Billy Tubbs, who led Lamar to NCAA tournament heights, dies at 85

Published 5:53 pm Sunday, November 1, 2020

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Billy Tubbs, who helped alma mater Lamar University raise its national basketball profile with a run of NCAA tournament success before a 14-year run at Oklahoma, died Sunday in Norman, Oklahoma. He was 85.

The University of Oklahoma shared a statement from the Tubbs family announcing his death.

The family said Tubbs battled a form of leukemia since being diagnosed in 2015 and “died peacefully surrounded by family.”

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“Though his passing represents a tremendous loss for everyone close to him, our family is comforted by the knowledge he lived an extremely spirited life full of outstanding accomplishment in an out of sports,” the statement reads. “Many are aware of his remarkable achievements as a basketball coach, but we will remember him for way more than all of his wins, conference titles and NCAA Tournament success. He was a fierce competitor in everything he faced, and that was never more evident than in his final days.”

Tubbs replaced Jack Martin as head coach in 1976 and built a program that won Southland Conference regular-season championships in 1979 and 1980.

Following stints at Oklahoma — which included a national title game in 1988 — and Texas Christian University, Tubbs returned to Lamar as athletic director in 2002 and doubled as head coach from 2003-06, going 47-43 in that span. He went 641-340 in 31 seasons as a head coach between 1971 and 2006.

Tubbs helped the university reestablish its football program before stepping down as athletic director in 2010.

Norman Bellard, Lamar’s assistant to the president for community relations and a member of Tubbs’ teams in the late 1970s, said in a Lamar news release he felt he “got punched in the gut” when he first got the call of Tubbs’ death.

“To a lot of the guys on the team, he wasn’t just a coach and a mentor but a father figure,” Bellard said. “That was true up until the point when he passed earlier today and that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Billy was a trailblazer. He changed the face of college basketball — from the time he coached us in the late ’70s to his success at Oklahoma and TCU.”

Tubbs’ teams were known for a high-scoring offense and full-court press defense, according to Lamar.

He was named conference coach of the year on seven occasions, including two at Lamar (1978 and 1980).

Lamar won 80 straight home basketball games, a streak that began under Tubbs in February 1978. Lamar played in McDonald Gymnasium before the Montagne Center opened in 1984.

“Over the years, Billy was very instrumental in not only the athletic achievements but also the things he taught on the coach have remained with me through my whole career,” Bellard said. “He was a players’ coach. He was demanding but he helped us achieve success that most of us probably didn’t think we could achieve. From the 80-game home court win streak, to a top-five rank in scoring, some of the things we were able to accomplish almost didn’t seem like it could’ve been possible.”

Tubbs’ 1978-79 Cardinals went 23-9 and won a first-round game over seventh-seeded Detroit Mercy 95-87. Second-seeded Michigan State, however, ended 10th-seeded Lamar’s season 95-64 the next day and marched to a memorable NCAA championship victory over previously unbeaten Indiana State with sophomore Magic Johnson running the point.

The next season, Tubbs led Lamar to its deepest NCAA tourney drive in program history.

The Cardinals — led by future all-time LU leading scorer Mike Olliver — again were seeded 10th in their region after repeating as Southland champions. They edged second-seeded Weber State 87-86 and then stunned No. 2-seeded Oregon State 81-77 before No. 6 Clemson knocked out the Cardinals 74-66 in the Sweet 16. The 1979-80 Cardinals, who went 22-11 and 8-2 in the Southland, averaged 82.3 points per game, which was 17th best in the nation.

Billy Tubbs led Lamar to two Southland Conference championships and three NCAA tournament victories from 1979-80. (Lamar sports information)

Tubbs parlayed his success in Beaumont into a job in the Big Eight Conference (later merged into the Big 12) and turned Oklahoma into a national contender within three seasons. Meanwhile his successor at Lamar, Pat Foster, continued the Cardinals’ NCAA success by stunning Missouri in the first round in 1981 and Alabama in 1983.

Tubbs’ 1981-82 Sooners went 22-11 and reached the National Invitation Tournament, losing to eventual champion Bradley. The next season, Oklahoma made the NCAA tourney led by a freshman center named Wayman Tisdale.

Tubbs’ tutelage helped Tisdale earn All-America status in each of his seasons for the Sooners. With the future NBA star and recording bass guitarist, Tubbs led Oklahoma to back-to-back Big 8 regular-season titles and a conference tournament title in 1985.

Oklahoma, with Tubbs coaching the likes of Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock, reached the national championship game in 1988 before a Larry Brown-coached Kansas squad stunned them. Oklahoma would ascend to a No. 1 ranking the next two regular seasons but not return to the Final Four until Kelvin Sampson’s 2001-02 team achieved the feat.

The Sooners won four Big 8 regular-season and three Big 8 tournament titles under Tubbs. He left Oklahoma after the 1993-94 season, when the Sooners missed the NCAA tourney for the third time in four years.

Tubbs enjoyed a measure of success at TCU over the next eight years while guiding the Horned Frogs through three conferences (Southwest, Western Athletic and Conference USA) in that time. His first team at TCU featured the nation’s leading scorer and rebounder in Kurt Thomas (28.9 points and 14.6 rebounds per game), and his 1997-98 team won the WAC regular-season title and earned an NCAA at-large bid.

Seven of Tubbs’ eight teams at TCU posted winning records, with the 1995-96 team going 15-15.

Tubbs was named athletic director at Lamar in 2002 and succeeded Mike Deane, who had taken the Cardinals to the 2000 NCAA tourney, as head coach in 2003. The Cards struggled to an 11-18 record in 2003-04, before Tubbs engineered a turnaround that resulted in 18-11 and 17-14 records.

His family wrote in their statement it “has always revered and continues to love OU,” adding Tubbs wore a “Cheer Like a Champion” shirt the night before his death while they watched the Oklahoma football team beat Texas Tech.

The basketball floor at Lamar’s Montagne Center was named in Billy and Pat Tubbs’ honor in 2011.

“Wherever Billy Tubbs was, he made it the best he possibly could,” the statement reads. “And we know that’s true right now, too. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you again for all of your true love, prayers and support.”

A St. Louis native who grew up in Tulsa, Tubbs lettered at Lamar from 1955-57 and averaged 6.8 points per game. He attended Lon Morris College (closed in 2012) in Jacksonville before transferring to Lamar.

He had been an assistant at his alma mater under Martin from 1960-71 before beginning his head coaching career at Southwestern University in Georgetown, near Austin. Tubbs went to North Texas as an assistant for three years before Lamar called him back to lead the program.

Lamar athletic director Marco Born said Sunday was “a very sad day for Lamar University” and added he looked forward to reunions that included Tubbs.

Tubbs is survived by wife Pat, son Tommy, daughter Taylor and eight grandchildren.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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