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July 5, 2012When Orlando "Tubby" Smith came to Tulsa, he was a well-traveled assistant with a pedigree of successful stops at Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth. It was his Rick Pitino-influenced style of up-tempo offense and swarming defense that ultimately made him one of TU's greatest coaches and paved the way for opportunities at Georgia, Kentucky (where he won a national championship) and current home at Minnesota.
In this conversation, Smith talks about taking Tulsa to its first Sweet Sixteen, the players that he turned into stars and the impact Tulsa basketball continues to have on the national scene:
• Bonham: What did you know about TU before you took the job?
Tubby Smith: I had a number of opportunities. I was on my way to interview at two other places. I'd already been offered a job at another Division 1 school. But Tulsa always had a reputation from a basketball standpoint, not just with Nolan, but with J.D. Barnett. J.D. was my coach in college at High Point University in North Carolina. I used to stop by Tulsa on my way to recruiting the JUCO's like Connors State. I'd fly into Tulsa when I was an assistant at South Carolina and later at Kentucky. I was friends with Jeff Schneider, who was on J.D.'s staff at the time, and Ron Jirsa, who is my associate head coach here at Minnesota. I knew things about the city and the community because I was talking to those guys and we'd worked together. I almost came to Tulsa the first time with J.D. Barnett, but I decided to stay at VCU for another year.
• Bonham: So you were pretty aware of what Coach Richardson had done previous to Coach Barnett's tenure?
Smith: Nolan got that thing rolling. He brought that to the city. And let's face it, tmes were great then. The oil was booming. You had a lot of support. Athletics is a window to every university and Tulsa did it as well as anybody in the country. They recognized that. Nolan Richardson had just won a national JUCO championship. It was pretty much a no-brainer. He had a bunch of great players he could bring with him like Paul Pressey. And I knew Nolan back then too. I tried to recruit Paul Pressey because he's from Richmond, Virginia, and I coached at VCU. I thought we had him. So I had a lot of connections to the city of Tulsa.
• Bonham: What other factors led to your decision to take the job?
Smith: (Kentucky head coach) Rick Pitino and (Kentucky athletic director) C.M Newton were giving me some great advice and they recognized that Tulsa was a basketball town. It was the Missouri Valley Conference. The school had a great reputation. As an assistant coach, you're not looking at jobs. You're just trying to do your job. But I had three or four opportunities. We had just taken Kentucky through probation and brought it back to new heights with Rick Pitino. I left right before they went to the Final Four. We helped establish that.
• Bonham: What was your secret to successful recruiting?
Smith: When I recruit kids, I tell them to come to a place because it has a family atmosphere. One thing about Tulsa, they have that in the community. We used to go to people's homes, to alum's homes for Thankgsiving. They took those kids in and they felt wanted. They felt part of the Tulsa community. That's the good thing about a private school like Tulsa. It's a place where you can be a big fish in a small pond. That's a place where you'll probably find your wife. You'll probably live there. I tell them, 'Don't come here because Coach Smith's here or because you like this gym.' There are a lot of things that are a lot more important. The people you play with and live with are going to be your lifelong friends. My Tulsa kids remain in contact even today.
• Bonham: How did you deal with the probation at TU brought on by NCAA infractions within the track and field program?
Smith: The good thing was that I had experienced it before. I experienced it when I was an assistant coach at South Carolina under George Felton. South Carolina went on probation for a year because of the previous coaching staff. At Kentucky, we were on probation for two years.
The thing about the Tulsa situation is that we knew there was a letter of inquiry from the NCAA, but nobody thought that it would affect the entire program the way it did. We all thought it was a probe into the track program. We thought they would be sanctioned and that some form of probation would be placed on the school. But I'll never forget when Rick Dickson came to tell me. It was right after Midnight Madness, and he came over to my house. That's when he told me we weren't going to be able to play in the postseason.
I had a pretty good team that year. I had Jeff Malham and Jodie Huffman. I had Mark Morse. The year before, we won 17 games and lost a close game to Southwest Missouri State in the conference semi-finals. I knew this team was ready.
I tell you what, that's one of the toughest things to do as a coach, to keep players focused during the season when there's no reward for them. All of those kids wanted to redshirt. Even though we were on probation, we had done a good job recruiting. We got Shea Seals and Rafael Maldonado. But I probably wouldn't have made it through that situation if we didn't have some mature players like Jeff Malham, Jodie Huffman and Mark Morse. They were grown up kids. They stuck it out and fought through it and they were great as far as promoting the program and selling the dream. So they probably don't get enough credit for that.
• Bonham: What were some factors that led to the breakthrough season in 1993-94?
