Greg Smith is one of those special athletes in Western Kentucky history that will never be forgotten. He arrived on the Hill in 1964 from Princeton, Ky., one year after his older brother Dwight Smith and Clem Haskins became the first African-Americans to integrate the legendary Hilltopper basketball program. They formed the nucleus of two of the greatest teams in Western basketball history. However, a horrendous call in the1966 NCAA Tourney vs. Michigan, and a devastating injury to Clem Haskins in 1967 prevented those two great squads from achieving their rightful place among college basketball’s all-time greatest teams.
During the three years that Greg graced the court at Western he earned a reputation as one of the strongest rebounders in Hilltopper history (6th all-time – 11.8 avg.). And many observers to this day proclaim him to be one of the greatest rebounders to ever to play basketball at any level. After graduating from Western in 1968, he began displaying that special rebounding ability, as well as his tremendous defensive skills, on the NBA level. He played professionally for eight years, and as a starting forward he was a major ingredient in helping the Milwaukee Bucks win the 1971 NBA title. He ended his career with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1976 and today that is where he still makes his home. On Friday, September 18, 1998, Greg Smith, along with seven other Hilltopper greats, was inducted into the Western Kentucky University Athletics Hall of Fame. He now joins his late brother Dwight, who was inducted in 1995, in being recognized as one of the true great Hilltopper immortals. Along with former teammate Clem Haskins and his daughter Clemette, the Smiths are only the second family to have two members inducted into the WKU Hall of Fame.
This interview was conducted on Saturday, September 19, 1998, at the University Plaza Hotel in Bowling Green, Ky. The total time was around 35 minutes and the entire interview has been transcribed here almost in its entirety. Unfortunately, time was short and we didn’t have the chance to discuss a lot of subjects in great detail but most of the major areas were touched upon. This weekend was the first chance I ever had to meet Greg, and few people have ever impressed me as much as Mr. Smith. You would have to look far and wide to find a more intelligent, articulate, and classy person than Greg Smith. It’s easy to see why he has had such great success in life…..and why he has left such a mark on Western athletics.
HH: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Princeton, did you and Dwight start playing basketball at a pretty young age?
GS: We started playing basketball at the age of eight. I can document that because we moved from one of the houses that we lived in and we moved from there up to Donovan Street and that’s where we started, we started in the backyard…..people talk about sandlot basketball, backyard basketball, that’s where we started and we’ve played ever since. You’ve got to realize, we come from a family…..my father was a basketball official, he refereed all of the games in the black community and at all the black high schools. Also, my uncle George Smith, who lives in Indianapolis, was a Harlem Globetrotter for several years. So, we’ve always had exposure to those elements, and Uncle George said something to me, he said, “never dribble looking at the basketball, it’s underneath your hand you don’t have to look at it, just feel it,” and that is something that has always stuck with me, and that goes back to that period in time. So, we’ve always played.
HH: Before Coach Diddle started recruiting Dwight, how aware were you of Mr. Diddle and Western Basketball?
GS: I didn’t know what a scholarship was. When my brother was being recruited, he was a year older than me and he started getting letters from the University of Louisville, West Point, Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Murray…….this is the top end of the social sixties where they were trying to integrate all of the colleges and bring black athletes into basketball and into sports on the college campuses, and I remember my dad talking to Dwight telling him there’s an opportunity you can get a scholarship to college. And I’m walking around, “scholarship, what’s a scholarship?” (Laughs) and my dad says, “it’s an opportunity to go to college free, the only thing you have to do is just play basketball,” and that was when I found out what a scholarship was. So, when E.A. Diddle came along and started recruiting black athletes he came after my brother. The university of kentucky also came after my brother, and based on what they had saw of him in a newspaper clipping, in the picture…….which my brother was a lot lighter than me, and there was an assumption made in their coaching department that he was white, and when they found out he was not, then they rescinded the whole offer to go to school there.
