Dean Smith: The man who knew so much

Dean Smith announcing his retirement in 1997. (Bob Jordan/AP photo)

Dean Smith announcing his retirement in 1997. (Bob Jordan/AP photo)

Dean Smith announcing his retirement in 1997. (Bob Jordan/AP photo)

Dean Smith announcing his retirement in October 1997. (Bob Jordan/AP photo)

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.

Reader Comments 0

21 comments
Jackette05
Jackette05

you want a comment?  Here's one:


UNC scam job: Inflated grades for no-show classes were handed out to at least 3,000-plus athletes. It was done mainly to keep them academically eligible for their respective teams, often for the school’s high-profile football and basketball squads — the latter of which won national titles in 1993, 2005, and 2009.The key to the Tar Heel ruse: so-called paper classes. In most cases, these classes never took place, weren’t staffed by teachers, and final grades were issued by an administrator who sometimes sought guidance from athletic staff counselors who knew if it would take an A or a B to keep said player in uniform.

That, folks, was part of the “higher education’’ student-athlete experience at UNC for some 18 years, beginning in the early 1990s.


Of course, very few people (nudge, wink, eye roll) knew a darn thing about it. Nope. If that’s true, there should be a U-Haul truck on the campus front lawn this morning, lugging out the scores of administrators and teachers fired just for being . . . oh, what’s the proper academic term here? . . . criminally ignorant.


HONOR THIS MAN?  ha




BearCasey
BearCasey

My FOREVER favorite college basketball season is 1984-1985 when the Mark Price led Yellow Jackets handed Dean's Tar Heels three excruciating defeats.  That began the changing of the guard in the ACC that Coach K completed.  Must give credit to Coach Smith as a coach.  PS:  Bob Knight must be placed on that stage with Wooden, K and Smith.

Wilbo
Wilbo

@BearCasey Bob Knight couldn't carry John Wooden's jock strap. Unless he wore it over his nose for a lunch bucket. Bob Knight was a complete jackarse and a fool. Screw 'im!


maxman2660
maxman2660

the word great man gets used too much with guy's who were just ball coaches, the next ball coach too cure cancer or actually do something good for society i will call a great man

crackbaby
crackbaby

@maxman2660 He touched a lot of lives, bruh.  Mother Teresa didn't cure cancer either but she touched many lives.  Coach Smith is to be admired imo.

CasualObserver
CasualObserver

@maxman2660 Clearly you're not very well informed.  Many college coaches in all sports devote a lot of time to causes, and one of the most under-reported facts about big time college sports is the community service projects that many of the teams do.  Coaches may be judged on wins and losses, but for many of them the true measure of their sucdcess is in the way they mentor their young men and teach them about life beyond their sport.  Perhaps you can call one of the coaches mentioned in the piece a great man.  http://www.jimmyv.org/

Rickster_
Rickster_

While we mourn the loss of Dean Smith, why isn't the 1,000 victory milestone for Coach K getting ANY mention whatsoever? (Or did I miss it?)

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

@Rickster_ 

You missed it. It happened over 2 weeks ago - wall to wall coverage from MSG

ShovelPlease
ShovelPlease

Saint Dean was one of the all-time whiners in sports.  After a Tar Heel loss, he never credited the other team's players or coaches, it was always something about the referees or the like. 

TOJacket
TOJacket

@ShovelPlease Sounds like he didn't care for losing................nothing wrong with that.

Bogan
Bogan

@ShovelPlease That's strange.  It seems that on more than one occasion players from other teams have remarked that Dean sent them personal letters when there careers ended.


Wilbo
Wilbo

I thought the 4 corners was one of the most cowardly and unsportsmanlike things I had ever seen in American sports. I have trouble giving Dean Smith credit for much, but people apparently loved and adored the man, so I guess I have to feel like that was somehow deserved and let it go at that.


Bogan
Bogan

Go to the UK site and see the comments made about Dean by ostensibly the most crass fan base in all of college sports.  Maybe it is because UNC has owned UK over the years.  Or just perhaps, it is simply out of ignorance. 

Herndawg
Herndawg

Some have said Coach Smith used the Four Corners offense as a means to get the NCAA to adopt a shot clock. He knew if everyone had to play an up-paced game he would have a better chance because for the most part, he would have the better athletes and could run and gun. 

RIP

TheFB
TheFB

You are the first I have seen today that knows history. I have read three times where people wrongly thought he opposed the shot clock. He was overjoyed when it was put in the NCAA. Tar Heel born; literally I was born in Chapel Hill. Dean made me a basketball fan as much as Dooley and Herschel made me love college football. RIP.

buellerbuellerbueller
buellerbuellerbueller

Outstanding guy who lived a great life.  Got into coaching young kids before commercialization- and he stayed "old school".   I cheer for the Tar Heels because of him.

Guyon
Guyon

He was a great coach. I loved it when Cremins' team beat his team in the ACC tournament final in Greensboro. I was there, and the Tar Heel fans were despondent  Three fourth of the people in attendance wore blue, and they could not believe their eyes..

TOJacket
TOJacket

He did things the right way...........................go blue!

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

Mark - Great blog about a great coach and a true class act