Sonny Smith knew East Tennessee State had the right man for the job as soon as he heard the name.
When Richard Sander was announced as ETSU’s athletic director, Smith immediately recalled his days as basketball coach at VCU, where Sander hired him in 1988.
“Dick was the best AD I ever had,” Smith said Tuesday night during ETSU’s Holding Court event at the Carnegie Hotel. “I never had anybody with the ability he had. I’m not surprised at any success Dick might have because he knows what buttons to push. I’d like you to find an AD that’ll outwork him. And he’s a coach’s AD.”
The event, featuring ESPN’s Jay Bilas, drew a sellout crowd of more than 200 and was well received by everyone in attendance. Bilas was engaging, funny and informative, helping make the whole night a treat.
The coaches who joined Bilas and ETSU’s Murry Bartow on the stage -- Sonny Smith, Les Robinson and Bobby Cremins -- have enough personality between them to fill any basketball arena several times over. Throw in “Facetime” visits by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, and it was a special night for everyone associated with ETSU basketball.
There were enough laughs -- Krzyzewski even cracked a few jokes -- and serious basketball talk to make anyone who plopped down $100 to attend feel like they got their money’s worth -- and more.
“That’s really a tribute to Murry Bartow, that those guys would do that,” Sander said. “I think this is something that people can’t miss out on, that Murry is really respected nationally. Those guys wouldn’t do this for just anybody. It’s a very strong statement.”
Smith, a Roan Mountain native, coached at ETSU and Auburn before moving to VCU, where he lasted nine seasons.
“Sonny was the best from the standpoint of getting people excited about basketball,” Sander said. “ Everybody liked Sonny. The great thing about Sonny Smith was it didn’t matter if you were the president of a major corporation or the custodian of the building, he treated everyone with great respect and reached out to build a relationship.
“When I hired Sonny, VCU didn’t have much going for it. We didn’t have any resources or facilities and we were struggling conference-wise. Sonny came in and never had a negative thought. He brought the whole community together.”
That’s why Smith was a perfect part of Tuesday night’s festivities. He’s still a promoter of college basketball.
“I think this is great,” Smith said. “The name of the game today is ‘promote.’ I think this is a great thing and I think it’s gonna pay a lot of dividends for them at ETSU. Promotion and recruiting are the two biggest things in coaching today.”
Robinson was another good promoter during his five-year stint as ETSU’s head coach. He seemed to get a kick out of Bilas’ good natured jab that the Bucs needed “more wins and less Robinson” back in the day.
Robinson, who began what is generally regarded as ETSU’s glory days of the late 1980s and early ’90s, spent a couple of hours walking around campus on Tuesday, not letting anybody know who he was. It was a trip down memory lane.
“I’d come back here for anything,” said Robinson, who left Johnson City to become coach at North Carolina State in 1990. “I love East Tennessee State. My wife and I always have said the people here were as close to what we grew up with in West Virginia, just great people. That was a special five years we had here, not to mention the success we had on the court.”
Some of the pieces of that success were on hand at the Carnegie. Greg Dennis, Calvin Talford and Marty Story, three key members of several NCAA Tournament teams, came to be part of the event.
Dennis, the second-leading scorer in the program’s history, said he was thrilled to be in attendance.
“I was pretty impressed when I saw the lineup of coaches,” said Dennis, whose 2,204 points are surpassed only by Tim Smith’s 2,300 on ETSU’s career scoring list. “I was glad I got the opportunity to see it. To have some of the coaches with those names associated with the university is pretty big.
“ETSU was so good to me. The people around here don’t realize we can never repay that. They always said they enjoyed watching us play, but they did so much for us. We were young kids, away from our families. They were very supportive and they were a tremendous part of our success.”
The folks at ETSU are hoping the Holding Court event turns out to be a part of the program’s success as well.
“It’s a great event,” Sander said. “Any time you can get legends like Bobby, Les and Sonny, and then you bring in the preeminent national college basketball expert Jay Bilas ... He was a great player. He coached at one of the best basketball programs in the country and now he’s kind of become the conscience of the NCAA.
“Then to have guys like John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, and Mark Few to take time out and be part of this, it’s pretty neat. Just a great event, a great time.”