Excerpted from Dean Smith: More than a coach. Published by Triumph Books. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.
Frank McGuire, the man a 30-year-old Smith replaced as head coach in 1961, had far more charisma and flash than Smith (and also played more loosely with the NCAA rules). As Billy Cunningham, Smith’s first superstar player, once told me: “When McGuire walked into a room, you could sense it. He just had this presence. It’s a gift that some people have, and Dean didn’t have it. He’s not that way. But Dean also made you feel like a person, not just a basketball player. He cared about you long after you left school, and that was whether you were the 12th man or the star.”
Cunningham was one of the players who got off the team bus and angrily yanked down Smith’s effigy in 1965. Later, Cunningham would become an NBA basketball coach, and he once visited one of Smith’s basketball practices in the fall of 1981. Dazzled by the skills of a particular freshman, Cunningham predicted to Smith after the practice that the player – then known as Mike Jordan – would be the best player to ever wear a North Carolina uniform. “Dean got mad at me,” Cunningham recalled. “I tried to calm him down, saying, ‘Coach, it isn’t brain surgery. Look at him.’ Dean didn’t like that, though. To him, everybody was equal.”
Smith would famously not allow Jordan to appear on the 1981 Sports Illustrated basketball cover with the team’s other four starters, ostensibly because he wasn’t sure whether Jordan would be the fifth starter or not. Jordan loved Smith and has frequently referred the coach as his second father. But he didn’t love him that day of the magazine snub. “That burned me up,” Jordan would say in 2009 at his Hall of Fame induction speech. But it was also a wise psychological move by Smith that fanned the flame of Jordan’s competitive drive.
Smith was a master strategist. He enjoyed practices the most – that’s where his teaching side came out – and he practiced every late-game situation so often that his players were never surprised by something that happened on-court. He never cursed. Phil Ford and some of his players laughingly say they sometimes wished Smith did, however, because Smith had other ways of making you feel even worse when you made an error. Smith could “throw chairs with his eyes,” as former player Mitch Kupchak once said.
The coach did not run the Tar Heels like a democracy. It was more of a benevolent dictatorship, with Smith firmly in power. He had always liked to be in control, dating back to when he played three high school sports growing up in Kansas. He was a quarterback, a point guard and a catcher. By no coincidence, he called plays or pitches in all three sports.
In a crisis, there was no one you would rather have on your side than Smith, either on the court or off. Two quick examples: James Worthy, one of Smith’s best players, still remembers the timeout Smith called against Georgetown in the 1982 national championship game, with UNC down by a single point and 32 seconds left in the game. “The biggest highlight of my college career was that timeout,” Worthy once told me. Think about that for a second. Worthy was one of the greatest players – and finest dunkers – in UNC history. Seconds later, he would make the game-winning steal against Georgetown.
But his strongest memory is of a timeout. “I had never seen Coach Smith so calm,” Worthy continued. “I couldn’t believe he was so calm. He looked at us with a slight smile, and there was nothing to smile about. I’ve heard Roy Williams talking about that moment, too – that when he heard Coach Smith talking, he had to fake a cough and then look up at the scoreboard. He thought we were down one point but he wanted to make sure, because Coach Smith sounded like we were up 20. Had it not been for Coach Smith’s calm nature, I might not have been able to play the rest of the game very well. I’ll be honest – I had just about lost it.”
While Jordan made the winning shot seconds later, Worthy had the steal on Georgetown’s ensuing possession that clinched the win. Immediately after the game, Smith’s first impulse was to find Georgetown coach John Thompson, hug him and console him about the loss. The two were good friends. Smith had once told Patrick Ewing that if he didn’t come to North Carolina he should go play for Thompson.
Example No.2: Scott Williams played for Smith from 1986 to 1990. In 1987, in California, Williams’ father killed his mother and then killed himself in a murder-suicide. Smith had to break this horrific news to Williams. He went to Williams’ dorm-room door in Chapel Hill at 7 a.m.
