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Sonny Smith: Former College Basketball Head Coach

SONNY SMITH
Former College Basketball Head Coach


Sonny Smith is in retirement. Having completed his 22nd and final season as a head coach, including his 29th campaign in the college ranks, Smith has left the game on his terms. He helped resurrected a VCU program back to national prominence and has now turned the reins over to his good friend, Mack McCarthy.

The love of the game has not been lost and certainly his work ethic is as strong as ever, but it is time for Sonny to retire and spend time with his family, while spreading his good humor around the country in speaking engagements and television broadcasting.

Smith leaves the game as he entered it. A fun loving, down home, friend of everybody, who's sense of humor, caring personality and ability to coach and teach the game of basketball will be missed.

In the growing world of basketball egos, tempers and individualism, Smith always stood for humbleness, getting to work early and shaking someone's hand like he has known them forever. If you don't feel comfortable around Sonny, then you may want to look in the mirror. He is warm and friendly and makes you feel good about yourself, while possessing the sense of humor that can make the saddest of people crack a smile.

He is not known as coach or Mr. Smith. Just Sonny. A modest way to refer to a man whose past is checkered, but simple.

Born November 15, 1936 in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, Sonny was the first of two sons for Grigg and Irma Smith. His father made a living as a mill worker and his mother as a cafeteria employee at the local schools. His mother still calls Roan Mountain home along with his younger brother, Jim, who is retired. Sonny's father has passed away.

Smith began honing his skills at Cloudland High School - the gymnasium is now named in honor of Sonny - under the tutoring of Clark Morton. Smith considers Morton a tremendous influence on his life. "He pushed me to be somebody, not just on the basketball court but off the floor as well.'

Buck Vanhuss, a coach at an adjoining school in Cloudland, also gets credit from Smith for the influence he played in his life. "He helped me get a college scholarship, he took me every place until someone eventually took me."

The first school that took Smith was Holmes Junior College in Mississippi. From there he took his scoring mentality and complete offensive game to Milligan College in Tennessee, where he and teammate Del Harris became friends for years to come.

The two became the best of buddies, serving as each others best man in their respective weddings. It is a friendship that still remains as strong as ever. As the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, and previously guiding the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, Harris has more than once asked Smith to join him on the NBA sidelines, only to be turned down as Sonny stays in the college ranks.

Following his junior year of basketball at Milligan, Smith met his wife-to-be, Jan. After dating during their senior years, the two married three months after Smith earned his Bachelor's degree in Education in 1958.

Following his graduation, Smith spent the next 11 years playing semi-pro basketball and coaching in the high school ranks. As a high school coach in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky, Smith began to make his contacts to move into the collegiate game.

The legendary Vic Bubas helped Sonny land his first collegiate assistant coaching job at William & Mary in 1969. To this day Smith credits Bubas and Wake Forest's immortal coach, Bones McKinney, as two of the individuals that helped influence his style of coaching.

After a year with the Tribe, Smith moved to Pepperdine where he became friends with UCLA assistant coach, Denny Crum. When Crum became the head coach at Louisville in 1971, he asked Smith and Jerry Jones (also a Pepperdine assistant) to join him. Jones accepted and before retiring this past summer was by Cruxn's side for 24 years, while Smith declined after inking a contract as an assistant at Virginia Tech.

Smith was head coach Don DeVoe's righthand man for Tech from 1971-76, as the Hokies never had a losing record during that time. Tech had great success, capturing the NIT Championship in 1973 and earning a NCAA Tournament berth in 1976.

Smith landed his first head coaching job at East Tennessee State in 1976. Not sure of what he should do when coming back from his interview at ETSU, Smith turned to another good friend, Jerry West, for a bit of advice.

Smith and West had been good friends since the 1960's when Sonny worked at the "Jerry West Basketball Camp." Despite the different direction of success the two have achieved over the years, their relationship is still as strong as ever. West now serves as the Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, and not too much time passes that the two don't pick up the phone and talk about the old days.

Heeding West's advice to take the job at ETSU, Smith had the task of turning around a losing program. It did not take long for him to work his magic. After a 12-14 record during his inaugural season in 1976-77, Smith guided the program to an 18-9 mark, as the Buccaneers were the Ohio Valley Conference co-champions the next season. For his efforts, Smith won his first of four conference Coach-of-the-Year honors, while establishing himself as an upcoming young coach on the national level.

From East Tennessee State it was on to Auburn and the powerful Southeastern Conference. Prior to Smith's arrival the Tigers had very little success. They were entrenched in losing seasons, and the program had never been in the NCAA Tournament. Just the kind of job that Smith was used to.

He started to work his magic and over the next 11 years, Auburn became a national power. It began slowly, a 13-16 mark his first year, 10-18 his second, 11-16 his third and 14-14 his fourth, but then success followed. After a respectable 15-13 mark during the 1982-83 season, Smith guided Auburn to five straight NCAA Tournaments and a SEC Championship in 1985. He also added a pair of conference Coach-of-the-Year awards to his resume in 1984 and 1988.

Auburn's success almost paled in comparison to Smith's ability to develop talent for the next level of play. Adapting his famous "wide body" theory with his low post players, Smith began producing talent that still shines on the NBA level. International celebrity and NBA superstar, Charles Barkley, was the first Smith disciple to make it big. Barkley was selected as the SEC's Player-of-the-Decade during the 1980's and was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1993.

Current NBA players, Chris Morris and Chuck Person, followed at Auburn. They helped guide the Tigers to success in the mid 1980's, honing their skills for the next level under Smith. That trend has continued at VCU. Sherron Mills is entering his fourth year as a professional player in Europe, while Kendrick Warren was the 1995 CBA Rookie-of-the-Year with the Rockford Lightning. Backcourt wiz, Kenny Harris, has been one of the final cuts of the Chicago Bulls the past two years, while playing each of those seasons in the CBA. Recent VCU products, Bernard Hopkins, Marlow Talley, John Smith and Patrick Lee have followed by recently inking professional contracts overseas.

When Smith was introduced as VCU's head coach on March 20, 1989, he knew he had his work cut out for him once again. The Rams were coming of f a 13-15 season and had lost many players to graduation. Smith had to work from the ground up. He has managed to put VCU basketball back on the map, although it has not been easy.

The first two years under Smith, the Rams played in the Sun Belt Conference, the next four seasons in the Metro Conference and the last three in the Colonial Athletic Association - all distinctly different conferences that each have their own niche in the college basketball world.

Smith persevered, guiding VCU to five straight winning seasons, including a 20-10 mark and NIT berth in 1993 and a 24-9 record and NCAA Tournament trip in 1996. He was at his best that season, guiding the Rams to a 14-2 regular-season CAA record and three straight wins to capture the tournament championship in March. Along with the CAA Championship came conference Coach-of-the-Year honors for Smith, marking the fifth time he has won such an award in four different leagues. It is believed that Smith is the only coach to have captured Coach-of-the-Year honors in four different leagues. Smith also leaves as the all-time victories leader (136) at VCU.

NASCAR racing and country music, along with a few games of tennis, all serve as Smith's outlets away from the game. He is a regular at most NASCAR events around the country and even worked as a member of Dale Earnhardt's pit crew at the Winston 500 in 1985.

Sony and wife Jan still reside in Richmond, as Smith will aid VCU in an administrative role while exhausting the speaking circuit and possibly trying his hand in the radio/TV industry. The couple have two children: Steve, who works as an engineer for Eastman Kodak in Kingsport, Tennessee and Shari, who works as a speech pathologist in Fairhope, Alabama. They also have three grandchildren.

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