Sidelines with John Clay

Hoping Tubby Smith ends career on high note at High Point

Tubby Smith is shown during an introductory press conference as High Point University in High Point, N.C., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Smith is the new NCAA college basketball head coach at the school. He won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998.
Tubby Smith is shown during an introductory press conference as High Point University in High Point, N.C., Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Smith is the new NCAA college basketball head coach at the school. He won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998. News & Record/Associated Press

The way Tubby Smith tells the story, coming out of high school he was offered a scholarship to play basketball at Maryland. When Lefty Driesell took over as head coach, however, he revoked revoked the offer and asked Smith to walk-on instead.

And Smith was ready to do just that, until he asked his father.

“Don’t you have a scholarship offer to High Point? asked Guffrie Smith, a Maryland sharecropper who raised 17 children.

“Yes,” said his son.

“Then you’re going to High Point,” said the elder Smith.

And that’s all there was to it, remembers Tubby Smith, who earned All-Conference honors at the then Division II school in North Carolina as a senior in 1973, where he also met his wife Donna -- High Point’s 1976 homecoming queen -- and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

Now he’s returning as head coach. The 66-year-old Smith, who won a national championship at Kentucky in 1998, was formally introduced as the school’s basketball coach on Tuesday.

“I’ve got a lot left in me,” Smith said.

The hiring came two weeks after Smith was fired at Memphis, where he went 40-26 in two troubled seasons marked by lopsided losses and drops in attendance in donations. Local hero Penny Hardaway was named to succeed Smith.

Hindsight being 20-20, Smith should have never left Texas Tech, where he led the Red Raiders to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2016, the school’s first since 2007. Yes, that’s the same Texas Tech that reached this year’s East Region final under Smith’s successor, Chris Beard, with many of the players Tubby recruited to Lubbock.

In fact, Smith joined Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger as the only two coaches to lead five different schools to the NCAA Tournament. Kruger accomplished that feat at Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma. Smith did it at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech.

It all started at High Point, however, which moved up to Division I in 1999. A member of the Big South Conference, the Panthers have yet to make it to the Big Dance. Scott Cherry, a former North Carolina Tar Heel was let go after nine seasons. He went 15-16 and 14-16 the past two years.

When Smith left the North Carolina school in 1973, he returned to his native Maryland as a high school coach before being hired as an assistant by J.D. Barnett at VCU. (Barnett had coached Smith for a season at High Point.) Smith then spent three seasons with George Felton at South Carolina before he joined a fellow named Rick Pitino at Kentucky.

The rest is history. Pitino turned UK around. Smith became head coach at Tulsa in 1991. He moved to Georgia in 1995. Then succeeded Pitino at UK in 1997, becoming the first African-American head basketball coach in the history of the school. In 1998, Smith guided Kentucky to a win over Rick Majerus and Utah in the national championship game.

Along the way and after that, through ups and downs, Smith has been universally praised as a decent, caring coach of integrity. Wrote Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins: “Smith is a man of class, character and accomplishment -- and none of that might be enough to succeed in his current gig.”

Calkins was right and now, ironically, Smith is following the path Lefty Driesell once took. Fired after 17 years at Maryland, Driesell dropped down to mid-major jobs at first James Madison (1988 to 1997) and then Georgia State. (1997-2003). He took both schools to the NCAA Tournament.

The hope here is Tubby Smith does the same at High Point.

Tubby Smith coaching record

Year

School

Record

Conf

Post-season

1991-92

Tulsa

17-13

12-6

1992-93

Tulsa

15-14

10-8

1993-94

Tulsa

23-8

15-3

NCAA Sweet 16

1994-95

Tulsa

24-8

15-3

NCAA Sweet 16

1995-96

Georgia

21-10

9-7

NCAA Sweet 16

1996-97

Georgia

24-9

10-6

NCAA 1st round

1997-98

Kentucky

35-4

14-2

NCAA champions

1998-99

Kentucky

28-9

11-5

NCAA Elite 8

1999-00

Kentucky

23-10

12-4

NCAA 2nd round

2000-01

Kentucky

24-10

12-4

NCAA Sweet 16

2001-02

Kentucky

22-10

10-6

NCAA Sweet 16

2002-03

Kentucky

32-4

16-0

NCAA Elite 8

2003-04

Kentucky

27-5

13-3

NCAA 2nd round

2004-05

Kentucky

28-6

14-2

NCAA Elite 8

2005-06

Kentucky

22-13

9-7

NCAA 2nd round

2006-07

Kentucky

22-12

9-7

NCAA 2nd round

2007-08

Minnesota

20-14

8-10

NIT 1st round

2008-09

Minnesota

22-11

9-9

NCAA 1st round

2009-10

Minnesota

21-14

9-9

NCAA 1st round

2010-11

Minnesota

17-14

6-12

2011-12

Minnesota

23-15

6-12

NIT runner-up

2012-13

Minnesota

21-13

8-10

NCAA 2nd round

2013-14

Texas Tech

14-18

6-12

2014-15

Texas Tech

13-19

3-15

2015-16

Texas Tech

19-13

9-9

NCAA 1st round

2016-17

Memphis

19-13

9-9

2017-18

Memphis

21-13

10-8

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments