Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For Sonny, Sweet 16 means hugs and un-retiring

As the 2010 SEC Tournament begins this week in Nashville, its time to remember one of the more improbable SEC Tournament winners. Today marks the Silver Anniversary of Auburn's 1985 SEC Tournament Championship at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Sure, there have been some other surprise winners since the tourney's renewal in 1979. Ole Miss wasn't picked by too many in 1981 ,nor were Arkansas in 2000 or Georgia in the truly bizarre 2008 tourney interrupted by a tornado and moved down the street to Georgia Tech. One thing those three teams had in common was their tournament win and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament produced immediate exits from the 'Big Dance'. Auburn,however,kept dancing their way back to Birmingham for the Southeast Regional and its first Sweet Sixteen.Auburn also accomplished this under the guise of its head coach,Charles H. "Sonny" Smith, resigning at the end of the 1984-1985 season.

On February 8th of 1985, Smith announced he'd step down at the end of the 1984-1985 season after seven seasons on the Plains.Just one season earlier, Auburn and Smith had had an incredible season finishing second in the SEC behind Kentucky, losing at the buzzer to the same UK team in the SEC tournament final, sweeping Alabama for the first time since the 1970-1971 season ,finishing 19th in the final UPI poll for 1983-1984 and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school's history.Smith's decision to retire was almost as unusual as how he got to Auburn in the first place in the summer of 1978.

Smith was actually the second basketball coach Auburn hired after firing Bob Davis at the end of the 1977-1978 season. The hot-headed Davis had actually had modest success at Auburn going 70-61 overall and 42-48 in SEC play. His second team in 1974-1975 turned in a fine 18-8 mark and spent a brief period of time in the top 20,tying Tennessee for third in league play. Their season ending comeback win over Alabama denied the Tide the outright SEC title forcing them into a tie with Kentucky and denying them a first round home game in the NCAA tournament. Auburn, unfortunately was denied an NIT bid, being passed over for metro New York teams such as Manhattan, St John's , St Peter's and nearby Holy Cross and Lafayette as the tourney was in its penultimate season of playing all of its games in New York's Madison Square Garden. Auburn had another winning season in 1976 before a 13-13 mark in 1977 and a losing season in 1978 leading to Davis' ouster.

Auburn turned to Paul Lambert, a rising star from Southern Illinois naming him head coach in March of 1978. Lambert's Salukis advanced to the 1977 NCAA's Sweet 16 . Oddly enough,they did receive an invitation to the 1975 NIT,unlike Auburn. Lambert bid the Salukis and AD (and NFL Hall of Famer) Gayle Sayers adieu and set out to bring success to Auburn. Lambert and his assistants Herbert Greene and Herman Williams, whom had followed him from Carbondale and SIU were in nearby Columbus, Georgia for a coaching clinic in early June of 1978. Lambert had originally planned on driving the forty miles back to Auburn after the dinner banquet, but felt tired and decided to stay at the Holiday Inn where the festivities were taking place. Sadly ,and tragically, Lambert died in a fire in his motel room where he died of smoke inhalation. Six others were treated for burns and were all shortly released.

Smith, who was head coach at East Tennessee State in Johnson City, not far from his hometown of Roan Mountain had been contacted initially in the search for Davis' replacement. Smith never got a call back and the job went to Lambert over Arkansas assistant Pat Foster. Now, Sonny Smith was the Auburn head coach.
Sonny Smith (middle), Head Coach Don DeVoe on his left (and new Tennessee coach for 1978-9) and Jim Hallihan on Smith's right (who replaced Smith at ETSU) from their days in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech

ETSU was Smith's first head coaching job. He had been the top assistant on the 1973 NIT Champion Virginia Tech Hokies under Bob Knight protege' Don DeVoe. Oddly enough, the 1978-1979 season was to be the first season for DeVoe in the SEC also, taking the reigns at Tennessee after a season at Wyoming. Jim Hallian who had also been on DeVoe's staff at VPI was promoted from Smith's top assistant at ETSU to head coach for the upcoming season.

