When Tubby Smith was fired by Memphis a year ago, he knew he wasn’t done coaching, but he didn’t know how quickly he would get back in the game or where.
Smith was 66, but believed he still had a lot to offer. He knew what it was like to succeed at college basketball’s highest level, having led Kentucky to the 1998 national championship.
Then High Point called.
Most coaches with Smith’s resume wouldn’t have bothered to pick up the phone or return a message.
But High Point, a public liberal arts university in North Carolina, is Smith’s alma mater. He and his wife, Donna, donated $1 million two years ago to the construction of a new arena.
“We’ve been a part of the university growth over the years,” Smith said. “My wife and I both went to school there. We won 16 games this year, so we’re heading in the right direction. It’s good to be back and see a lot of familiar faces and a lot of friends and former teammates. That’s the beauty of being able to go back.”
Smith is in Las Vegas to take part in Coaches vs. Cancer fundraising events. Former UNLV and current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is the driving force behind the local chapter.
Though not as direct a link to UNLV as Kruger owns, Smith had his own role in influencing the recent direction of Rebels basketball.
He was Texas Tech’s coach in 2016 when Josh Pastner left Memphis to take over Georgia Tech in early April of that year. Memphis suddenly needed a coach, and Smith thought the Tigers were about to leave the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12, and he wanted to be along for the ride.
“There were a bunch of teams trying to get in, but the Big 12 didn’t expand,” Smith said. “Those things happen.”
It wasn’t the only disappointment.
Though Smith went 19-13 his first season at Memphis and 21-13 in 2017-18, there was discontent in the Tigers’ fan base about where the program was headed.
Memphis cut ties with Smith after just two seasons, and hired Tigers legend Penny Hardaway, who this year has put together the nation’s top-rated recruiting class, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
It was Smith’s decision to leave for Memphis that set of a chain of events that reached all the way to Las Vegas. As UNLV fans are more than familiar with the story, Texas Tech reached out to and hired coach Chris Beard, who was on the job for about three weeks with the Rebels.
That led to UNLV hiring Marvin Menzies from New Mexico State, and after three seasons, he was replaced by T.J. Otzelberger in March.
None of that, of course, is Smith’s concern. He’s trying to build a High Point program that seldom lives up to that name when it comes to basketball. The Panthers have been in Division I since only 1999, and they have never reached the NCAA Tournament.
Smith led them to a 16-15 record this past season.
“It’s a difficult situation when you get fired, so I wasn’t anxious to get back in the race,” Smith said. “But Nido Qubein, our president, and I went to college together. I knew him, and I’ve been a part of the Board of Visitors and doing things to help the university over the years. So it wasn’t a tough transition for me, and then he convinced my wife that’s what we needed to do.”
Coaches vs. Cancer Las Vegas Classic
— Led by former UNLV coach and current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger
— In 12th year
— Expected to raise a net of $1 million this year
— Partners with the American Cancer Society