Future champion college basketball coach Sonny Smith was born November 15, 1936 in Roan Mountain, TN, the son of a mill worker and a cafeteria employee at the local schools. His hometown, he said years later, wasn’t the end of the world—but that you could see it from there. He said there were so many shotgun weddings performed in Roan Mountain that the local church was dubbed “Winchester Cathedral.”
Smith rose to college basketball prominence by turning around losing programs at East Tennessee State University, Auburn University, and Virginia Commonwealth University during his 22 years of coaching leadership.
Smith spent his first 11 years after graduating from Tennessee’s Milligan College 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. He stayed with the Tribe for a year, moved to Pepperdine for another year, and finally in 1971 landed as assistant coach to Virginia Tech’s Don DeVoe.
Smith was DeVoe’s right hand man until 1976, during which time the Hokies never had a losing record. Tech captured the NIT Championship in 1973 and earned a NCAA Tournament berth in 1976.
In 1976 Smith landed his first head coaching job at East Tennessee State, a college in dire need of a winning streak. After a 12-14 record during his inaugural season in 1976-77, Smith guided the program to an 18-9 mark, and the Buccaneers were the Ohio Valley Conference co-champions the next season. Smith won his first of four conference Coach-of-the-Year honors, while establishing himself as an upcoming young coach on the national level.
Sonny Smith is best remembered for his coaching years at Auburn University, where he was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 1984 and 1989. He was the first coach in Auburn history to have a twenty win season, and the only coach in Auburn history to date to have three consecutive twenty win seasons (’84-’86). In 1985, he coached the Auburn Tigers to their first SEC Tournament Championship in school history.
Smith was a tough disciplinarian who coached Charles Barkley, Chuck Person, and Chris Morris into NBA stars in his three decades of coaching. On January 3, 2007, he was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
A basketball yarn from Sonny Smith: “There was an Kentucky fan, an Alabama fan, and a Tennessee fan that went to Saudi Arabia and got in trouble for gambling. They were arrested and each given 20 lashes as their punishment.
“Each fan was given one wish before his punishment was administered. The Kentucky fan went first. His wish that was a pillow be strapped to his back to soften the blows. After seeing how much pain the Kentucky fan endured even with the pillow, the Alabama fan’s wish was that he have two pillows strapped to his back while he was flogged.
“Finally, it was time for the Tennessee fan’s punishment. Because the person who was administering the blows had heard of the Big Orange, he granted the UT fan two wishes instead of the customary one. So, the Tennessee fan’s first wish was that he be given 200 lashes, rather than just 20.
“The Saudi was perplexed. He couldn’t figure out why someone who wish to endure such pain. He then asked,
“‘What’s your second wish?’ To which the Tennessee fan replied, ‘Strap that Alabama fan on my back!’”