Auburn has always been one of the toughest jobs in the SEC for sustaining success.Auburn had had its moments of course with winning the SEC in 1960 and having some fine players,such as Chicago Bull John Mengelt who held and still holds many Auburn scoring records and of course Charles Barkley, who led the Tigers to its big year in 1984 who passed up what would have been his senior year in 1984-5 for the NBA. But the wins generally came with modest home court support. The losses of course, chipped into what modest support might be built up in a season.
Chuck Person was named after "the Rifleman" who is one of 12 men to have played in the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Smith soon found this out himself. Auburn went 63-77 in Smith's first five seasons with only one winning season, 15-13 in 1983 before the breakthrough season in 1984. Even with the one and only Charles Barkley foregoing his senior year for the NBA and Philadelphia '76ers the 1984-1985 Tigers had a solid club returning led by Chuck "the Rifleman" Person who was complimented by Chris Morris,Jeff Moore, Frank Ford and Gerald White,among others. Person was nicknamed "the Rifleman" not just for his strong outside shooting, but the fact that he was named for the former ABC western star, Chuck Connors. Chuck Connors Person was to be the go-to guy in '85.

Auburn started off the season strong compiling an 8-1 record prior to conference play which included a 61-59 upset win in Birmingham over #13 UAB, who was fresh off from winning the Great Alaskan Shootout. The only loss was to Virginia Commonwealth,who would go on to a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament's West Regional. Once conference play started, Auburn started to falter. On February 8th, the night before a home game vs Tennessee, Smith announced his resignation following the end of the season,most likely after the SEC tournament a month later in Birmingham. Whereas Auburn thumped the Vols convincingly the next day, Auburn continued to struggle and came to Birmingham for the SEC tournament 16-11 overall and 8-10 in SEC play good enough for 7th place.

1984-1985 was the first season that the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams,from the previous season's 53 teams, therefore under normal circumstances making a 16-12 or 17-12 record viable for an NIT bid. However, with Smith's resignation and Auburn's modest basketball history, an NIT bid was highly unlikely. Auburn was going to need to win the SEC tournament and secure the league's automatic bid for postseason play , which was seemingly even more unlikely,and prolong Smith's career.

Auburn returned to its customary role in playing in the tournament's opening round.Since the renewal in Smith's first season in 1979,only the '84 Tigers opened tournament play on the second day of the tourney. And,only Smith's first squad in 1979 was the only one other than the 1984 team to win two games in the SEC tourney. Auburn in game one won its third game of the season over Ole Miss defeating the Rebels, 68-60. Up next was regular season champ and 19th ranked LSU.
Game program for the 1985 SEC Basketball Tournament

LSU had defeated Auburn in both regular season games, convincingly by 18 in Baton Rouge and narrowly in Auburn by 5. LSU had won its last six SEC games to win the title on the following day of the regular season with a win over Kentucky to eliminate the 'Cats and won by one game over Georgia who lost its last game. Still,the Bayou Tigers were mired in a funk where they couldn't win a post season tournament game,period. Going back to the Indiana loss in the National Semifinal of the 1981 Final Four, LSU had lost 8 straight games including the last ever NCAA consolation game, two NIT games to in-state teams and 3 straight one and dones in the SEC tournament and a first round NCAA tournament game. Good thing for the Bengal Tigers the AIAW dissolved in '82; a loss to Immaculata might have been too much.

Make it 9 straight LSU post season losses. Auburn hung on for 58-55 win holding off several last minute LSU charges. (#13 seed Navy and David Robinson would make it 10 straight LSU losses in post season play a week later with a humiliating 78-55 pasting of #4 seed LSU in the Southeast Regional.)

