Jim Valvano used to tell this story at coaching clinics. He claimed he was sitting near some North Carolina fans in the Superdome in April 1982, when the Tar Heels were playing Georgetown in a jangling NCAA final. Being the coach at rival N.C. State, Valvano sought to tweak his neighbors by asking if they were getting nervous.
“No,” one Heel said. “Dean will think of something.”
Valvano: “So Georgetown has the ball and a chance to win, and Fred Brown throws the ball straight to … James Worthy! Who plays for the other team! And Carolina wins! And the guy looks at me and says, ‘Told you Dean would think of something.’ ”
This always drew a roar, for two reasons. One, because Valvano was the consummate teller of stories. And it resonated with coaches because they were in awe of Dean Edwards Smith, who died Saturday at 83, and his cognitive powers.
Sometimes the awe was grudging, but it was there. A few of his nominal peers didn’t like Smith – one NCAA championship coach of my acquaintance couldn’t stand him – but that was because El Deano won so much and enjoyed, shall we say, having the last word.
Most Carolina fans, as Valvano noted, had no such reservations. When a certain Atlanta correspondent wrote that Smith had done his team a disservice by getting ejected from the 1991 Final Four loss to Kansas, this newspaper was inundated with letters to the editor on expensive stationery. I mentioned this to Wyche Fowler, then a U.S. Senator, and he said, “Didn’t you realize every attorney in Atlanta went to law school at North Carolina?”
In the eyes of Carolina fans, that made me forever a Dean hater. The truth, for what it’s worth, is that I always enjoyed watching the man coach and hearing him talk, and I had the deepest respect for his program. I have no reservations at putting him on the podium of the all-time greatest college coaches. There’s Wooden and there’s Krzyzewski and there’s Dean Smith.
As we know, Smith was an innovator: The run-and-jump defense, the two-platoon system, the strategic saving of timeouts, the Four Corners. Not everybody was crazy about the latter, and certain rivals were tickled that the loss that rankled Smith the most – against Marquette and Al McGuire in the old Omni for the 1977 NCAA title – came after Carolina’s stall failed. But it worked most other times, and college basketball is a results-oriented business.
That said, Smith was never entirely a results-oriented man. He took a stand against segregation when no other Southern-based coach would dare say the word. His players were never mercenaries. They went to class and represented a proud institution well. They loved their coach and he loved them back, or maybe it was the other way around. When Smith broke Adolph Rupp’s record for career victories, the number of Tar Heel luminaries who’d flown in to line the hallway at Winston-Salem’s Joel Coliseum was the greatest tribute any coach could ever know.
That Smith, who famously remembered every detail of every game, could remember very little late in life was a chilling reminder that age-based dementia plays no favorites. But in his day, he always did think of something. He thought of everything.