HH: So, what was your family’s first impression of Coach Diddle and how do you feel about him looking back after all of these years?
GS: My father’s first impression was that of a man……he was a person after my brother to go to college, and he was a man that my father knew had an incredible win-loss record……had an incredible reputation at Western Kentucky as one of the top coaches in the country along with adolph rupp……I know it’s always been a sensitive subject with E.A. Diddle and the alumni of Western, but that was one of those things. It was two different men in two different conferences and they always looked down on Western……..
HH: I think they did, but I would take Coach Diddle over coach rupp any day.
GS: Oh, I agree. But don’t forget that the big university was the big university, that’s where everyone went, and the Michigan game being such a critical and vital game to Western (note: had Western “officially” defeated Mich. in the ’66 NCAAs they would have faced uk in the next round. This was the same year that the all-black Texas Western team defeated uk for the NCAA title), in the fact that the university of kentucky would NEVER, NEVER play an OVC school. They would never play anyone in the OVC, and particularly anyone in Kentucky, at Morehead, Eastern, Western, or Murray. They looked down on these people, it was like “blahhh, blahhhh, no way we’re gonna play them”……….
HH: They still do…….
GS: They still do. They will not schedule……they’ve scheduled some teams in the OVC recently, but they would play a team in a weaker conference, I don’t care who they were, rather than to play a school in Kentucky, ’cause they were the “big uk.” So, when you talk about the Michigan game, that was what it was primarily all about, it was an opportunity to let the poor boys come up and play with the rich boys, and the university of kentucky had that mentality and that mind set. So, my father knew those elements existed, and so when E.A. Diddle sat in our home and started recruiting Dwight…….he had a great deal of sincerity, and the fact that it was close to home, and the fact that it wasn’t the university of kentucky, who really didn’t want you to come to school there. It was part of the SEC, which was part of the deep south, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia……and that was the deep, deep south. At least with the OVC it was more of a periphery with the Tennessee schools and the Kentucky schools that you played. So, it wasn’t as deep, so that was a plus too. That was something that I’m sure mom and dad took into high consideration, that we wouldn’t be lost and alone in areas of the south that was more aggressive towards blacks and mixed teams.
HH: I heard the story that when Coach Diddle was recruiting Dwight, that him and your father went to a game at the Red Barn and Coach Diddle took Dwight into the locker room at halftime, or right after the game, and sat Dwight on his knee and told the team that, “this is the guy that’s going to turn our program around.”
GS: Yeah, yeah. That was tremendous. Again you were going into a situation where even the players came from a society themselves……keeping in mind that these guys were sons of parents from the forties and fifties. So, they would have come to college in 1958, 59, 60,61, of course Dwight came in in 1963. So they had a certain type of adjustment that they had to make themselves. Ralph Baker, Ray Rhorer…..guys like this, so it was an adjustment for them as well, that they had to make, and create an acceptance because they were the guys going out the door, more than coming in the door. So, it was part of the social change in our society. Keeping in mind that the sixties was just the tip of the iceberg because it lasted throughout the sixties, it lasted throughout the seventies, and we began to get better in the mid to late eighties when you could see five black ball players starting at a major university.
HH: Even if you did have the opportunity to go anywhere you wanted besides Western, would you have turned down Coach Diddle and Coach Oldham?
