Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Tommie Smith
Earlier this week, former Kansas men’s basketball coach Ted Owens spoke at the Kansas Union to a crowd of a few hundred supporters for the release of his new book, “At the Hang Up”. In that crowd was one of Owens’ biggest fans and close friends, former KU men’s basketball player Tommie Smith, who played under Owens from 1971-75.
“Coach Owens and I, 30 to 40 years later, still play golf together. I can still call him up and have a good conversation,” Smith said.
When presented the opportunity to ask Smith about his days playing at Kansas for Coach Owens, a clear schedule may be necessary as Owens’ mentee has enough stories to write a book himself.
Smith, a three-year letterwinner in basketball, was a jack of all trades for the Jayhawks, as he also competed for the KU football and track teams his freshman year, including the 440-yard relay at the Texas Relays.
The Kewanee, Ill., native was a prodigal three-sport letterwinner in high school as an all-state prep selection in basketball and football, while recording the fastest unofficial state time in the 180-yard low hurdles at the time.
Coming out of high school, Smith was receiving more football scholarship offers than basketball. The football heavy hitters included Notre Dame, Purdue and Wisconsin, all taking considerable interest in him. Smith was also was recruited heavily by Iowa State, Wisconsin and Iowa to play basketball.
During his recruitment process and considering his options, Smith stopped and smiled, “I always knew I wanted to go to Kansas, I just didn’t tell anybody.”
For Smith, the choice was an easy one.
“You follow the NFL and NBA at the time, and Wilt Chamberlain is playing dominant. Me being from Illinois, and Gale Sayers was with the Bears, both being from KU had a huge impression on me,” Smith said.
Smith’s freshman year was spent splitting time between the track team and the freshman basketball squad. Back then freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity team. Imagine Andrew Wiggins being relegated to the practice squad if he had played in Smith’s era.
“We had a freshman team that couldn’t play varsity. Basically we were the scout squad for the varsity team,” explained Smith. “They (varsity team) were mad about this, but we would kill them. They wouldn’t want to admit it.”
When asked about his playing experience at KU, Smith proudly talks about playing in tougher conditions than the modern day players.
“One thing was we had to run more steps during boot camp, 1,100 stairs, than the team has to now, ” Smith continued. “A lot of good things have changed with the Fieldhouse. When we played there, it was dusty because of the dirt track around the court. “
The track was completely removed from Allen Fieldhouse in 1984 when Anschutz Pavilion was built.
Smith also recounted that Owens’ coaching style had a big impact on his life. A combination of focused hard work and genuine care for his players made Smith and other Owens-era players feel a special bond with their coach and were willing to do whatever they could to be successful-for themselves and for Owens.
“There were times we would get whooped at away games, we’d get back and get off the bus really late at night and Coach would just say, ‘Okay guys, time for practice!'”, Smith exclaimed.
Those late-night practice sessions over the years helped the players grow together over the seasons and resulted in the special year that was 1974.
Led by senior Tom Kivisto and the core group of juniors, the 1974 Kansas team finished with a 23-7 overall and 13-1 Big Eight Conference record, ultimately making it all the way to the Final Four before falling to John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.
Smith and Suttle came off the bench and were affectionately referred to as the “super subs” by fans because of their efforts that energized the teams and sparked multiple comebacks.
Smith’s title of “super sub” was on full display when he was the hero of the two biggest moments in the Final Four run. Smith came in and made a back-door layup with 1:24 remaining that was ultimately the game-winning score to beat Eddie Sutton’s Creighton Bluejays. In the Regional Final, against an Oral Roberts team that was undefeated at home that season, Smith led a late-game rally to force OT and scored the final two baskets to win the game, saving the Jayhawks’ season.
In response to his favorite memory at Kansas, Smith told a colorful and extensive story about the week in 1974 that saw KU beat K-State at home and then turn around three days later and score a then-record 112 points in a game.
“We talked Coach Owens into a deal that if we beat K-State at home we could get the next day of practice off,” Smith said. “Coach was nervous to agree to the deal because we were hosting Missouri for our next game that Saturday. We ended up beating K-State, getting our day break, and then turned around and beat up on Missouri that Saturday, winning 112-76, a KU record at the time for most points in a game,” Smith said.
Smith fondly remembers Owens’ coaching strategy leading up to that record-setting performance against Missouri.
“He had us waiting during our pregame meeting and we were wondering – where’s Coach? He ended up coming in and simply saying, ‘Fellas, just go play.'” Smith exclaimed, “Woo, we had a good time!”
Tommie Smith is a man who bleeds Crimson and Blue. Smith has stayed active in the KU community since his playing days, visiting K Club events, keeping in touch with former coaches and teammates and even serving as the K Club president from 1985-86.
“K Club gives folks the opportunity to stay connected with each other and better know what’s going on with KU,” Smith stated. “It’s all about friendship and fellowship that continues after you are done playing: and that’s key.”
Smith proudly supports his school and finishes his conversations with fellow Jayhawkers with an emphatic “Rock Chalk.” Smith proudly claims, “I’m a Jayhawk for life.”
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.