“I was brushing my teeth and about to head out the door for an early class,” Williams remembered. And my roommate said, ‘Coach Smith is at the door. He wants to see you.’ I started thinking to myself, ‘What have I done wrong?’ Because it’s not going to be good news if the head coach is at your dorm-room door at 7 in the morning. “So he told me what happened. And he hugged me. And he gave me an immediate sense that he’d be there to help support me through the process. And he was. So was Coach [Bill] Guthridge… Coach Guthridge accompanied me on my flight home. Coach Smith came to the funeral. I thought that was special. They just didn’t put me on the plane with a ticket.” Smith told me years later that he couldn’t think of a worse day in his career. “It was probably the hardest thing I ever did as a coach,” he said, “to knock on that door.”
Smith was not perfect. His first marriage ended in divorce, in large part because at that point in his life he was married to basketball. The coach could be curt. He could – and did – jab a verbal needle to make a point. He sometimes angered his fellow ACC coaches. Virginia’s Terry Holland once owned a dog that he said he named for Smith because the dog whined all night long.
And Smith’s desk was legendarily messy. When you went into his office he had to clear off a chair that was stacked high with a mishmash of papers to find somewhere for you to sit. His assistant coaches knew to never give him anything without keeping a copy for themselves. His longtime administrative assistant Linda Woods was fond of saying that while she kept files, Smith kept piles.
The coach also smoked for decades, often sneaking away like a schoolboy to do so. He finally gave up smoking in 1988, but even then he missed it. Joe Quigg, who played for coach McGuire on the 1957 UNC national title team, once told me about a golf tournament he and Smith participated in that followed Smith’s decision to give up cigarettes. “This young kid came by, threw down a cigarette butt and was about to crush it with his heel,” Quigg said. “Dean said, ‘No, don’t do that. Just let me look at it for a minute.’”
Smith had the heart of a reformer. He had gotten it honestly, from his parents. Alfred and Vesta Smith were public schoolteachers in Kansas, and Alfred also coached almost every sport in high school. Dean Smith was born in 1931, went to the University of Kansas for college and played sparingly for Phog Allen when the Jayhawks won the national championship in 1952. Even now, in almost every sports gathering in the Carolinas, you can bet somebody there will be able to do a decent Dean Smith impression. Although he became one of the most wellknown men to ever be associated with UNC, Smith was neither a Tar Heel born nor a Tar Heel bred, and after spending his formative years in Kansas that twangy accent never left him.
Smith’s sense of social justice began developing early. “Some people have given me kind but undue praise for integrating North Carolina’s basketball team in the early 1960s,” Smith wrote in his 1999 autobiography “A Coach’s Life,” referring to his signing of Charlie Scott to be North Carolina’s first black scholarship athlete. “My father was the family’s true reformer, however. In 1934 he chose to play a black teenager, the son of a janitor who swept the floors at the local bank.”
Paul Terry played for Alfred Smith’s basketball team throughout the regular season, and that squad eventually won a state championship. Decades later, Alfred’s son would help integrate Chapel Hill. First, Smith and his pastor took a black theology student to a restaurant called The Pines that often fed the basketball team but had been a holdout for segregation. The trio ate without incident. Smith would later downplay his role, but how many coaches do you see taking that sort of political stand today?
Then Smith would bring in Scott, who starred for the Tar Heels in the late 1960s and became his most important recruit because his successful career paved the way for Smith to get other talented African-Americans onto his team. Smith never appeared angrier than the night he almost went into the stands in South Carolina, trying to find a fan who kept screaming racist taunts at Scott. (Years later, Scott gave one of his sons the middle name “Dean” to honor his coach).
During his career, Smith would take a stand against the death penalty. He would call the SAT culturally biased. He would campaign for a nuclear freeze. He and his second wife, Linnea (they married in 1976), would criticize Playboy magazine for its objectification of women. Most of the stands the coach took were liberal. But he also filmed a supportive ad for one of his former players, Republican Richard Vinroot, during Vinroot’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign for N.C. governor.
To Smith, loyalty to his former players trumped everything else. Vinroot scored only one point in his UNC career. But when he went to fight in Vietnam, Vinroot got letters once a week from his mother, his wife and Smith. About the commercial, Smith once said: “We do disagree politically. But I owe Richard. I owe all these guys.” Smith preached academics, and 95 percent of his lettermen graduated. When the mother of a prime recruit told him her son would fill UNC’s gym with fans and implied the player should receive some additional money for doing that, Smith told her that the Tar Heels’ arena was already full. And even if it wasn’t, he added, he wasn’t going to fill it like that.
