TAMPA — His passions haven’t varied much during his 80 years on the planet. Richard Schmidt remains engrossed in high screens and half-court traps, backdoor cuts and bounce passes, power forwards, point guards and wings.
One of the nation’s foremost aviculturists when not coaching hoops, Schmidt is raising budgies (better known as parakeets) these days, though he also has some turacos and even a few fruit doves at his home aviary in Ocala.
“When you have 200 budgies, it sounds big to you, but it’s not to me,” Schmidt says from his small, sparse office inside the Martinez Athletics Center at the University of Tampa. “It’s a big hobby world-wide, and a lot of people in Europe raise 1,000 babies a year because they can really sell them and all that kind of stuff.”
As for that other lifelong pursuit, Schmidt also continues attacking it with an ageless zeal, though it comes with a daily commute that — well — is totally for the birds.
Why does this octogenarian — the only coach in the modern history of UT men’s basketball — continue climbing each day into his GMC pickup for the 103-mile, one-way trip to work? After four decades of service to one school, hundreds of bus rides to every nook of the state, budget cuts, a pandemic and attrition created by the transfer portal, why not — in aviculture terms — fly the coop?
“How am I gonna keep going, man? I’m 80 years old,” Schmidt, 707-406 as Spartans coach, says with a chuckle. “I don’t know, I keep saying I’m going to retire. I enjoy watching kids play and get better. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know why I do this.”
Oh, he knows. He just said it himself. For the lifelong bird lover, there’s something about taking a kid ignored or discarded by the larger schools, recognizing and refining his talent, then turning him loose and letting him soar.
It’s what keeps compelling Schmidt — grandfather of nine — to make that 75-minute drive (two hours if I-75 is really congested) to downtown Tampa every darn day.
“I think God has to come take him off the floor, and some angel will just pick him up and take him into heaven,” said Fivay High boys coach Rod Brooks, who played four seasons for Schmidt in the early 1990s. “I don’t think he’s ever going to retire.”
Refining raw clay
The timbre in Schmidt’s distinct Commonwealth drawl gets a bit more robust when he speaks of the forsaken kids who ultimately have flourished on his watch at UT, which started in 1982 and has spanned seven U.S. presidents.
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There was Nate Johnston, the lanky youngster from Belle Glade who couldn’t crack his junior varsity starting lineup as an 11th-grader. Johnston helped lead Tampa to a pair of Sunshine State Conference titles and four Division II NCAA Tournaments and ultimately was drafted by the Miami Heat.
“He comes here, the very first college game he ever played was against Purdue (a 76-72 loss on Nov. 24, 1984),” Schmidt recalled. “And Purdue won the Big Ten that year, and he had a double-double.”
An even greater challenge was DeCarlo Deveaux, whom Schmidt recalled as a “hard-headed” kid with a “temper unmerciful.” Reared mostly in The Bahamas, Deveaux had minimal stateside organized-basketball experience when he arrived at UT at the behest of older brother Drexel, a two-time all-conference player for Schmidt.
“The fact that if I believe I could do something when no one can tell me I can, then sometimes it may appear as a lack of humility,” said Deveaux, now a local insurance agent.
“But Coach was able to channel it in the right ways, to help me help myself, and at the same time help the team. And once I realized that he was an advocate for my success — not that he had to put up with everything, but he did, and I’m very thankful for that — then there became a level of trust.”
Despite routinely butting heads with his coach early on, DeCarlo Deveaux evolved into a first-team Division II All-American and the 1993-1994 Division II national player of the year. He remains the program’s career scoring leader, playing roughly half his final season with a knee injury.
“That’s why I enjoy it, guys like that,” Schmidt said. “If he hadn’t come here, he wouldn’t ever have played basketball, because nobody would’ve kept him. I kept him because I could see that if he ever straightened up, he would be great.”
