Some of us wander through life wondering what we want to be when we grow up.
And before you know it, you’re getting senior discounts at Denny’s, your body hurts for no reason and a perfect night in your mind is a good book to read and a piece of warm apple pie.
Charles H. “Sonny” Smith is 75 years old, so he qualifies on every count of the previous paragraph. But as far as choosing a career path, well, he got to be both things that he dreamed about becoming as one of two sons of a Roan Mountain, Tennessee bootlegger.
“There’s only two things I ever wanted to do,” Sonny says. “I wanted to be an entertainer – movies, plays, country music. And I wanted to be a basketball coach.
“Some people say I became both of them. I hope that’s true, but you never know.”
Sonny was Auburn’s basketball coach for 11 seasons from 1978-’89, had a record of 173-154, had a SEC tournament championship team, went to five NCAA tourneys including a regional final and was twice named the SEC’s “Coach of the Year.” He was the first coach in Auburn history to have a 20-win season and is still the only Tigers’ coach to have three consecutive 20-win seasons.
Sure, there have been more SEC coaches with better records, more championships and more NCAA tournament runs than Sonny.
But few, if any of those coaches, lifted as did Sonny, a program that had long been viewed on its own campus as merely a way to kill time between the end of football season and the start of spring football practice.
He did so, with an engaging, sly sense of humor that not only made him a media favorite, but also helped him recruit such players NBA first-round draft choices Charles Barkley, Chuck Person and Chris Morris.
As a kid in Roan Mountain, Sonny chased his dream of being an entertainer as best he could. Any time a traveling road show would pass through town and ask for volunteers from the audience to contribute as actors in the show, young Sonny rarely failed to work his way into the performance.
“I thought it was my chance to get to Hollywood or New York, but I was way overthinking the situation, because I wasn’t good enough,” Sonny recalls.
“But I also loved sports. We didn’t have TV in the mountains, so all I did was listen to basketball and baseball games on the radio. I knew everybody on every team, I knew their hat or shoe sizes, I knew who were the starters and who were the subs.
“I started thinking I wanted to be a basketball coach. I was a dreamer. But if you lived in Roan Mountain, you needed to be a dreamer or you’d still be living in Roan Mountain.”
Sonny had to be a coach. It’s not like he could take over the family business, which was bootlegging, something Sonny’s dad Grigg combined with his other job as a millworker.
Sonny and his only sibling, younger brother Jim, who Sonny says “was a better athlete than me and funnier than me,” would often act as lookouts for their Dad in case any stranger tried to sneak up the mountain to spy on the Smiths.
“Being a good bootlegger wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it was sort of a status symbol in the mountains,” Sonny says.
“We would get raided every once in awhile by revenue agents. When we saw them coming, we’d put my mother Irma in the bed like she was sick, put all the liquor in bed with her and pull the blanket up.
“They’d search the whole house for the liquor, but couldn’t find it. Right before they left, they’d pat my mother on her head and say, `Hope you feel better, Irma. Sorry to bother you, because we know how sick you are, but we’re going to get ’ol Grigg.’
“Then they’d walk out the door, she’d throw the cover off the bed and we’d get right back in the liquor business.”
Eventually, Sonny gravitated toward playing basketball and baseball. His skinny physique seemed to fit both sports, especially once he started attending Cloudland High (where the gym is named after Sonny) in Roan Mountain.
One day, against his Dad’s wishes because his Dad feared his son would get hurt, Sonny decided to tryout for the football team. That wasn’t the smartest thing to do, because the Smith’s house overlooked the school and his dad could spot pencil-thin, 6-1, 140-pound Sonny (“I was so skinny I could take a shower in a shotgun barrel,” Sonny says) as a boy among men.
“Because I disobeyed him, my dad came down to the field and made me take off the uniform in front of the other players,” Sonny says. “He was going to whip me, but I ran. It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me.”
Sonny admitted he was a bit sickly in high school, and didn’t blossom as a player until he got college. But he showed enough talent to earn scholarships to Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss., and then finished at Milligan College in Elizabethton, Tenn., where one of his teammates was future NBA coach Del Harris.
