Gene Smithson is 78 years young. The man behind the MTXE acronym looks good, feels good.
“I’m just hanging out, man,” he said. “I’m keeping in shape as much as I can.”
Count eyesight among the things in good working order.
Scanning a room of his former players gathered this weekend for a tribute to the 1975-78 era of Illinois State basketball, Smithson smiled and said, “They have a few pounds on them now. But they’re good at telling stories. We tell a lot of stories.”
It makes sense. Theirs is a great story to tell.
ISU was 66-18 in Smithson’s three seasons as head coach, including 24-4 in his final year of 1977-78. The Redbirds were ranked as high as No. 13 nationally that season, still best in program history in the Division I era.
Smithson and former players Joe Galvin, Derrick Mayes, Randy Henry, Randy Smithson, Roy Herold and Roger Powell were honored Saturday at halftime of ISU’s game against Northern Iowa at Redbird Arena. Also represented were the families of the late Ron Jones and Del Yarbrough, stars from that scintillating era as well.
“It’s just great to see these guys,” said Gene Smithson, who is retired and lives in Ocala, Fla. “It’s amazing to see how they’ve come together (this weekend), and we’ve come together. What a great, great group. Look at these guys … they’re just super.”
There was excitement in Smithson’s voice, sparkle in his eyes. This edition of ISU’s annual “Retro Night” meant a lot to him and those who helped elevate Redbird basketball.
If it was overdue, so be it. It was happening now.
Smithson’s teams played under his MTXE mantra, Mental Toughness Xtra Effort, posting wins over the likes of No. 3-ranked UNLV in 1977 and Larry Bird and No. 4 Indiana State a year later. The roof to lovable Horton Field House nearly came unhinged more than once before Smithson left for an eight-year run as coach at Wichita State.
“It was incredible basketball,” he said. “There were a lot of great players. You have them right here today, a lot of them. We were very, very fortunate. We recruited well and that’s the name of the game.”
There are 43 players in ISU’s 1,000-point club. Seven of them played in the Smithson era. It might have been eight had Randy Smithson not followed his father to Wichita State, playing his final two years for the Shockers.
Saturday, the younger Smithson was touched by the tribute weekend, saying, “Being around the game my whole life, there’s not much I haven’t seen. But this is quite an experience. It’s almost overwhelming. I’m sure it will slow down maybe on the way home, but it’s a great feeling.”
Randy Smithson lives in Wichita. Like his father, he’s a former Wichita State head coach. He works with young players these days, helping them develop their games.
He’s enjoying basketball like never before, free from the pressure of winning. He also was free to return to Normal, where he was an all-state guard at Normal Community High School.
“Most of all, I’m happy for my father,” he said of the weekend. “He’s getting up there in age and I know this is where it all started for him. I’ve always considered this home. This is my home, and it’s been a while.”
For four superb years, it was home for Jones and Yarbrough as well. Teammates from 1976-80 along with Galvin, they went 86-30 with three trips to the NIT.
Both passed away within the last 18 months.
“I was thinking the other day, ‘Yet another honor for him,’” said Tonjia Yarbrough, Del’s widow and mother of current Redbird Milik Yarbrough. “It is bittersweet.
“I wasn’t with him when he played basketball. I didn’t know that he was as big as he was (at ISU). He was like, ‘Babe, you just really don’t know who I was.’ I was like, ‘I was no groupie!’”
Ron Jones’ daughter, Shanae, called the weekend “special,” and also said, “I didn’t think he was so big here until now. I’m like, ‘Wow.’”
That’s a great word for the era.
Visiting teams dreaded coming to Horton, a raucous, noisy place that stirred every emotion. Home games were a must-see thanks to Smithson and his close-knit, talented band of players.
“I think like always, we probably didn’t appreciate what unique times they were,” said Herold, who lives in his native Helsinki, Finland. “We couldn’t reflect at that time. I think what was really fun was the road trips and the unity of the team. A lot of good memories.”
Saturday was about reliving them. They bring a smile.
So do the stories, some of which are true.
“When you get older, you tend to only remember the nice things,” Herold said, smiling. “It was really a lot of fun.”
Was it ever.