NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL : Southeast Regional : Auburn Attempting to Stop Sonny

Times Staff Writer

The Sonny Smith story just won't die, not that Sonny seems to be putting much of a chokehold on it.

No, he'll say at first, he'd much rather talk about his Auburn basketball team or North Carolina's or the NCAA tournament's Southeast Regional in general. But then he talks about what it would take to get him to return to Auburn, whether it's a new financial package or just junior Chuck Person coming to his office to plead with him four times a day.

He seems to like talking about it, too. "It writes real good," the lame-duck coach admitted. "And my mom is enjoying the heck out of it."

Who isn't? Win one for Sonny? It's positively irresistible. It's possibly the best thing to happen to NCAA tournament basketball since Al McGuire was washed from the game on a tide of tears, all his own.

Here's earnest Chuck Person explaining Auburn's unlikely presence among the Sweet 16: "We feel if we can get to the Final Four, he'll stay at Auburn. He's reconsidering it now, I think. If it's 'Win one for Sonny,' yeah, we'll accept that role."

Whether Sonny comes back or not has become nearly as compelling as which team will go on from here to Lexington as one of the NCAA's Final Four. According to the rankings, second-seeded North Carolina (26-8) figures to roll over 11th-seeded Auburn (22-11) tonight, and Maryland (25-11), the fifth-seeded team in the regional, should beat eighth-seeded Villanova (21-10). Then North Carolina should beat Maryland Sunday afternoon and return to the Final Four.

So the real question is: Will Sonny come back?

Smith, 49, stunned this little part of the world a month and a half ago when he announced his resignation--for no good reason that anybody could tell. Since coming to Alabama, with hardly more than a banjo on his knee, Smith has turned a traditionally mediocre team into a power and has reaped the benefits in coach-of-the-year honors and such.

His first season at Auburn, 1976-77, his team went 13-16. The last two seasons, there have been 20-plus wins. His Tigers just won the school's first Southeast Conference championship, and this is their second straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.

So he quits?

Most sources say he's quitting because Auburn remains a football-oriented school, despite his success. According to Person, the team's leading scorer and rebounder with an average of 22 points and eight rebounds a game, Auburn basketball ranks about No. 4 among the school's athletic programs.

"There's Auburn football, women's basketball and the football team's intramural basketball team, the High-Fives," Person said. When somebody asked about spring football, he said, "I guess we're No. 5, now that I think about it."

Said Smith: "I can neither confirm nor deny what rank we are on campus."

Even with the recent basketball success, Auburn's 13,000-seat arena has been something less than a top student attraction, except possibly as a study area. There was not even one sellout this season, not even for games with Alabama or Kentucky, and SEC attendance averaged no more than 7,000 a game. Attendance for nonconference games was between 4,000 and 5,000.

But Smith had pledged seven years ago that it would be a good place to get lost in a crowd. "He told us he just wasn't putting fans in the stadium," recalled Person from that tearful 30-minute meeting Feb. 8. "He said he just set his goals too high."

Well, it was all the team needed to hear. Just 13-7 at the time, the Tigers announced a Save Sonny crusade and won 9 of their next 13. And a Final Four appearance is guaranteed, just so he'll stay.

"Final Four," Smith mused Wednesday. "I have been swayed a lot of times, but that's the best line yet. Final Four. Sounds real good to me. I'll go back anyplace for that."

In fact, nobody's painting over his parking place just yet. If ever there was a man who sounded uncertain of his own decision, it is Smith.

On the one hand, he says, his decision is irreversible. "I quit at Auburn a long time before I announced my resignation," he said. In fact, he quit once three years ago but allowed Athletic Director Pat Dye to talk him back onto the job.

On the other hand, "There's my players. That's where my problem lies. You cannot listen to Chuck Person for 10 minutes and be hard and cold about this. I am thinking about it."

Does that sound irreversible to you?

One consideration, of course, is that there are not a lot of other places for him to go. He has been contacted by just two schools, and one of those has already filled its opening. East Tennessee State, which he had turned around once before coming to Auburn, "is a serious possibility," he said. And there is a phone message on his desk from a third school that he has yet to consider.

Then there is Auburn, which is still interested, resignation or not. The Birmingham News published a report of a proposed salary hike from $84,000 to $120,000. Smith said he has heard some figures, but not the ones everybody was writing about. In any event, he has promised Dye he will talk with him after the tournament. "He's left the door open, that's all," said Smith.

Probably, he admits, it will be more an emotional decision than a financial one. Person calls him a father figure. So do Frank Ford and Gerald White.

"They say you can't get too close with your players," Smith said. "With this club, I'm borderline. They call me by my first name, 'rassle with me."

You 'rassle Chuck Person (6-8, 215)?

"I didn't say I won yet," Smith said.

It may turn out that Person, as determined off the floor as on, won't be denied in this other issue either. "I'll go to this office three, four times a day, if it'll do any good," Person said.

And if that doesn't work, one presumes, he'll 'rassle him.

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