Up next for Auburn was #5 seed Florida, a 58-55 winner over #4 seed Kentucky in what was thought to be a "play-in" game for the Wildcats and Gators. A win over Auburn would enhance Florida's credentials as they hoped to make their first ever NCAA tournament . As with Ole Miss two nights earlier, Auburn had won both regular season meetings with the Gators. This would be Florida and Auburn's first meeting in the SEC tournament since 1981 in a game where directors of live sporting events, and any live television, understand why there is generally a two to three second delay from the 'real event' to what is aired. The Gators' coach, Norm Sloan, making his second tour with the Gators, had coached in the NCAA tournament leading NC State to the national title in 1974.Sloan was a fiery coach who like most coaches could be on the salty side. During a timeout late in the '81 SEC tourney game, the television 'boom' microphone found its way into the Gators' huddle while viewers were told to "listen in". No one told Sloan that a live microphone was listening to him,though. Sloan told his charges basically ,"Gosh jeepers, stop letting them (Auburn) make those blasted layups !" Only Sloan didn't say "gosh jeepers" nor "blasted". Smith himself said dryly to an assistant as an Auburn huddle broke not knowing a microphone was near-by,"this has to be the worst game in history". Florida won in overtime that night, 50-48.

Well,the 1985 meeting 'twixt the two wasn't a thing of beauty,either. Except for Auburn as the Tigers eked out a low scoring 43-42 thriller. Now for the second year in a row, Auburn was in the championship game for the SEC tournament title. The year before it was SEC kingpin Kentucky. Now it was hated rival Alabama.

Alabama had taken both regular season games from Auburn. Both were excruciating heartbreakers for the Tigers. Auburn let a late three point lead slip away in a 60-55 loss. The loss in Tuscaloosa was even more nightmarish.Auburn rallied from a 13 pt first half deficit behind Person's 36 pts and had the ball with the game tied at 62-62. After calling time with :17 left,Auburn hoped to get the ball to Person,but Alabama's Buck Johnson covered him up and Gerald White misfired on a 25 footer at the buzzer from the top of the key. In overtime, Johnson again covered Person up and Frank Ford misfired on a shot at the buzzer as the two went to double overtime tied 66-66. This time free throws by future Tide coach Mark Gottfried helped Alabama win 74-72.

Alabama had finished third in SEC play and defeated Mississippi State in the first of an odd series of very,very low scoring games in the 1985 SEC tournament.The Tide defeated the Starkville Bulldogs, 42-31 and then blew past the Athens Bulldogs, 74-53 to reach the final. Alabama had won the SEC tournament in Lexington in 1982 and had defeated Auburn in Birmingham 62-61 in the first round of the 1983 SEC tournament.

Alabama and Auburn in football in Birmingham was always a hard sellout. 14,500 showed up for the tourney final at the BJCC between the two, almost three thousand short of capacity. To be fair to the two teams' supporters and Birmingham, the 1982 Tournament final with Kentucky playing at Rupp Arena was 2,000 short of capacity. In addition to the SEC tournament just not having the tradition of the ACC tournament, the SEC refused to sell single game tickets. Not too many Tide nor Tiger fans were willing to shell out the price for a whole tournament booklet for one game.

Those who did attend were treated to an exciting,if sloppy thriller.Alabama led 48-44 with 5:49 to go in the game. The Tide scored one more point the rest of the way.The NCAA was a season away from putting a 45 second shot clock in play (which would be changed to the current 35 second in 1993).While the regular season in the SEC and most other conferences mandated the usage of a 45 second clock, there wouldn't be one used in the NCAA tournament. Therefore,the SEC decided to eliminate the shot clock in the SEC tournament. Alabama elected to 'stall', forcing Auburn to either foul the Tide or make the weary Tigers chase the ball and Tide around hoping for easy baskets. Wimp Sanderson's plan didn't work. Jim Farmer missed a one and one and Auburn rebounded. Auburn was fouled and Person made both to cut the lead to two at 48-46.Alabama let 2 1/2 more minutes off before Bobby Lee Hurt was fouled and made the front end of a one and one to extend the lead to three.Auburn's Ford made one free throw with :58 left to cut it back to two.