Needless to say, he didn’t get that recruit. Smith’s basketball innovations remain deeply embedded in basketball’s and the Tar Heels’ culture – the huddle at the free-throw line, the pointing to the player who made the assist, the trapping defense and the Four Corners that was so maddeningly successful it gave birth to the shot clock. He taught his players the value of a good shot so completely that 32 of his 36 UNC teams shot at least 50 percent from the floor. But Smith lived in the world, not just inside the 94 feet of a basketball court. “He lived by unabashed and solid principles,” said Chadwick, who played for Smith from 1968-71. “All those things he hated, like racial segregation, he lived in a way to try to change them.”
As he grew older, Smith would wish he had done more. He wished he had scoured the state of North Carolina earlier for black players. He wished he had the opportunity to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose quotes Smith often borrowed for his pre-practice “Thought of the Day.” “I look back and see some things left undone,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I’m talking about the persistence of things such as social injustice, racial bias, and the continuing struggle to keep college athletics in proper perspective.”
THE LAST GOODBYE
Smith coached for 36 years at North Carolina, winning national championships in 1982 and 1993. His consistency was almost mind-numbing. He led the Tar Heels to the Final Four 11 times. Those first three Final Fours, from 1967-69, made sure everyone knew Carolina basketball was relevant again and revived enthusiasm in the program that had been dormant during the early 1960s. Smith’s teams won 20 or more games for 27 years in a row. The Tar Heels finished in the ACC’s top three in the regular season for each of the last 33 years of Smith’s career.
When the coach retired in 1997, at age 66, he had won 879 games – at the time the most any coach had ever won at college athletics’ highest level. And don’t forget Smith’s international success. With a team that included four Tar Heels, Smith coached the U.S. to the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics after Russia had upset America in a controversial game four years earlier. The coach’s first years in retirement were good years. He enjoyed his children and grandchildren. He watched basketball, usually at home. A lover of golf, he got to play more of it. He relished his role as the Carolina basketball family patriarch, campaigning for his former players to find the jobs they wanted.
His recommendations weren’t simply limited to those in Carolina blue, either. Smith gave a strong endorsement to USA Basketball officials for Mike Krzyzewski to take over the U.S. basketball team before the 2008 Olympics. Both before and during his retirement, Smith attended every big event in his extended lightblue family that he possibly could.
Years after Bob McAdoo had left UNC early after playing only one season for the Tar Heels, Smith came to the funeral for McAdoo’s wife even though McAdoo had not told the UNC basketball office his wife had died. Smith’s memory was remarkable, allowing him to remember details not only about a person but also about that person’s family, job and pets. But that memory began to fade, slowly, around the mid-2000s.
When I interviewed Smith extensively in 2005 and 2006, his mind was still mostly sharp. But he kept stat sheets, rosters and a UNC media guide close by, because he had started to forget some names and dates. It wasn’t obvious that it was anything more than old age – Smith was in his mid-70s by then. But it was clear his extraordinary mind had developed cracks. Smith developed a neurocognitive disorder in the last years of his life. The cruelest irony was that the degenerative disease gradually robbed him of that amazing recall.
By the end, due to his dementia, his players had to be reminded to quietly re-introduce themselves to him during his rare public appearances. Those closest to the coach were heartbroken, caught up in a sad drama that affects millions of American families every year. Many felt they had not had the chance to say a proper goodbye to Smith. They did get a chance, though, on Feb.12, 2015, at Smith’s private funeral at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. A number of his former players wore dark suits and Carolina blue ties for the service. Duke’s Krzyzewski wore a Carolina blue tie, too.
The outpouring of tributes to Smith after his death came from everywhere. The coach was lauded by everyone from former players to random people he had met on the street to the thousands who had attended his basketball camps to President Barack Obama – who had awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. They all wanted to honor Dean Smith, the man who was more than a coach.
Excerpted from Dean Smith: More than a coach. Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist with The Charlotte Observer and has worked at that newspaper since 1994. A 1987 graduate of the University of North Carolina, Fowler once served as sports editor of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper. He has written three books on the history of UNC basketball.