Billy Tubbs, who led OU men's basketball to 1988 NCAA final, dies at 85
Forty years ago last spring, Billy Tubbs arrived in Norman, and OU basketball never was the same.
Fast and fun. High-scoring and high-achieving. Nationally-known.
When Tubbs was hired on April Fool’s Day 1980 to coach the Sooners, he declared what most coaches at sleepy programs declare. That things were going to be different.
But few coaches ever delivered like Tubbs, whose teams set scoring records and won Big Eight championships and became routine Final Four contenders.
Tubbs died Sunday in his Norman home, at the age of 85. Tubbs is survived by his wife, Pat Tubbs; son Tommy Tubbs of Oklahoma City and daughter Taylor McDaniel of Norman.
His basketball legacy cannot be overstated.
"My goals are to reach the Final Four and then the Final Two and then be the Final One,” Tubbs said the day he was hired. “I would have to think this is the place I can attain them. I would have to think Oklahoma has that kind of potential or I wouldn't be standing here. I feel we have the potential to be a national contender — consistently."
It wasn’t just talk. Tubbs’ teams won four Big Eight titles in a six-year span, were No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament three straight years and made the 1988 national championship game, losing to Kansas in an epic shootout, a season in which the Sooners were the nation’s best team.
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Tubbs’ teams consistently scored more than 100 points a game, produced stars like Wayman Tisdale, Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock, and made Lloyd Noble Center as exciting on cold winter nights as Owen Field was on pristine autumn Saturdays.
“Everybody knows all the stuff about him,” said Bo Overton, a point guard on Tubbs’ first three Sooner teams and a Tubbs golfing partner in recent years. “He’s a fierce competitor and all that stuff. That kind of came through in how he coached. And what it meant to the players was, you never wanted to let him down. That was the big thing that he would always get across.”
Several years ago, Tubbs told The Oklahoman that the wisest coaching advice he ever received came from Floyd Wagstaff of Tyler (Texas) Junior College, who told Tubbs, “Billy, never count on your coaching ability to win. Get good players.”
Tubbs followed that advice. “I always liked to have the best players,” he said.
But Tubbs’ teams weren’t undisciplined, offensive specialists. His best teams sold out to high-pressure defense, usually full court, requiring incredible conditioning. The turnovers they created produced all those unforgettable scores: 115-100 over OSU in 1984. 119-110 over Brigham Young in 1987. 151-99 over Dayton and 108-98 over Louisville in 1988, the latter in the Sweet 16. 152-122 over Oral Roberts and 112-105 over Missouri in 1989. 173-101 over U.S. International in 1990. 172-112 over Loyola Marymount in 1991. 115-111 over Nebraska in 1994. Dozens more games just like those.
“You can break it faster off the defensive boards than you can the defensive net,” Tubbs said 40 Aprils ago. “When we're on defense, we feel we can score on you. That's how you beat the hell out of people. We like to press all the time. We pick 'em up when they're coming out of the dressing room."
Tubbs’ greatest successes, from 1984 through 1990, came at the height of Big Eight basketball, when Larry Brown coached Kansas and Johnny Orr coached Iowa State and Norm Stewart coached Missouri and a young Lon Kruger coached Kansas State. The Big Eight was loaded in those days, and Tubbs’ Sooners were the flagbearers.
“The history and tradition of the Oklahoma basketball program is rooted in Billy Tubbs and his legendary teams,” said Kruger, OU’s coach since 2011, in a statement. “Coach Tubbs was an incredible innovator and mastermind behind some of the highest-scoring teams in college basketball history. His historic run with Sooner basketball continues to be the foundation of our program to his day.”
Tubbs was born March 5, 1935, in St. Louis but grew up hardscrabble in Tulsa. Tubbs’ father died when Tubbs was 3; his mother died when he was 13, and times were rough.
“When I was basically homeless at the age of 13 was probably my only down time,” Tubbs told The Oklahoman a few years ago. “I've had a blessed life. I'm pretty much always happy.”
Tubbs went to Tulsa Central High School, Lon Morris Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas, then Lamar Tech (now Lamar University) in Beaumont, Texas. Tubbs spent 11 years as an assistant coach at Lamar, left to become head coach at Southwestern Texas, then spent three years as an assistant coach at North Texas State.
In 1976, Tubbs was hired as head coach at Lamar, and he was on his way. After a 12-17 record his first season with the Cardinals, Tubbs went 63-29 over the next three years, making two NCAA Tournaments. In 1979, Lamar beat Detroit Mercy in the NCAAs before losing to Michigan State. In 1980, Lamar beat Weber State and Oregon State to reach the Sweet 16, where the Cardinals lost to Clemson 74-66.
OU soon came calling, and Sooner basketball was forever changed.