With :33 left, Farmer was fouled again. Again,he missed. Down 49-47 Auburn's Frank Ford made a one hand jumper from the baseline to tie it with :09 left. Choosing not to call time out ,Alabama came flying down court where Terry Coner shot was no good and Coner fell into Auburn's Carey Holland a chance to win at the end. This time Auburn missed and the game went into overtime, the first title game overtime since Tennessee and Kentucky went into overtime in the renewal of 1979.

Auburn won the tip and let over two minutes go off the clock before turning the ball over. This time Farmer missed a short field goal and Auburn got the ball back again. With only :11 left, Coner fouled White while going for a steal. White made his free throws for a 51-49 lead. With :05 left Mark Gottfried,who put the Tide's win in Tuscaloosa on ice with his free throws,was called for traveling. Person, who was named tourney MVP, almost gave Alabama one more chance as a lazy inbounds pass was almost stolen by Derrick McKey.McKey's lunge for the ball tipped it to White who found Ford all alone for dunk as time expired in a 53-49 win for Auburn as the Tigers became the first team to win the tournament by winning 4 games in four days.

The win also meant Auburn,and Smith would keep playing as Auburn won the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Auburn was selected as the 11 seed in the renamed 'Southeast Regional' which had been the Mideast Regional since 1957. Auburn was sent to South Bend,IN and the campus of Notre Dame to face 6 seed Purdue from the Big 10 and down the road in West Lafayette at the venerable Athletic and Convocation Center.
Notre Dame's ACC/Joyce Center has seen many huge wins for the Irish with ND's win over UCLA in '74 the biggest(seen here). Auburn's win over Kansas in 1985 may be the biggest upset win on the court for someone other than Notre Dame.

The notion of Purdue playing in South Bend at Notre Dame's ACC was intriguing in and of itself. The ACC, as the Irish referred to it and now known as the Joyce Center was where some of the top teams in America came to town and left with a loss from the early 1970's until the late 1980's. While not an exceptionally large venue, a seating capacity of a little more than 11,000, Notre Dame fielded some outstanding teams themselves and coupled with a rowdy house of Irishmen which posed quite a challenge for some of the nation's best teams. From 1971 through 1987 an astonishing seven #1 teams came to South Bend to face the Irish and left with a loss. Most memorable was the 71-70 win over UCLA snapping the Bruins' 88 game winning streak in 1974 (which had started after a loss to Notre Dame in 1971) after the Irish scrambled back from a 70-59 deficit. Number ones San Francisco, Marquette, Virginia and North Carolina fell as well. Digger Phelps' basketball squad faced somewhat of a national schedule just like their brethren on the football side of campus. Unlike their football brethren, the Irish wouldn't schedule Purdue much to the Boliermakers' chagrin.

However, the Irish were in the Southeast Regional first round site here ,as well. Whereas the prior season was the last time a team could play in the regional round on its home court, a team could still play on its home court in the first and second rounds (a policy eliminated after the 1986-1987 season). Should the Irish win two games at home and Purdue win two games in South Bend, the two were bracketed to play one another in the regional semifinals in Birmingham.

Meanwhile Sonny and the Tigers were becoming media darlings with their improbable SEC tournament victory and subsequent trip to the NCAA tournament. Smith revealed in a press conference that he had 'privately' told Auburn officials in November that this would be his last year. When word leaked out in early February he claimed he was forced to reveal his intentions. These revelations seemed almost as curious and bizarre as the initial statement a month earlier announcing his retirement at the conclusion of the season.

The Purdue game was not the conclusion to Auburn's season. The Boliermakers ,who hadn't played Notre Dame since 1966 would have to wait for another shot at the Irish (they finally did play again in 2004). "Cinderella" Auburn defeated Purdue, 59-58 for its 21st win of the season, breaking last season's total victory mark. The win was also Auburn's first win in post season play erasing the painful memories of a 72-71 loss to Richmond in Auburn's first ever NCAA appearance the prior year.

