HIGH POINT — Surprised doesn’t begin to describe Jahaad Proctor’s reaction when he first learned who had been hired as his new coach last spring.
“I heard it was Tubby Smith and I was like, ‘You mean that Tubby Smith?” the High Point basketball player said. “I couldn’t believe it. Who wouldn’t be excited to have the chance to play for Hall of Fame coach?”
Smith isn’t actually a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. At least not yet.
But with a resume that included nearly 600 career victories, three national Coach of the Year awards, the 1998 national championship at Kentucky and inclusion in several halls of fame, Smith’s decision to take the High Point job caught more than just Proctor by surprise.
Smith could have parlayed his name and record into a higher-profile position, even after getting fired by Memphis following a 21-win season to make way for popular alumnus Penny Hardaway. Or he could have retired comfortably on the guaranteed $10 million he’ll be paid by his former employer over the next six years.
Instead he decided to help raise the profile of his own alma mater’s program by returning to High Point, a move that begged an obvious question.
“The calling was here,” said Smith, who still ranks ninth on the Panthers’ all-time scoring list with 1,589 career points from 1969-73.
“We’ve been involved with the basketball program, the athletic department, the school for years, being on the Board of Friends, making donations. My wife went to school here. It just seemed like, at this stage of my career, why not?”
The timing of Smith’s reunion with High Point couldn’t have been better.
Although the Panthers have been a Division I program since becoming a member of the Big South Conference in 1999, twice earning trips to the NIT, they barely register a blip on the national radar.
It’s an anonymity wealthy university president Nido Qubein is determined to change.
During his tenure at the private school, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the former corporate CEO has nearly tripled High Point’s undergraduate enrollment, greatly expanded the number of faculty and added four academic schools. He also commissioned construction of a new $130 million basketball arena/convention center/hotel complex — to named in his honor — scheduled to be ready for the 2020-21 season.
In order to upgrade the quality of the basketball team that will play in the shiny new facility, Qubein and athletic director Dan Hauser dismissed former coach Scott Cherry after two straight seasons around the .500 mark and immediately turned their attention toward their school’s most famous athletic ambassador.
“Tubby Smith is a nationally admired, transformational coach whose career brings honor to his alma mater as a distinguished alumnus,” Qubein said of his high-profile hire.
Although Smith’s hairline and hair color have changed as dramatically as High Point’s campus since the last time he was in residence there, his passion for the job burns just as hot as when he played for the Panthers.
It was on full display during a recent game against N.C. Wesleyan, in which the 67-year-old coach — his suit jacket having been shed long before — energetically directed his team’s defense from the sideline as it rallied from a four-point deficit in the final minute to force overtime.
“It’s unfortunate that I got fired (at Memphis), but that happens in this business,” Smith said after the Panthers won the game 90-85 behind a career-high 35 points from Proctor. “When it does, you can go behind a rock and hide your head, but I know who I am. I’m very comfortable in my skin and what I’m capable of doing.
“I could coach anywhere. I was a high school coach for six years and an assistant coach for 12, so I don’t feel like coming here was beneath me. I feel like it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in my life right now.”
Inheriting a team that returned four starters from a year ago — junior guards Proctor and Brandonn Kamga, sophomore guard Danny Slay and senior forward Jordan Whitehead — Smith and the Panthers have yet to hit their stride during their first season under their new coach. They’ve had their share of highs, including Smith’s 600th career victory at East Carolina on Nov. 24, but have had just as many lows on the way to compiling an 8-6 record.
Smith is hoping that a 51-50 win in High Point’s Big South opener at Charleston Southern last Saturday is a sign that his team is starting to make strides in the right direction.
“We’ve got a good group of kids,” Smith said. “We just need to keep pulling them and pushing them and inspiring them to be better.”
When it comes to inspiration, Smith doesn’t have to do much to get his players’ attention.
Despite his assertion that today’s players “don’t really see coaches,” his Panthers are well aware of his stature in the game — and not just because Smith’s picture is prominently displayed on the Panthers’ wall of fame behind one of the baskets at their current home, the Millis Center.
“Just to learn from him and be able to absorb what he’s put into the game going into my junior year is a huge plus,” Proctor, the team’s leading scorer, said. “He’s coached professionals, he’s been there, he’s won a national championship and those are all the things I want to do.”