You can take Sonny Smith out of Roan Mountain, but apparently you’ll never take Roan Mountain out of Sonny Smith.
Somebody told Smith that he was in “six or seven” halls of fame, but when the former men’s college basketball coach was told he was going into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, it was different.
Smith not only comes from Roan Mountain, he also tells anybody who will listen how proud he is to represent a small town in Northeast Tennessee.
“It’s quite a thing for me,” the former coach at East Tennessee State, Auburn and Virginia Commonwealth said. “I like to see people from East Tennessee recognized. I’ve coached so many different places as a head coach and as an assistant and I always let them know I’m from Roan Mountain, Tennessee. I do it a lot. It ain’t anything but real.”
Smith, 83, now lives in Auburn, Alabama, where he serves as radio analyst for Tigers basketball games. His brother still lives in Roan Mountain and his son is in Johnson City, so he’s able to keep up with ETSU and Cloudland sports.
He spent an evening in Johnson City a couple of years ago as part of a panel discussing college basketball with Steve Forbes, who recently left ETSU to take over as coach at Wake Forest. The move didn’t surprise Smith, who was voted a conference coach of the year at all three of his head coaching stops.
“I was really impressed with the coach,” Smith said of Forbes. “He is really something. I knew he wouldn’t be there long if jobs opened and they’d be coming after him.”
The same man who played a big role in hiring Forbes at ETSU — now-retired Dr. Richard Sander — also hired Smith at VCU.
“I never had an AD as good as Dick Sander,” Smith said. “He’s the best at hiring coaches and raising money for the program and getting publicity for it. He was really special to me. He knows coaches. Look at the guys he’s hired.”
Smith spent two years as ETSU’s coach before Auburn lured him away after newly hired Tigers coach Paul Lambert died in a hotel fire before ever coaching a game.
Smith eventually led Auburn to its first NCAA Tournament appearance while coaching future Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. He was the Southeastern Conference’s coach of the year and formed a lifelong bond with the flamboyant and controversial Barkley, now known as an outspoken NBA analyst on television.
Smith likes to tell a story about making Barkley do such intense running drills around a trash can that Barkley vomited in the can.
“Charles and I were on a radio show at the same time recently,” Smith said. “Charles said that wasn’t true. He said one time he almost threw up. I said that’s close enough.”
Smith said looking back, he wishes he had coached Barkley differently. It was quite an admission for a man who considers himself an “old-school” coach.
“I worked Charles harder than anybody that I ever coached to try to get him in better shape,” Smith said. “I found out in my coaching career that you have to be able to coach superstars different. I was from the old school where you coach everybody the same. Now they let the superstar players have their head. They turn their back and let them loaf a little in practice. I never did that and I was wrong.
“Charles said I made him better for keeping him from gaining weight, but I think he would have been better had I known how to coach superstars. Not many people in their career have an opportunity to coach a real superstar, a Hall of Famer. I had the privilege to coach one of the very best.”
Smith and Barkley remain close to this day. His former player even came to visit when Smith’s wife, Jan, was in the hospital.
“He spent three hours with Jan,” Smith said. “He liked her better than he liked me. The nurses kept looking in the door. Charles took pictures with all of them. Then he walked down the hall and walked in every room and shook hands with all the patients.”
Smith, already in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, said he was taken aback when he found out he was being inducted in his home state. He found out while working a game.
“I’m sitting there doing the game,” Smith said. “The place was filled and all of a sudden the lead announcer told me to look up at the Jumbotron. It was the governor of Tennessee announcing to the crowd of 10,000 people that I had just been inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
“It put me in shock. The crowd cheered for two or three minutes. That was one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had. People in Alabama were going crazy for a guy going into the Tennessee Hall of Fame. This one is the tops for me.”
Smith will be inducted during a banquet in Nashville on Aug. 1.