mistakes, man, you really feel ashamed. Like, that was a big part of what I felt — I was really ashamed, you know? And I thought the last couple years in Texas, for me, helped me refocus. You know, I wanna be a head coach one day. I want to lead a program and I want to make the right decisions and be a shining example for a university and the people that are affiliated with that — be an example for young men and be successful. And I can’t do that until I’ve come to grips and accepted that. I think I have. It’s past me. I’m excited for the challenges ahead of me in life.