NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Tramel: Billy Tubbs' competitive fire built OU basketball

Late OU men's basketball coach Billy Tubbs (left) poses for a photo in 1990 with his son and assistant Tommy Tubbs at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. [DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN]
Late OU men's basketball coach Billy Tubbs (left) poses for a photo in 1990 with his son and assistant Tommy Tubbs at Lloyd Noble Center in Norman. [DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN]

NORMAN — David Little laughed a little and cried a little this week. He knew Billy Tubbs had entered hospice care. Knew his coach’s days were near an end.

“He’s one of those guys you never think’s gonna die, ever,” said Little, Tubbs’ first recruit as the OU basketball coach.

Little had solid reasoning behind such faith. Tubbs was too competitive for anyone to think he could die. But die Tubbs did, Sunday at the age of 85.

“Coach Tubbs was the ultimate competitor,” said Terry Evans, a sharpshooter in Tubbs’ later OU seasons and now the head coach at Southwestern State University. “He thought we could walk into any gym and win. Whether it was the Lakers or the Celtics or anyone in the Big Eight.”

Whether it was turning little Lamar into a Cinderella or the Sooners into NCAA Tournament behemoths, whether it was taking a microphone to rip the officiating or goading a hostile crowd in Stillwater, Tubbs always was ready for battle.

“Man, always that character he played,” said Darryl Kennedy, the great OU forward on Tubbs’ mid-1980s teams. “He wasn’t going to back down. He instilled that in a lot of us, too. Made us be that same way. That fight-back attitude.”

Tubbs turned an innocuous, sleepy program, that had won one conference title in 35 years, into not just the Big Eight’s most-feared program, but the most-hated. Not Kansas. Not Missouri. Oklahoma.

The Sooners played with swagger and confidence and pizazz. They were the yin to the yang of the stodgy North Carolinas and Indianas. Tubbs borrowed OU wrestling’s Underdog mascot idea but christened the basketball version “Top Daug.”

BillyBall became the hardwood version of Barry Switzer’s gridiron buccaneers.

“Billy was probably the most confident man I had met,” said Little, who transferred to OU from Texas Tech in summer 1980. “When he tells you the sun’s going to come up in the West tomorrow, I know it’s not true, but I believe it anyway. He gets players to play beyond their natural abilities.”

That confidence, that competitiveness, came from the streets of Tulsa. From the age of 14, Tubbs was raised by an older brother, after both parents died.

“I can’t think of anyone more competitive than my dad,” said Tommy Tubbs, who played for his father at OU in the 1980s. “I told him that last night (Saturday). I’m just so proud of him.

“I think I figured out why his shell was so tough. The feeling of being alone on the streets of Tulsa, and having a brother nine years older than him raise him, kind of helped build the character he had all his life.

“All the people telling him he couldn’t do stuff. As you know, he had some pretty big dreams.”

Those big dreams included OU. Tubbs’ first Sooner team, which finished 9-18 after Tubbs had declared the national championship his ultimate goal, played a tournament in Houston. Tommy Tubbs spent that season at Lon Morris Junior College and drove over to watch his dad’s team play. So did fans from Lamar University, which Billy Tubbs coached before taking the OU job.

While Wyoming routed the Sooners, Lamar fans razzed their former coach, saying he should have stayed in Beaumont.

“I thought those people were right,” Tommy Tubbs said. “You know where the program went from there. That program sat on Mount Everest in the college basketball world.”

Tubbs was saucy and unapologetic and determined. He scratched and clawed and fought, and when his talented players adopted that competitive spirit, it took OU basketball to its greatest heights. A man like Tubbs is not likely to pass this way again.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at

Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›