GS: I would never turn down Coach Oldham, but I would not ever have turned down being with my brother. If my brother had said, “Greg don’t come to college here because I’m going to sit out and transfer to another college,” I would have said, “okay, where are you going to go.” My whole thing was to follow Dwight. I wouldn’t have gone to another college, it’s that simple. But he never said that, and one of the things about the visits that we did make here before the NCAA became such a choke hold, as the NCAA governors are on recruiting and other things…….we were able to come here and be with the players……..and the most important thing Bruce, is this…….and a lot of coaches don’t understand this, and I learned this when my son went to the University of California-Berkeley…..is that the most important element in a coach’s recruiting format, for lack of a better word, is his players. They are the anchors of his success in recruiting a ball player to a college. If the players don’t endorse the program, if they don’t endorse the coach, regardless of the college, the player will not come. My son went to a situation at Berkeley with a coach that was such a butt head. So the coach that was coaching my son at Berkeley his last two years there, the players could not endorse the program. And that is so critical……I don’t care how hard an assistant coach works, when he brings them to the players, the players are the ones that endorse the program. Whether they want that player on the squad or they say, hey man, go some place else because with this guy here you can’t really expand your game and I personally want to leave myself. And I’ve learned that just with my son Keith, and over the years when I think about Coach Oldham and I think about how we were recruited here….they were tremendous, because the guys were all for what Coach Oldham was all about and what he was trying to build, and also at that time endorsing E.A. Diddle and his program and the heritage and tradition that had gone on at this college before I came along. This was a winning school, this was a winning program…….
HH: Yeah, we’ve probably got a better tradition than 90% of the schools in this country……
HH: But we don’t get any respect, even in Bowling Green anymore. I don’t know how much you’ve been around Bowling Green lately, but all you see is uk, around campus and around town. It’s pretty pathetic.
GS: Yeah, that comes to the years that you guys had the tremendous squads, which was in the seventies with McDaniels and Glover and Rose, and that whole entire group. Then about five years ago we were the Cinderella favorites in the tournament as well. I think that the athletic department, along with the college, has to create an endorsement of the program, they have to keep it out in front. It’s like Valparaiso, who’s heard of Valparaiso?? They had a great run and they got into the “Sweet Sixteen” and now Valparaiso has to build on that. Do they build on it within a two hundred or three hundred mile radius of Valparaiso, or do they build on a universal level outside of that two or three hundred mile radius where students come in at. I think that is critical that the PR department has to get out there and really push. You’ve got to push the networks, you’ve got to push ESPN, you’ve gotta push FOX, and all the networks that do cover college basketball, and you’ve got to create a fuss…….the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You have to do that.
HH: Basketball is our marquee program, it always has been and it always will be…….
GS: Oh yeah, I think basketball has been. They switched over and went to the Sun Belt Conference and it was an opportunity to play Old Dominion, playing the Florida Schools………
HH: Clem got us back to the top…….
HH: Then some of them drove him off…..
GS: Yeah, well. They did. Whether he was too young to get into it……but he was an incredible recruiter…..maybe it was time for him to leave. You know, sometimes the path that you take is the path that you need to take, and that’s what happened to him. I think that of the teams in the OVC Western Kentucky was always the premier team in the OVC. But I think that Western has to schedule games within the SEC, go into the Big Ten, go into the PAC-10, go in there and play the games against those squads, creating comparatives when you play a UCLA, a Michigan, or a Purdue. And when they do an analysis of the game the announcers will usually say something to the effect that, “well when they played Western Kentucky the other day, they had hard time with this ball club, they only beat them by five points, you’ve got to watch this Western Kentucky ball club because they’re very good.” And then the flip-flop side of that, when they play in the Sun Belt they’ll say, “this Western Kentucky team went up against Michigan and did a tremendous job, i.e. they did this with the offense, they did this with the defense. You’ve got to play these ball clubs who are part of the national spotlight, the high visibility ball clubs.
HH: Do you still keep up with the program very much, are you able too?
GS: I’m not able to as much, but I’ll tell you one thing, we’re on the internet……my wife, as I told you the other day pulled up everything on Western. So, we’re there now. The only thing I do is when she pulls it up, I keep track of it. And that is so great about the 21st century, you cannot miss anybody. I’ll pick up some of your articles and we’ll go from there.
HH: Of course the teams you played on during your sophomore and junior years were capable of, and probably should have won at least one NCAA title and maybe two…….do you look back on that now with any regrets? With the injury to Clem in ’67 and the call versus Michigan in ’66 and knowing that you should have won at least one title??
