By: Anthony Sain ( @SainAsylum )
My father is 79 years old and is a patient in a nursing home. He was a once strong man and pastor and now battles with Alzheimer’s. When I visit him, sometimes he recognizes who I am and sometimes he doesn’t. He may recognize my two-year old son and not recognize me at all. With his now limited mental capacity, there isn’t much that I would assume that my father would comprehend, but I am 100% certain that when I tell him that Memphis hired Tubby Smith that he will respond.
Thursday afternoon the University of Memphis introduced Coach Smith before fans and media. President M. David Rudd said that Smith was “a historic hire for the University of Memphis” and that he is the most accomplished coach that the U of M has ever hired.” He would also add that Smith was “simply the right guy at the right time.” All of these things are true considering that Smith in his 25th year of coaching has four NCAA elite eight appearances, nine sweet sixteen appearances, a national championship and is a three-time national coach of the year recipient but for the purposes of this particular story I for one refuse to overlook that he is a black man. A black man that is now only the third black head coach in the school’s history.
Growing up and being groomed to love basketball by my father I would always notice that he would always root for teams with black coaches. He pulled for the Boston Celtics, a team historically known for being the “white organization” simply because they had a black coach in K.C. Jones. Their two best players were white – Larry Bird and Kevin McHale but this meant nothing to my father. He was pulling for the black coach. This never made sense to me as a kid but as a 36-year-old father and former mentor to young inner city teens, it makes perfect sense.
My father understood the importance of a black man being in a high position of authority and being a leader of men. He was often qualified for jobs but living his prime years of his life during the civil rights movement, he knew that seeing a black man thrive at a position that was once only reserved for white men meant something. And it means something to Coach Smith as well.
When asked what it means to be a black head coach in a city with so many black people that look up to him like Memphis, Coach Smith was authentic in his response.
“It tells you a lot about the university and their understanding and their appreciation of it (the culture of the city),” said Smith. “I was hired for my competency and my ability to get the job done and not the color of my skin – you know you hear that many times like Martin Luther King said, but I think that is says a lot about the community and a lot about the University of Memphis to put the program in my hands – someone who has been successful and will lead the right way.”
“I know that I cherish, honor and respect that I am an African-American and I know how important that it is that we do things the right way. That we execute the values that we want exemplified by everyone and especially by our race. I’ve always felt like I was a mentor and a guardian of this game. I hold that to the highest esteem. I want people to understand that I am not perfect. I will make mistakes but we (his coaching staff and himself) are going to do the best that we can.”
Smith has been given the task of not only coaching the men’s basketball team but also being a leader of young men. He is the coach of a team that is rich in it’s basketball history and he comes in as the wise, experienced grandfather so to speak for many young men that can’t even grasp the concept of a father at all – and they need it. They need someone that not only wants to sincerely develop them as men but can relate to their struggles and upbringing.
Smith whose real name is Orlando, shared a story about how he was given the unique nickname of “Tubby” as a child growing up amongst his 16 siblings. He said it dated back to his childhood when he fell in love with his galvanized water bathtub and how even to this day he appreciates simple things like clean water. This story immediately took me back to stories that my parents would share about growing up in the late 30’s and 40’s and how they had to boil water to fill a metal tub to bath the children in their equally large families. Babies first, and older children would have to use the cold, filthy water that was left after the younger ones were done.
It hit home. Smith was a survivor. An overcomer; he is a man that stuck to his childhood values of love, family and discipline and still bases his coaching philosophy around those three things to this day. He is the type of man that reminds me of my father and the things that he instilled in me. This stood out to me when he talked about the importance of doing things to me when I was able to talk to him one on one. It reminded me of the talks that I would have with my dad and desperately wish that I could have now. He is what young men in this city need - a strong example of a black man that is doing it…and doing it the right way.
Sure. I could write this article and just talk about the things that I expect Coach Smith to do on the court to turn the program around. I could talk about this hire as if race is not even a factor but it is. It means something to me. It means something to a lot of black people in this city, especially those that are older than me. It means something to the young men that he is trusted to lead. It means something to my father who showed me the importance of rooting for the black coach.