From Roan Mountain to the Plains, Sonny Smith has been a winner
Auburn basketball is relevant these days. While it is located in the Southeastern Conference neighborhood, and certainly a certain level of respect is due, very rarely have the Tigers had a place on the more lavish end of the block in that neighborhood. In the football-crazed conference, Auburn basketball has been an afterthought for most of its history. However, there have been periods where it has managed to rub shoulders with the more well-to-do tenants. At no time did it enjoy a longer, more consistent stay in the high-priced section than when Sonny Smith roamed the sidelines on the Plains from 1978-1989. He is the standard by which every other coach who leads Auburn basketball is judged.
FROM DEATHBED TO ALL-CONFERENCE
Sonny Smith, the likeable coach who would one day be known for his humor and effusive personality, did not have an easy childhood. Born in 1936 in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, the Smith family struggled to make ends meet. “We were as poor as a church mouse,” he remembers. “But we always had three meals a day. If you lived in Roan Mountain and never missed a meal, you were doing good.”
Smith enjoyed playing sports, but he was so sick throughout his junior high and high school years that he never was able to complete a full athletic season. In and out of the hospital with diagnoses such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and rickets, among others, Smith was actually sent home from the hospital to die as a 13-year-old.
“I had a preacher from my church come over to pray for me. And about an hour later, I started feeling better. I went from being on my deathbed to being on the road to recovery,” Smith recalled.
Yet various ailments continued to plague Smith for years. Restricted by his inability to compete full-time in high school athletics, colleges did not line up for his services. After he finished high school, Smith played in a small, independent basketball tournament with former high school players. “After the tournament,” Smith reflects, “a gentleman in a suit and tie walked up to my house and said he was with Holmes Community College in Goodman, Mississippi, and that if I would get in the car with him and travel to Holmes, then I would have a full scholarship there. And, so, I did.”
At Holmes, Smith excelled in basketball and baseball. He was an All-Conference selection in basketball as Holmes won the state tournament. Smith also played shortstop on the baseball team. Since entering high school, it was the first time Smith had been able to complete a full athletic season.
After leaving Holmes, Smith declined his only scholarship offer—to Southeastern Louisiana—to return to east Tennessee to play basketball near his home at Milligan College, located just east of Johnson City. At Milligan, Smith began a lifelong friendship with teammate and future NBA coach and executive, Del Harris. An Indiana native, Harris would later be pivotal in helping Smith ratchet up his coaching career by getting him a job with a top Indiana high school program.
While Smith has many fond things to say of his time at Milligan, one memory and one game stands out. Smith played with three or four future preachers at Milligan. While he had a strong faith himself, a call to the ministry was not in his future. So, when it dawned on one of Smith’s teammates—one of the players who was studying to be a preacher— before a game against Carson-Newman that Smith had not led a team prayer, he requested Smith lead it.
“It scared me to death. I thought I’m never going to be able to get this out,” Smith mused. “So, I said the prayer that day and went out and scored 37 points against Carson-Newman, which is the most points I ever scored.
“I went back in the dressing room after the game and said, ‘I should have been doing this prayer all along. Y’all have held me back as an athlete.’”
After his playing days, Smith coached high school basketball for a decade in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky. While a high school coach in Virginia, Smith spoke at a Virginia high school coaches conference. Duke coach Vic Bubas heard the speech and told Smith he had the makings of a college coach. He helped Smith get an interview for an assistant’s position at William & Mary in 1969. He got that job and spent one season there before accepting a job at Pepperdine for one year. Smith then spent five seasons as an assistant at Virginia Tech before being named head coach at East Tennessee State in 1976.
To better his chances of getting the job, Smith pulled out a big trump card.
“I had become good friends with Jerry West after working his camp, so I brought him with me on my interview to East Tennessee State,” Smith quipped. “That was a good guy to have with me. It was hard for them not to hire me after that.”
Under Smith’s tutelage, East Tennessee State became a program on the rise after just two seasons, including tying for the Ohio Valley Conference championship in his second year. The Buccaneers had so much success, in fact, Smith caught the eye of the Auburn administration.
BARKLEY, PERSON AND BEYOND
Smith accepted an offer from Auburn in 1978 and went to work on trying to make the Tigers relevant in the SEC. It took a few years of laying the groundwork and trying to recruit Alabama’s top talent before the program moved out of the bottom of the league. Then, the dam broke in 1981 when Smith signed Leeds High School standout Charles Barkley.
Smith gives his assistant coach, Herbert Greene, credit for finding Barkley early and finally getting him to ink with Auburn.
“Every assistant I ever had tried to take credit for Barkley, but it was really Herbert Greene who got him,” Smith laughed. “Herbert found him early and was a relentless recruiter who really stayed on him the whole time.”