GS: Coach Oldham and I talked about that today……..YES. Coach said the same thing. We would have, could have, should have……the whole thing will follow you all your life. The Michigan game was a freaky call that went against us. The next night we would have played the university of kentucky with an opportunity to step up. But since that period of time this school has played the university of kentucky and done well……..
HH: Do you have any doubts that you would beaten kentucky that next game??
GS: I think that would have been one hell of a game, I think that game would……..if I had to write a scenario right now……I think that we would have been so hyped up, so juiced, that we would have probably jumped out of our skins. And that the biggest fear that Coach Oldham would have had to face was having to……..put a halter on us. Because I think our energy level would have been to the point that we may not have started playing that ball game until the last when we really would have settled down to get into our game plan. I think our game plan would have been a good game plan, but I think the fact that the hype that would have been into it might have crippled us in a way, and then by the time we got the ball rolling it might have been too late, or just in time, or one of the best games you ever saw in college basketball. That’s what it would have been because it would have been over a week for that hype to build. If it had been two days then maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad. But you take the hype of today and a game like that, it’s frightening. And you can look back at a lot of games like that where the hype had an opportunity to just build.
HH: Well, with both teams playing their best ball, what do you think??
GS: I think we were Unstoppable. I think the thing that we had, we had five guys pretty much the same height. But we averaged out…..Wayne (Chapman) at 6’6″, Dwight at 6’5″, me at 6’5″, Clem at 6’3″ or 6’4″, and Steve Cunningham at a tall 6’5″. You had a tall team and the thing about it, you had five guys who could dribble the basketball. You had Steve Cunningham with one of the best drop-steps, and he didn’t mind shooting five, eight, ten-foot jumpers. He had a quick move off of that. So, that’s what you had. Then you go back to the injury with Clem who broke the navicular bone in his wrist. When he finally got a little better and we went up against Dayton, we went to him a number of times and he couldn’t answer the call. Dwight did a tremendous job in keeping us in the game but when you run an offensive pattern, an offensive structure that was designed around one ball player like Clem……when Dwight or Wayne crossed the half court line Clem was getting the second or third touch. During the regular season when he broke it we were able to…….Wayne and Dwight and myself, we stepped up our game, we were able to do it, but all of a sudden you bring someone back into the element, and all of a sudden they’re getting the second and third touch, you’re going to have wait for it. You’re out of your sync, you’re out of what you did that got you there. So, that makes a big difference, it makes a big difference. You know, if we would have had the breaks and stayed healthy it would have been great…….but it didn’t happen that way.
HH: Can you tell me about the Michigan jump ball??
GS: The Michigan jump ball is something that was very freaky. It was a jump ball and we were up by one point at that juncture, and it was a simple jump ball. The referee throws it up, I hit it and I came down, I got the tip, it went away from me. If I remember correctly Steve Cunningham got the tip, and basically what I think I did I turned casually behind me and basically the instinctive thing is to come down and turn. And Oliver Darden (Mich.) called out, “referee, he’s pushing!” and it was such a scramble, he just blew the whistle……he blew the whistle. And I would have to see it again to give it a direct call because I have not seen that film in over 30+ years. And even at that juncture Bruce, we still had the chance to win the game. Clem had a clean shot at the basket and we still had an opportunity to win the game.
HH: Coach Oldham was telling me also that before the jump ball, I think it was Wayne Chapman, had the ball and he was deliberately fouled, an intentional foul, but the referee only gave him a 1 and 1 instead of two shots. (note: Chapman missed the front end of that 1 and 1) He said that the Michigan coach was out there yelling, “Foul him, foul him!”…….
