TAMPA — As Richard Schmidt sits in his office at the University of Tampa on the brink of earning his 600th win as a college coach, he remembers where it all began.
"I started out at as low of a level as you could," Schmidt said. "With the freshman team at Westport (Ky.) High School, and I really didn't know anything about coaching."
Little did Schmidt know that he'd be learning from the future Louisville assistant men's basketball coach and athletic director, Bill Olsen.
"He ended up being one of my best friends and taught me a lot about basketball," Schmidt said. "He asked me one day, 'Could you coach the freshman team?' And I said, 'Sure, Coach, but you're going to have to give me a lot of help.' "
The tips Schmidt, 69, picked up from Olsen, coach Denny Crum and the Louisville program, and from driving about two hours over the state line to Bloomington, Ind., to watch Bob Knight's Hoosiers practice on Sunday nights, propelled him to the 1977 Kentucky state title as the head coach of Louisville's Ballard High. He then took an assistant coaching job at Virginia, followed by a two-year stint as the head coach at Vanderbilt, before finally coming to Tampa to resurrect the Spartans basketball program, which had been dormant since 1971. He arrived in 1982 and the program was back in business in 1983.
He has been the only coach the Spartans have known during their renaissance, guiding the program to 571 victories in 28 seasons. Add in his 28 wins from Vanderbilt and Schmidt is 599-282, fourth most among active Division II coaches.
"He's a basketball purist, in the same mold as Bobby Knight, from Louisville, Ky., grassroots basketball country," said DeCarlo Deveaux, an All-American and the school's all-time leading scorer who also coached under Schmidt for three years. "He may be the last of a dying breed, as far as his attention to detail. I used to joke with him, 'You have more patience than (the prophet) Job, more than I'll ever have.' "
Schmidt's not sure when that next victory will come. The team plays at 7:30 Tuesday at home against Florida Memorial.
Budget cuts at Tampa have eliminated full-time assistant coaches and left him with about half as many scholarships to award as the other Sunshine State Conference schools, and this season's squad features three walk-on starters, including one that didn't even start for his high school team.
But not long ago, Schmidt was coaching All-Americans such as Deveaux, who graduated in 1994, and Rashad Callaway, who made the Division II Bulletin All-American team and graduated in May. In 2009, unranked Tampa beat No. 2 Valdosta State 78-74 in double overtime. Going back further, the Spartans beat crosstown rival USF 79-71 in 1987 and even upset a Jim Valvano-coached North Carolina State team that went on to win the regular-season ACC championship in 1986.
Schmidt is still surrounded by the memories in his office. Wooden plaques denote the team's past accomplishments, including the best field-goal percentage defense in Division II in 2001, a stifling 36.6 percent. The Spartans were also featured in Sports Illustrated's 1985-86 college basketball preview issue, which is hung right inside Schmidt's office door.
"It's difficult when you don't have good teams like you used to, I can tell you that. It wears on you sometimes," Schmidt said. "It still is fun, though, I enjoy seeing the kids develop and get better. I like to see them accomplish something."
In many ways, he's still the same coach he was back when he started in a Kentucky high school gym.
"He's a simple man in his approach to things, you just do it the right way," Deveaux said.
"He's a country guy. Like, he would say, 'That's bad enough to knock the buzzards off a gut wagon,' " Deveaux, a Miami native, added, laughing. "It was an intense moment, and he'd be dead serious, but I mean, you couldn't help but laugh."
Callaway, who played for Schmidt last season, smiles at his coach's simplicity.
"Coach has a magnetic, Etch A Sketch type thing, like little kids play with, and that's what he uses to draw plays," Callaway said. "I'll never forget this, we were playing in the conference championship my freshman year against Florida Southern and it's on TV. My friend recorded it and we watched it afterward, and during a timeout, the announcer goes, 'Mr. Schmidt is over there with an Etch A Sketch. I'd give that to my 5-year-old grandkid.' "
Schmidt also taught his players lessons that couldn't be diagramed on that Etch A Sketch. When Deveaux's older brother Drexel, who also played at Tampa, was murdered during the younger Deveaux's senior year, Schmidt traveled with him to the funeral before rejoining the team in time for their game that night at Florida Southern. And he always welcomes players who couldn't make it home to his house for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"Will he ever get the accolades that would put him on a pedestal and in the limelight? No, probably not," Deveaux said. "He didn't want the limelight. He just wants success for his players."