Sonny Smith returns to Cloudland to encourage students to build dreams
Published 9:57 am Monday, March 30, 2015
One of the school’s most illustrious alumni, Charles “Sonny” Smith, told students at Cloudland High School about the importance of having dreams and planning to make them reality.
Smith graduated from CHS in the early 1950s and has served as a head basketball coach for 22 seasons. He is best remembered for his time coaching at Auburn University, where he was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 1984 and 1989.
He is the only coach to lead the Auburn men’s basketball team to three consecutive 20-win seasons from 1984-1986. And while he has coached at several other high schools and colleges, he is remembered locally as a successful coach at East Tennessee State University in the late 1970s.
Smith returned to CHS Friday for the school’s career day and spoke with the entire student body about planning for their future.
Smith’s visit capped off the school’s career day, where students learned of different career opportunities available to them.
Smith is an excellent example of what students can achieve if they plan for the future and apply themselves, CHS principal Randy Birchfield said.
“Mr. Smith embodies someone who has graduated from Cloudland High School, who is from Roan Mountain and has never forgotten where he came from,” Birchfield said.
Smith noted that every time he has a speaking engagement he is sure to tell the audience he is from Roan Mountain.
“Roan Mountain means so much to me,” Smith said. “I grew up here and it holds a special place in my heart. My brother still lives here and I come back four or five times a year. Of course when they asked if I could come speak, I said ‘yes.’”
“I have never spoken anywhere that I did not bring up the name Roan Mountain,” Smith added. “Be proud that you are from here. I am proud to say I am from Roan Mountain, Tennessee.”
Smith played basketball for Cloudland but was unable to complete a season due to injuries and illness until his senior year. From there, he was given a scholarship to Holmes Junior College in Mississippi.
From there he transferred to Milligan College in Tennessee, and after college he spent 11 years playing semi-pro basketball and working as a high school basketball coach.
In 1969, he earned his first job on the collegiate level as an assistant coach at William & Mary College.
From 1971-1976, Smith was an assistant coach at Virginia Tech University, helping the team win the NIT Championship in 1973 and an NCAA Tournament spot in 1976.
In 1976, he came to ETSU and then on to Auburn in the 1981. In 1985, he coached the Auburn team to their first SEC Tournament Championship in school history. While at there, he coached NBA players Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. During his time there, from 1984-1988, Auburn had five NCAA tournament appearances.
Smith was named to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. He also worked at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1989-1998.
After retiring from coaching, Smith joined former University of Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson on a sports talk radio show “The Sonny and Wimp Show” in Birmingham, Alabama. Smith also works as an analyst calling Atlantic Sun games on Friday nights for CSS.
“I am living a dream, but it started as a dream,” Smith said. “I knew I wanted to be somebody and I wanted to do something.”
While Smith excelled at coaching, it wasn’t his top dream as a high school student. He first wanted to be a country singer, but then he found he didn’t have the talent necessary to sing. He then wanted to be an actor but opportunities were limited in Roan Mountain at the time.
Smith then decided to be a minister before moving on to become a high school basketball coach and then a college coach.
“When I was in school here at Cloudland, I had a dream,” Smith told the students. “You better start dreaming now and thinking of the things you want to do. I had a dream to be singer, an actor, a minister and a coach. That is when all my dreams started falling into place. Take your dreams and start now. Change those dreams into reality and those wishes into facts.”
While it was up to the students to have their dreams and make plans for them, Smith told them their dreams usually mean a sacrifice from someone else, or themselves, to help make it happen.
“For me, it was my brother Jim,” Smith said. “He was the much better ballplayer, and he was funnier too. He stayed home to help take care of our parents in their later years.”
Smith wanted to become a college basketball coach but had to start as a high school coach first. He worked at high schools in North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky before finally getting a job with a college. He also volunteered at basketball camps around the country to gain the attention of other college coaches.
“I knew what I wanted and I sacrificed and went to work to get it,” Smith said. “That is something to consider: how willing are you to sacrifice to get what you want?”
For Smith, that paid off when he reached the “pinnacle” of his career, winning the NIT Championship with Virginia Tech University.
“Imagine you are guy from Roan Mountain, and you are standing in the middle of Madison Square Garden, and your team has just won the championship,” he said. “That happened to me.”
Even though Smith’s career path took him around the country, he told the students they did not have to leave their home community if they did not want to.
“You can be successful wherever you are,” he said. “If your dreams are right and the commitment is there, you can reach your dreams. Love where you are at and what you do.”
Smith and his wife live in Auburn, Ala. and have two children.