Barkley changed everything for Smith and his program. Not only did Barkley help the Tigers win more games, he opened the door for other top talent to want to play for Auburn. Even Auburn football coach and athletics director Pat Dye pitched in to help when there was an opportunity.
Smith recalls recruiting Brantley, Alabama, star Chuck Person the year after he landed Barkley. It turned out, Person’s mother was a big football fan, so Smith brought Dye with him to pay her a visit.
“Chuck Person was headed to Tennessee. So I asked Pat Dye to visit Chuck’s mother with me—knowing that she was a big football fan,” Smith said. “She loved visiting with Pat Dye. After that visit, he committed to us almost immediately.”
With Barkley and Person headlining the roster, the Tigers made their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history in 1984. Barkley left early for the NBA after that season, but Smith was just getting the program revved up.
In 1985 the Tigers did appear to miss Barkley during the regular season and entered the SEC Tournament as the 8-seed in the 10-team conference. Due to what Smith felt was a lack of commitment to the basketball program from the administration—namely the huge need for upgrades to Memorial Coliseum and the need for a new basketball practice facility—Smith let it be known he intended to step down after the 1985 season. “We had some success, but I didn’t think we could remain competitive until the school really committed to the program,” Smith said. Then something special happened.
Entering the SEC Tournament in Birmingham, Auburn needed to win four games in four days to win the postseason event and grab the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. No team had ever pulled off the feat—but the Tigers did just that. They defeated Alabama 53-49 in overtime in the championship game and made the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
Auburn beat Purdue 59-58 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to post the school’s first NCAA Tournament victory. A victory over Kansas landed Smith’s ball club in the Sweet 16, where it fell to North Carolina.
When the season concluded, at the behest of his players, the fans, and the administration, Smith reversed course and decided to stay at Auburn.
“I came back because of the players,” Smith says, more than 30 years later.
Auburn continued to sustain its success by reaching the NCAA Tournament in each of the next three seasons, making it five consecutive seasons overall. That is currently the longest streak in the school record books as the Tigers only have nine NCAA Tournament appearances in their history—including the five under Smith. Included in that is the 1986 trip to the Elite Eight—Auburn’s deepest March Madness run.
When Smith left Auburn for Virginia Commonwealth University after the 1989 season, he left as the second winningest coach in school history. But more than that, he had put Auburn basketball on the map.
At VCU, Smith directed the Rams to a Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) regular-season championship, tournament championship, and NCAA Tournament berth in 1996. That season he was also named the CAA’s Coach of the Year, meaning Smith won the conference coach of the year award in every conference in which he served as a head coach.
SONNY AND WIMP
One of the relationships Smith holds dear is his long-time friendship with former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson. The two met when Smith was an assistant coach at Virginia Tech in the early ‘70s and Sanderson was an assistant at Alabama. The two forged a friendship they maintained through their concurrent tenures as head coaches of Auburn and Alabama, respectively.
“We became pretty good friends but, you know, Wimp wouldn’t really admit it after I got here because he wanted to keep that Auburn-Alabama thing going, but we were actually good friends,” Smith recollects.
The two remained close even after each retired: Smith from VCU and Sanderson from Arkansas-Little Rock. Smith was interested in doing television work when he and Wimp decided to pitch a radio show. The longtime friends and rivals joined the same team at WJOX radio in Birmingham for The Sonny and Wimp Show.
The show lasted almost seven years, and the two coaching veterans let down their guard and regaled listeners with humorous stories from their long careers, as well as offering their perspectives on other current sporting events as well. The downhome charm of these two roundball legends was well-received by the pigskin happy fans in Alabama.
RETIREMENT, SORT OF
After the radio show ended, Smith did not waste much time in heading back to the Plains to be close to his daughter and grandchildren. After continuing to do a few more years of television commentary for college basketball games, a job he started about the time The Sonny and Wimp Show launched, Smith decided to call it a career. That was until the Auburn Sports Network asked him to be the radio commentator for Auburn basketball.
“They asked me and I said, ‘Well, I get a front row seat if I do it, so that’s what I did,’” Smith noted.
Smith continues to be a part of the program he made into a winner. Since Smith left the sidelines, Auburn has not been able to maintain the success he had there. While it had a few good years under Cliff Ellis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and while Bruce Pearl currently has the Tigers in the Associated Press Top 10 a season after capturing the SEC regular-season title, the winning consistency that Smith authored over a number of years has never been duplicated.
That is, of course, a testament to the caliber of players and coaches Smith attracted to the Plains. But more than anything, it is a testament to the kind of coach, and more importantly, the kind of man Sonny Smith was and is. H&A
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