Smith: Gary Collier and Lou Dawkins had been through their second coach. They'd been through probation. They went through all these things. Gary had been hurt. They fought through all of these adversities and stayed positive. And it really starts at the top with my staff and people like Shawn Finney, Jeff Schneider and Ron Jirsa. Those guys were just great.
Everyone did a good job of staying positive, and the fans and the alumni did a good job staying positive. I was very disappointed. I was ready to get out of there, to be honest with you. But we had such a good recruiting class -- guys like J.R. Rollo and Craig Hernadi who are still in that community. Our system and our style of play was suited for those guys.
The most important person in that whole thing was Gary Collier, and then we were able to get a guy of Shea Seals' caliber. Shea Seals put the stamp on our program. He could have gone to any other place -- Oklahoma State, Seton Hall, you name it. He could have gone Big East, Big Eight, but he chose to come to Tulsa and help us build that program.
• Bonham: How key was Pooh Williamson during that run?
Smith: Let me tell you something about Alvin "Pooh" Williamson. He was my first freshman recruit. My first recruit was a little (junior college transfer) point guard named Mark Morse. Jeff Schneider sent me a package talking about an AAU team called the Tulsa Hawks. They were playing that Sunday. I got back from out of town and watched this Williamson kid play. At the time, we didn't have any young point guards in the program. We had Jamal West, but he was going to be a senior. So I go see this kid, and he was a pretty good player. I introduced myself to him and told him to bring his parents by the next day, and I offered him a scholarship the next day. And the rest is history.
• Bonham: How special was that three day run in Oklahoma City at the NCAA Tournament?
Smith: Those three days, what a run that was. We were pretty good. We were 15-3 in the league and we lost in the semifinals of the tournament against Northern Iowa. We had a lot of great leadership from guys like Gary and Pooh. But when one of the O'Bannon brothers (at UCLA) commented and said, "Tulsa? Where's Tulsa?" They didn't even know where we were.
We were a 12 seed and they were a five seed. We were just excited to be in the tournament, and Tulsa hadn't won a game in the NCAA up until that point. They had never won a game that advanced them to the next level. We were focused. Jim Harrick and I have become friends since then, but I thought our kids just showed a lot of heart and toughness. We just got off to such a great start.
Gary Collier averaged about 28 points a game for those three games. He was phenomenal. Alvin Williamson was coming off a season where he never turned the ball over. I think he still has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios of any guard to ever play there. He played in seven straight games without a turnover. It was amazing. And he averaged 35 minutes a game. We were just clicking on all cylinders. Shea was playing well, but Gary just wouldn't let us lose. You look at guys like Lou Dawkins and how tough they were and the commitment they made.
We were up by 30 points against UCLA. It was a surreal experience. It was like, "Is this really happening? Pinch me! Are we really doing this to UCLA?"
Jim Harrick came to me later and said, 'Tubby, you guys just pounded us. Why?' Part of it was because his teams didn't handle screens very well, and we were a very physical screening team. We were a lot more athletic than they thought, and you just have to have respect for your opponent, and I don't think they did at the time by the comments they made. And they were mad because they were a number five seed. They thought they should have been higher, and they had to come out to Oklahoma City. They were already thinking about having to play Oklahoma State and Big Country (Bryant Reeves). They were looking past us.
• Bonham: What about the Oklahoma State game?
Smith: One of their best players didn't play. I think he got into some trouble and had to be suspended. But even at that, they had Brooks Thompson. They got off to a great start. They were kicking our butts. We were down about 15 at halftime. Gary came into the locker room crying. They had just hit a jumper at the half and one of the kids grabbed the ball out of the net and slammed it into Gary's stomach. I don't think people noticed. I didn't even notice. But I couldn't believe how emotional Gary was at halftime.
He said, "We're gonna get 'em coach. We're gonna get 'em in the second half. They don't respect us."
Then Pooh went out there and had one of the best plays I've ever seen. He blocked a kid's shot, took it and laid it up at the other end. I think that was the shot that took the lead for us. Then you had Lou Dawkins hitting the jumper in the corner. But Gary was phenomenal again in that game. Shea had a great game.
• Bonham: What do you remember about the fan support for those two games?
Smith: When we played against UCLA, everyone was rooting for us because we were from Oklahoma. We had the Oklahoma State fans rooting for us. All of the teams were probably pulling for us. We were the underdog playing against this big old UCLA team. It was David against Goliath. The next game, people started to think maybe we had a chance. In these tournaments like this, especially the NCAA, all of the sudden the crowd will shift to the underdog. That's what I could feel. We didn't have a big crowd, but we had a very boisterous crowd. And when we took the lead, it was just a miracle run. It was like the Miracle on Ice."
• Bonham: What do you remember most about the Sweet Sixteen game against Arkansas?
