Maybe Tubby Smith is overlooked because he’s a bit of a basketball journeyman. Those who build programs and stay put tend to be venerated; Smith’s late-March return to High Point University, 45 years after he graduated, marked his seventh Division I head coaching stop since the 1991-92 season.
“I’ve moved so much,” Smith says of settling an average of 4.5 seasons at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Memphis. “I’m always, not envious, but always respectful of guys who’ve been able to last.”
Smith’s longest tenure was a decade at high-powered, demanding UK (1998-2007), where his inaugural team won the NCAA championship. That he was the first African-American coach at Kentucky -- whose basketball program integrated late -- intensified the degree of difficulty.
Perhaps the mild-mannered Smith, 67 next month, largely eludes notice because, in a Twitter- and Facebook-besotted world where many clamor to be on display, he avoids drawing attention to himself. Doubtless Orlando Smith (nicknamed Tubby for his leisurely exits from baths in the family washtub) learned to humbly wait his turn as the sixth of 17 children of Guffrie and Parthenia Smith.
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Raised amid a tomato field near the small community of Scotland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Smith’s role model was his stern father, a self-made man and World War II Army master sergeant. The family patriarch owned a chartered bus that took Tubby Smith to Baltimore for his first NBA game, igniting his love of basketball.
Years later Guffrie Smith calmed his anxious son, discouraging the notion he’d chosen a pressure-packed profession. “Boy, don’t you ever think what you’re doing is pressure!” admonished the bus driver, farmer and barber. “Think what I have to do – feed 17 mouths.”
Given that guidance, it’s no wonder the coach with the composed manner and ready laugh strikes some observers as too laid-back for the big time. “Don’t get me wrong,” Smith offers. “I’m as intense as anybody. I want to beat you, but I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep over it. I’m just not.”
Smith also took to heart career advice from an older pair of Hall of Fame coaches. He was steered to most of his head coaching jobs by C.M. Newton, Kentucky’s AD when Smith was hired to replace Rick Pitino. And, thanks to Frank McGuire’s instruction on basketball and deportment, he considers himself “sort of in that Carolina family.”
McGuire stayed at South Carolina after retiring, imparting insights on game strategy and pertinent life skills: being punctual, tipping adequately, paying attention to support staff, wearing a sport jacket in public. ““He told me, ‘Tubby, it’s all about image,’” says Smith, then a mid-30s Gamecock assistant. “He had some great advice, and I used to love listening to his stories.”
The lessons stuck – Smith rarely appears in public without wearing a jacket. You wonder, though, if Smith’s demeanor oddly distracts from his standing as “a solid to very, very good coach,” as former Wake Forest, South Carolina and ECU coach Dave Odom describes him.
Smith’s forbearance survived Wildcat fans persistently booing his son Saul, a point guard and the middle of three boys, and Memphis most recently firing him after two years with 40 combined wins. To this day, although the color of his skin surely played a part in shaping his career, Smith generally deflects detailed discussions of race. “You can’t burn bridges,” he says. He also remains unfailingly laudatory about the work of fired HPU predecessor Scott Cherry, a North Carolina alum.
“It was hard not to like the guy because he was so nice,” recalls George Felton, currently a scout for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Felton hired Smith at South Carolina and later worked for him at Kentucky. “The thing that really stands out for me with Tubby is how accessible he was, how approachable he was, and just his kindness. He was a real kind person.”
Smith came late to the big-time, landing his first college head coaching job at Tulsa at age 40. Before that he spent six years directing high school programs -- four at Great Falls High, which he helped integrate as a student, and two at Hoke County (N.C.) High -- then a dozen years as an assistant coach at VCU, USC and UK.
Perhaps that patient, circuitous rise, coupled with Smith’s old-fashioned ways, contributes to his flying below the punditry’s radar. Even his landing at High Point caused only a ripple beyond the fast-growing, private school with 4,800 undergrads.
Smith’s previous 27 college teams averaged a handsome 18.8 wins per season, compiling 507 victories overall and a .6267 winning percentage. That’s nearly identical to Bob McKillop’s record at Davidson. McKillop, rightly admired as a coaching craftsman, has posted a .6218 winning percentage and 554 victories over 29 seasons with the Wildcats. That’s 19.1 wins per year, his achievements burnished by staying in one place.
Meanwhile, only two of the peripatetic Smith’s 27 squads had losing records. All but seven won at least 20 games. Besides capturing a national title, Smith took four teams to the Elite Eight and five more at least to the Sweet 16. He stood fifth all-time in victories after 15 years of D-I coaching, behind Hall of Famers Roy Williams, Denny Crum, Jim Boehiem and Nolan Richardson. Smith was chosen national coach of the year in 2003 and 2016, and was variously dubbed the top coach in the Missouri Valley, SEC and Big 12.
An adept builder of programs, Smith has matched Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger in taking five different teams to the NCAA tournament, most in college history. Now he aims to take his alma mater, a member of the single-bid Big South, to the Division I NCAAs for the first time ever. “To be honest with you, I wasn’t planning on going through this again,” says the comfortably wealthy Smith. “I probably wouldn’t have if High Point hadn’t called.”
The job appealed to Smith’s loyalty to the school, where he played from 1970-73 after nearly attending Maryland. Now, High Point’s ninth-best career scorer aims to lead the Panthers in autumn 2020 into their new 4,500-seat, $130 million, cutting-edge on-campus arena with attached convention center, hotel and practice facility.