PORT ARTHUR —
Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on Feb. 28, 1990.
NORMAN, Okla. — Perhaps the real tip-off to Billy Tubbs’ influence on this football-crazy college town can be found along Barry Switzer Ave. On one block of the thoroughfare named for Oklahoma’s winningest football coach, I counted seven driveways with basketball goals.
Football is still No. 1 in Sooner country, make no mistake about that. But Tubbs’ fun-to-watch OU basketball tam has given the roundball sport an elite status of its own. And it’s elevated him to the kind of prominence usually reserved for football coaches.
Last December, the state’s major newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman — voted Tubbs the Oklahoma Coach of the Decade. He finished eight points ahead of Switzer. In a poll of the newspaper’s 20-man sports staff, Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones and former OSU boss Jimmy Johnson weren’t even close.
It’s possible Tubbs wouldn’t have outdistanced Switzer had the Sooner football program not been wracked with the problems that ultimately led to his resignation. Then, again, it’s possible Tubbs would have won the honor anyway, based on a fabulous track record.
There’s probably nobody who can appreciate what Tubbs has done for basketball in Oklahoma more than John MacLeod. MacLeod coached the Sooners from 1967-73 before leaving for successful NBA stints with Phoenix and Dallas.
On hand Sunday for OU’s 107-90 thumping of No. 1 ranked Missouri, MacLeod marveled at the excitement surrounding Sooner basketball. It was a far cry from the days when his OU teams struggled for acceptance in their tiny, 4,000 seat arena.
“The obvious thing to say is he’s put the Oklahoma basketball program on a national level,” MacLeod said. “A lot of people wouldn’t have believed that could happen here. I thought it could, but I knew it would take the right coach.
“There’s just no way you could say enough about the good things Billy’s done with this program, “ MacLeod continued. “And I think he deserves a major share of the credit for where the Big Eight Conference is now. He’s changed a lot of the thinking about wide open basketball.”
Before Tubbs left Lamar to come to Oklahoma, the Sooners had managed only two 20-victory seaons, and had participated in post-season tournaments only six times in 63 years. Contrast that to an upcoming NCAA appearance that will be the eighth straight under Tubbs, and a ninth consecutive season of 20 plus victories.
Practically every OU basketball record belongs to Tubbs, or to a player on one of his teams. His Sooners win games and they do it in exiting fashion. They’ve finished first, second or third nationally in scoring in every year since 1984.
Over the past six seasons only the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (178) has won more games than Oklahoma (167). Only four teams have a better winning percentage in that time frame than the Sooners. The list of records and accomplishments go on and on.
Tubbs has won big so consistently the critics of an up-tempo game considered radical a few years ago have virtually disappeared. Matter of fact, most of them — the Dick Vitales, Al McGuires and Billy Packers — now consider him ahead of his time. They call Billyball the game of the 90s.
“Oklahoma will remain a dynasty as long as Billy stays there,” praised NBC’s McGuire. “He’s been a pathfinder in the Big Eight, allowing other teams in the league to open up their offenses after seeing a running team can win.”
Success hasn’t spoiled Tubbs, really hasn’t changed him much at all. He’s pretty much the same fun-loving, wisecracking character who took Lamar basketball from rags to riches. The quick wit remains much in evidence.
About the only noticeable difference is that he’s more subdued with the media. He’s been burned one too many times to be as trusting. As a result, he’s not as flamboyant, not as outrageous, not as trusting as he once was.
“I’ve always felt I’ve been honest and said what’s on my mind,” he explained. “Maybe I’m not a politician, but at least I’m honest. I like people who say what’s on their mind. Sometimes, however, doing that can cause you problems.”
Tubbs, though, can’t resist an occasional jab at some of the game’s sacred cows. Such was the case on Oklahoma’s recent trip to New Jersey to play Seton Hall in a nationally televised game.
Surrounded by the geniuses in the Eastern media, he made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the deliberate — read that boring — style of play in the Big East.
Naturally, it created a minor furor among those who think Big East basketball is a cut above the rest. Tubbs has since had numerous calls and questions as to whether he really meant what he said.
“People take remarks like that too seriously,” he said, with a wink. But, when a New York Times reporter asked about the remark at a Monday press conference, Tubbs couldn’t resist poking a little more fun at the Big East.
“I heard the Surgeon General is going to request a disclaimer on the screen before a Big East game is shown on TV,” he told the man from The Times. “It’s going to say ‘Warning, watching this game could cause drowsiness.’ ”
Drowsiness, of course, is not a factor when watching the Sooners. The pace at which they play is mind boggling, especially for anyone who’s been watching basketball played at a different level.
Meanwhile, if things keep going the way they are, it surely won’t be much longer before there’s a Billy Tubbs Blvd., intersecting Barry Switzer Ave. here in Norman.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
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