Auburn never trailed in the game leading by nine on two occasions in the first half and leading 31-25 at halftime. While Purdue never led, it was indeed a fight to the finish. Auburn's six point halftime lead was its largest in the second half as the game went from a 5 to 3 or 2 point lead throughout the last half.Two Auburn turnovers in the last two minutes enabled Purdue freshman Troy Lewis to tie the game at 58 with 58 seconds left in the game. With :18 left, Chris Morris made the first of two free throws for a 59-58 lead. Playing for the last shot, the Boilers got it to their leading scorer and first team Big 10 James Bullock. Bullock's shot with :03 rimmed out and Morris secured the rebound and Auburn's victory.

Next up was third seed and #13 ranked Kansas. Auburn in its second NCAA tournament was seeking its second NCAA win. Kansas, in its 18th NCAA tournament was seeking its 25th NCAA win.Still, "Cinderella" or tournament neophyte or not, this resurgent Auburn team had turned into a very good basketball team. With a starting five averaging sixty points a game led by Person, the four other starters all had make huge plays in Auburn's amazing six game winning streak.

Kansas would indeed be the best team Auburn had faced all season. Under third year coach Larry Brown and led by freshman sensation Danny Manning, the Jayhawks had finished second in the Big 8 behind Oklahoma and had been ranked in the top 20 all season reaching a high of 9th in mid January.

Kansas had stumbled to an ugly 49-38 win over Ohio University of the MAC in round one. With Kansas averaging 76 points a game, the Bobcats spread the court virtually the whole game trying to use up as much time as possible since there was no shot clock to contend with. Kansas led 18-15 at halftime before methodically pulling away.

In the Auburn-Kansas game, the Tigers followed the same script since the SEC tournament started. Get an early lead and hang on. Kansas did lead in the second half,though. After Auburn took a 30-28 lead into intermission, the Tigers moved to a 40-34 lead but then Person was called for his fourth foul and went to the bench. Kansas then went on an 11-2 lead for its largest lead of the game at 45-42 before Person was inserted back into the game.Behind Person, Auburn regained the lead and the Rifleman scored 8 straight at one point to give Auburn its largest lead at 59-52 with under two minutes left. After a series of fouls on Kansas as well as a valiant rally by the Jayhawks, Person made the first of two free throws with :04 to give Auburn a 66-64 lead.After missing the second, Kansas snared the rebound calling timeout to set up for the final shot. The ball went into Manning,who three years later would indeed have one shining moment. This time he did not as his 16 footer fell harmlessly off the rim as Auburn hung on for the 66-64 win and a trip to the Sweet 16 in the Southeast Regional semifinal right back where this improbable run started, the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham.

At least for the 1984-1985 season, Auburn was certainly 'Birmingham's Team' with three trips to the BJCC (shown here)

Meanwhile back at the ranch, er, back on the Plains, the Auburn administration had to think of the future in addition to enjoying the present. Who would coach the Tigers in 1985-1986 ?Assuming Smith would indeed leave after the season, Auburn had begun talks with coaches about the position. Pat Foster, who was a finalist after the late Paul Lambert was hired in '78 ,turned down an offer electing to stay at Lamar. Eddie Sutton at Arkansas also turned down the job, eventually going to Lexington and the Kentucky Wildcats. Sutton presumably either flew or drove to Lexington rather than "crawl to Lexington" as he euphorically told the press while UK was courting him forever ruffling the Razorback faithful's feathers.

Like Pat Dye, Auburn's Ralph 'Shug' Jordan was Auburn head football coach and athletic director.Unlike Dye, Jordan spent ten years as Auburn's basketball coach.

