He is not an elected official, but Orlando Smith may nevertheless have the most recognizable face in the state of Minnesota. Being the state’s most recognizable Black individual since 2007 is nothing new for the U of M men’s head basketball coach, a.k.a. “Tubby,” who held a similar position for 10 years in Kentucky.
At the University of Kentucky, that state’s top university, basketball is king. There, Smith led the school to a national championship in 1997. At other stops at the University of Tulsa and the University of Georgia during his 21 seasons as a head coach, Smith was similarly recognized as perhaps the most influential Black person in the area.
“The Minnesota Golden Gophers are the state university, so there are a lot of people that we have a major impact on,” says Smith.
Speaking exclusively to the MSR last week, Smith recalled a conversation with a former high-profile Black person, Clem Haskins, who was the U of M’s coach for 13 seasons prior to Smith accepting Haskins’ former position. “The basketball coach is pretty important [in the state],” Haskins advised Smith. “And especially being an African American, you are going to be very important to the Black community, and not just in the Twin Cities but around the state and around the nation.”
According to Smith, Haskins also recounted the time during the 1990s when Minnesota had several high-profile Blacks. “At one time, you had a Black mayor [in Minneapolis], a Black football coach with the Vikings [Dennis Green], a Black basketball coach with the Timberwolves [Sidney Lowe], and a Black head coach here [at the U of M] with men [Haskins] and women [Cheryl Littlejohn].
“He told me, ‘The community will be important to you, but you will be more important to the community there if you reach out.'”
Since his arrival, Smith has been actively involved in initiatives focusing on issues such as Black health, including heart disease and childhood obesity. Whether in Kentucky or in Minnesota, Smith says he takes his job and his familiarity very seriously.
“I don’t look at myself as being important,” he says, “but I think of myself like everyone else. I have my job to do, and I have something I can contribute more. Because of the visibility of this position, the things you say or do will influence a lot of people, good or bad. Being in the position that I’m in, I have to be more careful than anybody.”
As perhaps the state’s most recognizable Black person, Smith hopes more Blacks will step up to share his influence. “If you want to have clout and influence, you have to be in position to have security. You have to be secure in what you say or do that it won’t harm you or others. It is important that our lay leaders, ministers, public servants, police, and the people that have the integrity, ethics, take the lead.”
His parents were the greatest influence on him and his fellow siblings, a total of 16 children who grew up on a farm in Maryland. “My dad’s whole thing [was], ‘Son, you got to give back – socially be involved.’ He was involved in public service, and my mom the same way. That’s who influences me.
“We didn’t have much, but my dad taught us giving, whether it was church or a charity. He was always reaching out to others.”
The sixth child of the Smith family started a foundation 10 years ago to assist underprivileged children. Ever since, the Tubby Smith Foundation has donated over $2.3 million to over 100 charities. It teamed with local area businesses to set up “Tubby’s Clubhouses,” which provide refurbished computers at community centers to serve at-risk middle-school students in after-school programs in several areas around Kentucky.
“A foundation takes a lot of time,” explains Smith. “To raise money, you have to give…of yourself. You got to give of your time.”
Because of the current economic conditions, “You are not finding the funds you’re used to,” he continues. “The major corporations still are donating, but the individual donations are down all around the country.”
His future plan is to develop similar “clubhouses” in the Twin Cities, but Smith quickly admits his main job has absorbed most of his energy and focus. Also, Smith says he wants people not to be confused about his fundraising efforts: It’s his foundation and not the university’s. “That’s the way it was at the University of Kentucky. You have to keep the two separate.”
Both Smith and his wife Donna, who Tubby calls “my soul mate and my partner,” are actively involved. “She loves it here,” says her husband.
Smith believes he would have an important role in the community even if he weren’t the U of M men’s basketball coach. “Most of us [Blacks] nowadays have to be taught [leadership skills] because we are not getting that at home or in the community. It’s up to more of us in these positions to influence people, to have a leader voice… You lead by example.
“[I] want to leave it a better place for my sons, daughters and grandkids,” Smith says. “That’s the legacy that I want to leave.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for more excerpts from last week’s MSR interview with Smith in a later “Another View” sports column.