When Holmes offered Sonny – one of their coaches had seen Sonny play in an independent tournament – Sonny had no clue where he was going or how far from home it was. All he knew was that it was his first step to get off Roan Mountain.
“I never forget the Holmes coach driving up to our house,” Sonny says. “Nobody ever came up the hill to our house, so when he’s driving up, we think he’s one of those revenue agents checking on us.
“But he gets out of the car and says to me, `If you come play for me, I’ll give you a full scholarship to play for Holmes Junior College in Goodman, Miss.’ At that point, no other school had ever contacted me.
“So I went in the house, put up all my clothes in a paper sack, which we called a `paper polk’ up in the mountains. I got in the car and my family didn’t see me for a year. I even stayed down in Mississippi in the summer and played baseball in the Cotton States League.”
After Holmes, Sonny had a basketball offer from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., but chose to attend Milligan, a tiny Christian liberal arts college. Milligan was just 18 miles north of Roan Mountain.
“I started on a team at Milligan with four future preachers and I had no desire to be a preacher,” Sonny says. “I remember one night before we played in the finals of the Smokey Mountain Conference tournament against Carson-Newman, one of my teammates, it might have been Del, said, `You know, Sonny has never given the pregame prayer. It’s time for him to pray.’
“It scared me to death. I almost peed down my leg. But I gave the prayer and then went out and scored 37 points, the most I’ve ever scored in college. I went back in the dressing room and told everyone I should have been doing the prayer the whole time.”
Sonny’s three biggest accomplishments at Milligan were earning a degree, meeting his future wife Jan (he got married upon graduating in 1958 and they’ve been together ever since) and playing well enough to believe he could play professionally.
It was that dream, an 11-year pursuit of trying to play on the next level, that Sonny says delayed his immediate entrance into college coaching.
“I spent all my free time playing in industrial league tournaments, while I was coaching at different high schools in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky,” Sonny says. “I was trying to get in the ABA (the then-new American Basketball Association) which was about to start.
“I played in this industrial tournament in Virginia, all the ABA coaches and scouts were there. I scored 37 points in the finals and was chosen the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. The ABA drafted six guys from that tournament and didn’t talk to me.
“At that point, I realized I’d better get serious about coaching.”
Sonny began working in the summer at some of the big-name college camps, like Duke, where then-Blue Devils coach Vic Bubas got Sonny hired at William and Mary as an assistant in 1969.
“Vic gives me this phone number and tells me to call it, because there’s going to be a job opening,” Sonny says. “The reason there’s an opening is Vic just hired the William and Mary assistant, who happened to be Hubie Brown, for the Duke staff.”
Once in the business, Sonny advanced quickly because of his reputation as a recruiter. He was at William and Mary for one season, went to Pepperdine University for a season, and then future Tennessee head coach Don DeVoe hired Sonny as an assistant at Virginia Tech where Sonny stayed from 1971-76.
While at Virginia Tech, he received a career boost from NBA great Jerry West. One of the greatest guards in NBA history for the Los Angeles Lakers, West became friends with Sonny who annually worked West’s summer camp.
West was key in helping Sonny get his first head coaching job in 1976 at East Tennessee State.
Sonny was at ETSU for just two seasons before Auburn hired him to replace Paul Lambert, who tragically died in a fire at a Columbus, Ga., hotel before he could even hold his first practice. Lambert had been hired away from Southern Illinois.
“I tell Auburn I’m taking the job and then I get cold feet,” Sonny remembers. “We had just won a share of the Ohio Valley Conference championship at ETSU, I had all my starters back and we’d just moved into a new arena.
“I remember walking in the office of the ETSU president, Arthur DeRosier, to tell him I’m not going to take the Auburn job. Before I said a word, he said, `Sonny, I hate to see you go, but you’ve got to take that job. It’s a better job than this.’ ”
Better maybe monetarily, but in Sonny’s first season at Auburn in 1978-79, he was stuck with a team that had no guards and all inside players. He didn’t have a winning record for his first four seasons, but that changed in season five when a doughy, precocious sophomore from Leeds, Ala., named Charles Barkley came of age.