After the SEC tournament title and during the first two round of NCAA tournament play in South Bend, Smith was encouraged to stay by his players in addition to an enthusiastic fanbase embracing their team's surprising run.Smith maintained he was flattered by the newfound support, yet still was going to resign.He also said all the right things,maintaining he had a good relationship with AD (and football coach) Pat Dye and others in the administration. Still,something seemed amiss leading to speculation that maybe this really hadn't been all Smith's decision or that perhaps there were specific reasons he was leaving uphappily. Yet the Auburn decision makers were rather quiet when it came to Smith post 1985.

Once the Kansas win was secured, there was mounting pressure on Auburn to offer Smith a new contract. Dye, assistant AD Oval Jaynes and school president James Martin seemed to pass off to one another how the wind was blowing towards Smith staying. Jaynes did concede "anything was possible" when pressed as to if and when Auburn would talk to and or encourage Smith to stay.

Nevertheless, Auburn was headed to Birmingham for the third time this basketball season ,this time in the Sweet 16 to face the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Southeast Regional semifinal. While the proverbial Auburn Nation was ecstatic about making the round of 16, for the North Carolina faithful, this was just something expected of the squad. This was the Tar Heels' fifth straight Sweet 16 a consectutive record that would eventually hit 13.For UNC's Dean Smith, this was business as usual.This was his 19th straight season in post season play, 15 of them in the NCAA's where he was 30-15.

For the 6th ranked,26-8 Tar Heels, though,with such a pedigree, they had to be wondering whom at the NCAA offices they must have offended. They arrived in Birmingham after surviving a dramatic 60-58 win vs Notre Dame, on the Irish' home court in South Bend. Now they would play Auburn ,located less than two hours from Birmingham and who would help fill the 16,000 seat arena.

Dean Smith wanted to take the home crowd out of the game early and they did just that,early.North Carolina roared out to a 19-5 lead just six and a half minutes into the game.The two teams plodded around the rest of the half as the Tar Heels took a 33-23 lead into the locker room at halftime.

But this Auburn team hadn't garnered the moniker "AUsomes" for nothing.Slowly but surely Auburn ,spurred on by maybe the most Auburn fans ever to have seen them play, chipped away and cut the lead to 49-46 with 5:52 remaining on a Chris Morris put back.Carolina didn't fold,but neither did Auburn. Auburn kept pace with Morris ,Person and Frank Ford scoring to keep it at 3 with under one minute at 57-54. One North Carolina free throw stretch the lead back to 4 at 58-54 with :28 left.

Carey Holland, Auburn's only senior made a put back, connected on a short jumper and was fouled. Down only two at 58-56 with :18 left, Holland missed his free throw,but Chuck Person snagged the rebound.While attempting to put the ball up for a shot he fell to the floor due to what looked like contact by one of Carolina's three 6' 10" behemoths. Whistle. Person on the line for two free throws and a chance to tie ? No, walking. North Carolina basketball.(after the game Person said it was a good call,but you wouldn't convince the crowd nor Auburn's Coach Smith.)

Ranzino Smith made two free throws for UNC and Kenny Smith made a dunk at the buzzer for Dean Smith's Tar Heels in a 62-56 win over Sonny Smith's Tigers.The win advanced North Carolina to the regional final vs Villanova (whom had defeated Maryland and Len Bias 46-43 earlier that evening) giving Dean Smith his 31st NCAA win moving him into sole second place behind former UCLA coach John Wooden for tourney wins leaving former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp alone in third place. The Improbable, if not Impossible Dream for Auburn was over. Was Sonny's tenure at Auburn over ?

Advancing to the Sweet 16, or "Regionals" was business as usual for this Coach Smith.

Well a regional semifinal loss did indeed end the career of an SEC basketball coach that evening.Kentucky's Joe B Hall, whom replaced Rupp, ended months of speculation and announced his retirement after 13 yrs as the Wildcats' head coach after a loss to St John's in Denver in the West Regional semifinals.

Sonny Smith hinted over that weekend that he was 50/50 on returning.On Monday, March 25th he made it official and 'un-retired' staying at Auburn.

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