Smith: President Clinton came to that game. He was a big Razorback fan. We could never get over the hump. They got ahead of us and then we'd cut the lead down. I thought if we could just get it down to 10 we might have a chance, but we never could. We hit the wall and they were such a good team. That was the year they went on to win it all.
• Bonham: How did the Tulsa community respond to the team's success?
Smith: It was unbelievable. It was great. We had parade when we got back. The same thing happened the next year. The plans were started back then to build the on-campus arena. When we started talking about it, they were going to build something about 18 to 20 thousand seats. By the time I left, it was down to about 12,000 and then it ended up being closer to 8,500. We saw plans at that time, and to see it come to fruition, that was a major point too in the growth of Tulsa. We used to drive over to Rogers High School if we wanted to run on a track. That's where we conditioned. When we were there, we had the Mabee Gym and that was it. The Reynolds Center came from the visions and the dreams of a lot of people.
• Bonham: You had multiple opportunities to leave TU but didn't do so until the Georgia job opened up. What kept you from leaving sooner than you did?
Smith: I turned down two or three jobs. After we went to the first Sweet Sixteen, I turned down three jobs. The next year was just a situation where people were giving me guidance, and I trusted guys like C.M. Newton. After I left, you had Steve Robinson come in and then he left and then you had all this transition. But that's not a bad thing for Tulsa. I think it's made Tulsa the program it is. A place like Tulsa allows you to grow. It gives you some security. You learn who you are. The fans are not overbearing. Their expectations are not overbearing. And you've got to grow the program. You've got to fight for everything you get.
That was a tough time. The oil bust happened. They didn't have the same financial support during the early '90s. When Nolan came in during the early 80s, it was going pretty good, then the oil bust came right around the late '80s and early '90s when we came in there. But still, there's a core group of people that have helped that program grow. We lived there right near Utica Square and Cascia Hall. Our family loved it. We still have friends that we communicate with and talk with.
• Bonham: What did you appreciate about your time at TU?
Smith: I think Rick Dickson and Dr. Lawless were looking to build the program the right way. So they wanted to do that by bringing in assistant coaches from programs like Kentucky or Steve Robinson from Kansas. You had Bill Self who had been an assistant coach at Oklahoma State and then went to Oral Roberts and did a great job there. They've had a lot of success with assistant coaches and giving them an opportunity. Tulsa has had some good balance in their program.
I was there during the time they won the Freedom Bowl with Dave Radar. They had guys like Tracy Scroggins and Jerry Ostroski. Those guys played in the NFL for a long time. You had Chris Penn who played at Kansas City. There have been some great players like Gus Frerotte. I was there during that time. They've always had a good balance in understanding what their niche was and where they needed to put their support.
When you look at Tulsa's size, we may have been the smallest school playing in the NCAA tournament those years. They've understood how to do it with less. That's one reason why you've got to have those types of people like myself, Steve Robinson and Bill Self that are driven, that are visionaries. That's what separates them from other schools.
Then there's Tulsa's location. You've heard that saying, "Location, location, location." That was one of the things we sold kids on. You could go to Dallas, Houston, St. Louis. You were in the midway point. That was critical. Location is a big part of it. The school has vision. It has unique degree programs. The small size was a plus. I'd go over and have lunch with the professors. That was important. Tulsa is willing to do those things for student-athletes. They'll give them the support that they need to be successful.
• Bonham: How do you stack up TU's program against those in the region and nationally?
Smith: You're in the midst of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. You're probably not going to beat those big boys for players. Now and then you might beat them for a player like we did with Shea Seals. Tulsa has a uniqueness in that. They're not like Oklahoma. They're not like Oklahoma State. They're not like Arkansas. They're not like those other schools.
You've got teams like Gonzaga and Valparaiso and Butler -- smaller conference teams that have had success at the national level. But I think Tulsa has been able to sustain it for a longer period of time than those schools. That's what you're looking for -- consistency and continuity. Tulsa's figured it out better than most non-BCS schools.
• Bonham: How would you sum up your tenure at TU?
Smith: It was one of the greatest coaching experiences of my career. I would say Tulsa was the best place I coached and lived. It's probably because it was my first (head coaching job). People at Kentucky were wonderful. People at Georgia were great folks. People here at Minnesota are super. But when it's your first, you're learning on the job. There's just something special about that. You always want to leave a place better because you were there, and I think we did that.
Chad Bonham is a 1993 graduate of The University of Tulsa and longtime Broken Arrow (Okla.) resident. He has authored or contributed significantly to 12 published books including Glory of the Games and Golden Hurricane Basketball. Visit his national sports column at features.beliefnet.com/inspiringathletes.