Oklahoma’s Legendary Coach Billy Tubbs: A True Original

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So I was a kid still, really, writing about Kansas State basketball for a living. A few minutes before an Oklahoma-Kansas State game, with the crowd packed and the players sitting on the bench, I stood in the press room alone, trying to catch the end of another game on TV. 

In walks Oklahoma head coach Billy Tubbs. “Hey, who’s winning?’’ he asked, or something like that. I’m going on memories from the 1990s here. We talked about the game and the free sandwiches the media were served.

You have to think about what a moment like this would mean to a young sports fanatic. Tubbs was one of the early sports villains. He had taken the stuffy, boring, plodding style of basketball in America’s plains and changed everything all by himself.

He had this idea that basketball was supposed to be fun, even for the coach. So he was a culture shock in every way. Every second of the game was a rush, every second a man-to-man full court press, every second attacking the basket. And when you scored, what about sportsmanship? Hah! Good one.

Tubbs died earlier this week. His family says he had leukemia. He was 85. He’s reportedly going to have a small, quiet funeral sometime this week. If that’s what he wanted, so be it. But it’s just so hard to imagine him with a small, quiet anything. He was about making noise, getting in your face.

Anyway, back to my story. As we talked about the merits of turkey and ham and cheese sandwiches, outside the room you could hear they were starting to play the national anthem.

“Don’t you, um, have to go?” I asked. “Like, isn’t your team waiting for you?” 

“Nah, I’m OK,’’ Tubbs said, roughly. “They won’t start without me. Hehe.’’ 

Tubbs always had a cackle and sort of a quiet, sarcastic tone. We watched the end of the game on TV together. And finally he said, “Hey, you want to walk out there with me?’’

Wait. What? Sure. Here was a legendary villainous bad-guy coach — a sudden national treasure of sorts. He had built Oklahoma into a national powerhouse, injected adrenaline into a sleepy sport and taken the Sooners to the national championship game not long ago. And he was making friends with me!

What a great guy! We walked down the tunnel, and he stopped just before the court.

You know, Tubbs always had this mad desire to score 200 points in a game. He never quite got there, but he came close a few times. In one game, an opposing coach grabbed one of his players at Oklahoma and said, “Hey, tell your coach to call off the dogs.’’

The OU player went to Tubbs and told him. And Tubbs told his player to go tell the other coach this:

“We don’t have any dogs.’’

And he told his team to keep running.

Tubbs always complained about the attention that teams from the eastern US were getting. Duke, North Carolina, whoever. It was almost a weekly complaint of his. Any time they lost, he’d bring it up on weekly calls with the media. He felt the national media favored the East.

He was right, by the way. The plains, with few exceptions such as Kansas, was overlooked, filled with good ol’ boys playing old-fashioned basketball.

Tubbs changed all of that. The Big 12 Conference should build a statue of him somewhere. He dragged the conference into the modern era.

As you can imagine, the other coaches always wanted to slap him down.

Tubbs’ most-famous moment was in a game against Missouri. OU’s crowd was overly rowdy and throwing batteries on the court, as was Tubbs’ dream and goal.  The rowdy part, that is, not the batteries part. Officials threatened to give him a technical foul if he didn’t do something.

So he took microphone to the p.a. system and tried to calm down the crowd by saying, “The referees have requested that regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw stuff on the floor.’’

The crowd. . .went. . .nuts.

Anyway, a few years later, there I was walking out onto a court in Kansas with him. “Hey,’’ he said. “Why don’t you walk in front.’’

We stepped out onto the court and something whizzed by my head. Then something else. Fans were throwing stuff. I looked back: Tubbs was crouched down behind me, using me — at 6-foot-5 — as a shield.

“Was that why you wanted me to walk out with you?”

“Hehehe,’’ he said, and he headed off to the OU bench.

Rest in peace, Billy Tubbs. If that’s the way you wanted to rest.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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