GS: You’ve gotta know that we were Western Kentucky and Michigan. The TV market and the advertising element was not as large as it is today. Advertising and TV has drawn revenues in every sport, and you know this, from hockey to soccer, from basketball to football……it’s TV revenue generated. And the period that we played, was it that? No, but it was the element of, we would rather see Michigan than Western Kentucky. I don’t think Cinderella teams existed at that time. Everybody wanted the big boys to be the “top dog”. It was a strange…….we were a great team, we were a ball club that had the intelligence and we were a ball club that had the coaches. Like I said last night, the scouting reports…….we knew everything about everybody. And we were very well-coached and ready for that game and it was just………..it was just three or four seconds we wish we could take back, and not be a victim. And you’ve seen the sports, you’ve seen a lot of victims of calls and situations.
HH: Well, your junior year…….of course the accident happened with Dwight. Can you tell me a little bit about the events leading up to that and maybe the aftermath of the accident??
GS: Again, as I said……..you wish there were three or four seconds in life you wish you could take back. And it was one of those bizarre……it was one of those things that happens in life……we had just finished being honored, my brother and I, more so my brother…….being honored by the church at a little banquet that weekend, Mother’s Day weekend, and we went home especially for that. And we left to go back to school, and of all the years that I had been going to college at Western I had never driven that route before……in my whole life. Never been on that road. And we had taken a friend home over to Earlington. That’s the reason we went that way, because she had come down for the banquet and we were going to take her back that way. She had stayed with some friends in Princeton and we were taking her home. Then I took this road that I had never taken before…..and I was driving and my brother was to the right of me and my sister was in the back seat to the right of me. It was raining, it had rained forever, it started raining I think on Thursday or Friday and never stopped the whole entire weekend. And it was one of those situations where I came along, and I’m assuming I was doing the speed limit, I don’t think I was driving fast. My brother was asleep to my right and my sister was behind me and I think she was asleep as well. And we hit this……the car hydroplaned and hit this big puddle of water and we lost all control. And we skidded and hit this bank and the car flipped into the water, into this big ditch……and the car submerged completely.
HH: How deep was the water?
GS: You know, I have not been back to look at the ditch or anything. The only thing I recall Bruce, is waking up in the car in an air pocket and thinking that it was a dream…….like I was sleeping and trying to wake up, and the only thing I got out of the deal besides losing my brother and my sister, and thirty-some odd years of regret, was a slice across my finger right here. That was the only stitches that I took……..and I recall biting my hand, my fingers, to find out…….if I would wake up or if I was dreaming, or something like that. And I want to say, maybe this is where I bit into my finger, but I’m not real sure. But I knew when it became reality that I was wet and that I was in an air pocket……..and then I came to a realization that since I was the only one there, that my brother and sister were gone……dead. And I was in the car and I was going, “My God, I don’t want to die like this,” then I started reaching for the door because I knew I was driving. I made the assumption that I was in my seat, the drivers’s seat……and I wasn’t in the driver’s seat. Where I was, was in the back of the car……in the back seat of the car. And I started reaching and grabbing things and finally I went underneath the water and started reaching, and at that point in time I grabbed someone’s hand…..and that was the rescue people, people who had stopped when they saw it. They were trying to get us out, and pull me out of the car. And I recall walking up the road to the people’s home that it actually happened in front of………and I never looked back………and I never looked back. I just looked back once and kept walking………..and that was it. And we found out later that where the accident happened, the owner of that property in front of the house had called the State to do something about the water that was running across the road, because it was really pretty thick and cars were hydroplaning coming through. They said,” this is really dangerous, come out and do something about this,” you know, put up a “slippery” sign, or “Slow Down,” or something like that. And they said, “well, we may come out.” They never came out………and that resulted in a lawsuit that was put on by the attorney, John Johnstone, who I think eventually sued the state, and mom and dad won SOME money from that because of the fault of the state not doing the right job, because the water was really building to the point where it was just beginning to take over the road and it was very hazardous. And unfortunately, I came along, and it was one of those moments in life……..my brother would have been an incredible Pro because he was twice the player I was. He would have been gone with the Lakers initially, and he would have played 10 or 12 years in the Pros, and he would probably be one of the most recognized coaches and recognized persons in this world……he was that type of a winner. He was dynamic…….