Johnston and Deveaux were among three D-II All-Americans (Todd Linder was the other) produced by Schmidt within the first decade of his arrival at UT from Vanderbilt, where he mercifully had been fired after two turbulent seasons. Seems the Kentucky-born basketball lifer wasn’t always enamored with the basketball life.
At least not at the major-college level.
“You really don’t have a life because the intensity of that level, it’s so demanding on you,” said Schmidt, who also served as an assistant for two seasons (1977-1979) at Virginia and was highly instrumental in recruiting Ralph Sampson.
“Not just the recruiting, but you’ve got to go to all these things and make speeches to the alumni constantly, and this and that. You don’t really have a life.”
He found balance, and boundless potential, at UT.
He arrived in 1982, when the school decided to resuscitate men’s basketball after 13 years of dormancy. In his first season (1983-1984), he took a team often featuring four freshman starters and won the Sunshine State Conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth. In the first decade of his tenure, the Spartans won five conference crowns and made eight NCAA tourney trips.
He was Bobby Knight with a Bluegrass accent in those days, fiery but far from egotistical, and willing to alter strategy to fit his players’ respective skill sets.Though not prone to expletives, his critique was often draped in catchphrases.
“I mean, there’s plenty of them,” said Gaither High boys coach Jordan Davis, Schmidt’s starting point guard for two seasons (2013-2015).
“He’ll tell a guy he can’t guard a chair. If somebody were to drive completely past you and kind of leave you in the dust, he’d say you’re playing dead in an old Western film.”
Deveaux, who played professionally in a handful of different countries, likened Schmidt to a musical producer who toils behind a sound board in an effort to elicit the best performance from his or her artist.
“He will let his best players kind of take charge and lead the team,” Davis added.
“I think he realizes that as a coach you can’t get a rebound, you can’t make an assist, you can’t make a shot, you can’t take a charge — whatever it may be. So he will let his better players go and kind of take control and really make sure that the players run the team from that aspect.”
In turn, the team — or more specifically, the job — didn’t run him. With lesser time and travel demands at the Division II level, Schmidt could pursue his diverse interests.
Greener pastures, ghastly commute
When developers began converging on his Riverview property a few years back, Schmidt and his wife of 33 years, Mary Jo, moved north. Mary Jo Schmidt trains saddlebred horses on the couple’s sprawling Ocala ranch while her husband tends to his aviary.
“I’ve always been a bird nut all my life, even when I was a little kid,” said Schmidt, who cut his coaching teeth in Louisville and led Ballard High to a state title in 1977. “I was always fascinated by birds. I’d go climb trees and look in the nests. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been into small stuff like that.”
His inventory of titles and turacos has dwindled over time. The Spartans’ last Sunshine State Conference title came in 2002, and their last NCAA tourney trip was in 2014. For a while, UT remained one of the lowest-funded athletic programs in the Sunshine State Conference, limiting Schmidt’s scholarship allotment and the number of paid staffers.
Financially, things have improved significantly, and Schmidt is nearly back to the NCAA’s limit of 10 scholarships per Division II team. He works under no contract these days, but neither does any of the other Spartans coaches.
“We’re all day-to-day employees of the university, and I think that was pretty much by design,” said Larry Marfise, UT’s athletic director for 23 years.
“But by the same token, it’s always been my philosophy to hire good people and get out of their way. ... (Schmidt) has done a great job here. He deserves the right to decide when he wants to leave.”
Though noticeably more mellow these days, those close to him insist he remains astute as ever. Granted, he’s frustrated by parts of college sports’ radical evolution — his top scorer from last season entered the transfer portal — but so are coaches half his age.
It doesn’t mean this renaissance man is ready to roost. Will he ever be?
“I don’t want to sound morbid, but I see Coach passing on to basketball heaven as a basketball coach, not as a retired coach,” Deveaux said. “As far as him retiring, I don’t think he’s going to willfully retire from the game.
“I think him and basketball are synonymous, they’re one.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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