“We were on Barkley in recruiting before he got really good,” Sonny says. “He was 6-4 ½, but could jump out of the gym. He had really tiny hands to the point he couldn’t palm a basketball, but he also had the best pair of hands I’d ever seen.
“The first time I ever saw Charles play in high school, I saw him grab a defensive rebound, turn in mid-air and throw an outlet pass to midcourt before touching the ground. The only other guy I’d ever seen do that was Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets, who was considered one of the best outlet passers ever.
“After Charles threw the pass, he got down court faster than anybody else. I said, `We’ve got to sign him.’ ”
By Barkley’s sophomore year, his freakish athletic ability combined with his bubbly personality, made him a media darling. His chubbiness earned him the nickname “The Round Mound of Rebound” and opposing student bodies began having pizza delivered to the Auburn bench when the Tigers played road games.
“Charles was probably the first SEC player that promoted himself to the point where he helped our program get known nationally,” Sonny says of Barkley, who averaged 14.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in his three-year career before entering the NBA draft after his junior year in 1984.
That season also started a string of three straight 20-win seasons for Sonny and his Tigers, going all the way to the 1986 NCAA West Regional finals where eventual national championship Louisville edged Auburn, 84-76.
A couple of months earlier when Auburn had just a 13-7 record, Sonny had stunningly announced he would resign at the end of the season (something he later backed away from after such a successful year). Everyone around him sensed he had grown fatigued trying to get the Auburn community to enthusiastically embrace his program.
For the longest time, Sonny tried to hide his hurt with his sense of humor. He once said the difference between coaching football and basketball at Auburn was, “Last year, they bought the football coach a house for $419,000. . .and they bought me a mobile home and told me to knock off the wheels.''
Even most of Auburn’s players, like Person, who’s still the school’s all-time career scoring leader and fourth on the SEC’s career list, sensed Sonny’s disgust.
After the Tigers lost to Louisville to end that magical 22-win season in the run to the ’86 Elite Eight – a place Auburn hasn’t been since – Person was asked if he thought that Tigers’ team would be remembered at Auburn.
His reply: “We’ll be remembered until about the second week of spring football practice.”
A mentally drained Sonny finally resigned from Auburn after a 9-19 season in 1988-89, but he immediately got a fresh start taking over the Virginia Commonwealth program. He stayed nine seasons, won 136 games and got VCU to the NCAA tournament before retiring in 1998 because of health problems with his knees and a fused ankle.
Sonny and wife eventually moved to Birmingham where he had a daily radio talk show for six years with former Alabama basketball coach Wimp Sanderson. It was definitely a unique tag team for the listeners.
“We’re closer friends than he’ll ever admit,” Sonny says with a laugh. “The reason is Wimp won’t admit he’s friends with an Auburn guy. We were friends as assistants and we were both crazy people. Because we attracted crazy people telling us stories, we got in the radio business.”
These days, the Smiths are back living in Auburn, partly to be closer to one of their two children, daughter Shari, who’s a speech pathologist in the local school system. Sonny, whose son Steve lives in Johnson City, Tenn., works as a TV color analyst for CSS where he calls about 25 games per season spread over three conferences.
At one time, Sonny thought Auburn fans were angry with him for resigning. But now when he’s in town during basketball season, he’s usually at Auburn home games where he’s done some radio and TV work. He loves walking in the two-year old Auburn Arena, a perfectly sized 9,121-seat palatial hoops palace that he wishes he had when he coached.
He’s very enthusiastic about second-year Tigers’ coach Tony Barbee, who Sonny thinks is “the total package” because of his recruiting, teaching and public communication skills.
“It’s been a great move coming back to Auburn at a time where I think this program finally has a chance to be something other than an afterthought,” Sonny says.
“You know, even in all my years away from Auburn, I never stopped thinking that I was an Auburn man.”