Sonny Smith wishes people would stop talking about Sonny Smith.
But he knows that isn't going to happen. Five weeks ago, he announced he was resigning as basketball coach at Auburn after almost seven years. That seemed an ending to a tale of near-rise and no fall that Smith had woven, taking Auburn from the bottom of the Southeastern Conference to two NCAA bids in seven seasons.
Today, Smith admitted he isn't sure he can quit. His best player, Chuck Person, has asked him to stay. "And I'll keep going back three or four times a day if that will make him stay," Person said. "If we can get through this regional to the Final Four, I think he will stay. He'll realize basketball can make it at Auburn."
It was the feeling that basketball would never make it at Auburn, no matter how much the team won, that led Smith to quit in the first place. But the Tigers since have won the conference tournament and two NCAA tournament games.
Smith suddenly finds himself besieged by people who can't bear the thought of his leaving. Today, when he walked onto the court to run practice, 1,000 or so spectators stood and cheered. Pat Dye, Auburn's football coach and athletic director, talked Smith out of quitting three years ago; now he says he wants to talk to Smith about his decision again.
"All Pat has said is that the door is still open," Smith said today. "We will sit down and talk after this weekend. But there's been no money discussed or anything. We're just going to talk."
Smith says it is difficult to look at his players, many of whom wept when he told them he was quitting, and not be swayed. "You cannot look at a Chuck Person and be cold and just say, 'No, I won't think about it.'
"When you get emotional, you can change your mind 400 times. But when you step back, the reasons for the resignation (mainly lack of support) are still there."
Smith insists that his resignation has little to do with Auburn's current streak. He says it is just maturity -- two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior start -- and "the fact that we're playing out of our tree."
The players say different. "If people want to say we're winning one for Sonny or we're doing it for the coach, that's fine with us," said sophomore guard Frank Ford. "It's all true. We do want to win for him. We don't want him to leave."
Auburn led the SEC in rebounding with an 1,199-969 advantage over opponents. Yet today, when asked how many matchup problems the Tigers would have with taller North Carolina on Friday, Smith answered, "Five. Six if you count coaching."
Smith is one of those naturally funny men who seems to have a line for every situation. But like many funny people, Smith, who is 48, burns inside. Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach and a friend, said he never understood that until Sonny Smith resigned.
"He's so funny all the time you don't realize how important all this is to him," Dean Smith said. "I never thought about him being frustrated by things until I heard that he resigned. It surprised me."
Sonny Smith agreed with that assessment. "Inside, I'm just like (Alabama coach) Wimp Sanderson and he never smiles," he said. "Sometimes when a person is funny, people don't understand that he may not get as much enjoyment out of being funny as they do. I don't know if that makes sense or not but I've never laughed at what I say the way other people seem to.
"I've always been good at being funny on the outside but the last few years, I've gotten very frustrated on the inside."
Person might have best explained Smith's frustration today. "At Auburn, we're about the fourth-most popular team on campus," he said. "There's football, there's the High-Fives (an intramural basketball team made up of football players), there's women's basketball and then there's us."
And Sonny Smith knows, when he backs off from the emotional high of the last few weeks, that football will always rule at Auburn. He has talked to East Tennessee State about returning there and, he said today, another school contacted him this week. He will listen to Dye next week, and if Dye offers a huge new contract, he might stay.
But probably not. "Three years ago, when Pat Dye talked me out of quitting, he was right, it wasn't time," Smith said. "But this time, I thought it was right. It was not an emotional decision. I had thought it through."
He was asked if he was certain that this time, the decision was right. "I think so," he said. "I think so."