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Monday, June 27, 2022

Column: You should know more about Dean Smith

Dean Smith was never like the other coaches. He attended the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship and majored in mathematics. He was a guard for the basketball team, while also playing varsity baseball, freshman football, active in a fraternity and enrolled in the Air Force ROTC.

When he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the talk was less about basketball and more about racial justice—his participation in lunch counter sit-ins during the 1960s and his successful effort to integrate the ACC. He was so opposed to the death penalty, he took his players to meet death row inmates and once told then-North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt "You're a murderer," to make his point at a clemency hearing.

As I listen to the (rightfully) unending series of tributes running on television sports networks, ESPN and the like, they frequently involve very successful men talking about how they relied on his advice for everything from personal decisions to Jerry Stackhouse’s financial planning.

Most of all, in an era of loud coaches with loud clothes who are loudly interviewed on ESPN, he was a quiet, humble man who believed the spotlight belonged on his players, not himself.

But he was one heck (he would never have said hell) of a basketball coach. Even if you have never heard of him, you see his work every time you watch a game. From Dean Smith, we have the huddle at the free throw line (yes, they didn’t used to do that), the pointing of the finger by the scorer at the one who made the assist (so very Dean Smith, that) and of course, the four corners offense.

You are also likely to see one of his disciples (or disciples of his disciples) coaching the game you are watching, or running the team you are watching or calling the game you are watching. No man’s coaching tree has its roots so deep into the beginnings of basketball, with a direct connection to the inventor of basketball James Naismith, while having branches extending so deep into the coaches and executives of the game today, like Roy Williams, Larry Brown and George Karl. Adding Brown's coaching tree makes the lineage even more ridiculous. As Tom Ziller of SBNation once put it, Smith was the Zeus of modern basketball.

My father attended UNC from 1980-84 and says he remembers three things most vividly about Dean Smith. The first is that in four years at Carolina, he barely laid eyes on him off the basketball court. Dean was insistently, maddeningly humble; he did not do endorsements or self-promotion. He insisted that the seniors on the team were its leaders, and that the media interview them, not him (or the underclassmen). He did not allow profiles of himself. He was later named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, but you will not see him interviewed in the accompanying article.

The second was the annual media guide for the team, which included the current occupation of every Carolina basketball alumnus. There were assorted men playing basketball for a living, but an astonishing number—by today’s standards, but even by yesterday’s—of obstetricians and bankers and lawyers. Smith graduated 96.6 percent of his players (repeat that to yourself, especially if you live in the state of Kentucky). To an extent akin to Vince Lombardi’s Packers, it is extraordinary how successful those who studied under Dean Smith became. Mitch Kupchak ran the Lakers for multiple championships; Jordan of course; Larry Brown won NCAA and NBA championships; Billy Cunningham coached the 76ers to an NBA championship; James Worthy was a linchpin of the great 1990s Laker teams; Donnie Walsh was the GM of the Pacers; Roy Williams of course. Funny how math major Dean Smith walked onto the Kansas team in 1952, and while he played sparingly, they won a national championship.

My father’s third memory is almost unbelievable today. At Carolina home games under Dean Smith, when the other team was shooting free throws, the students sat in immobile silence, because Dean Smith believed that making noise or moving about was impolite and unsportsmanlike. At one game, after a bad call on Carolina, the students broke convention and began chanting a certain naughty word; Dean Smith stopped the game, went to the microphone and told the fans to be quiet and put their hands down, and that we are going to win this game the Carolina way. And of course they did.

There’s only one recorded example of Dean Smith breaking an NCAA rule. In 1989, Coach Dean Smith brought to Cameron Indoor Stadium a team that included an African American named J.R. Reid, who was one of the best players in the country. The Duke fans held aloft a sign with the words, “J.R. Can’t Read.” Get it guys? The black guy can't read. So clever. After the incident, Smith announced publicly that J.R. Reid and fellow Tar Heel Scott Williams (also African American) had combined SAT scores higher than Duke’s white stand-outs Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner. Such scores are supposed to remain confidential, of course, but Dean cared more about his players and fighting the stigma against the idea of intellectual African Americans.

There was also the basketball, and his retirement as the then-winningest coach in history. One could easily conclude that no one has ever run a better basketball program than Dean Smith. Consider this: after his 1966 season, Smith's teams never finished worse than a tie for third in the ACC. After 1970, no ACC coach had a winning record against him, including Mike Krzyzewski, who rocked a 14-24 record against his rival. Smith is considered the grandfather of modern analytics, basically inventing the stat of points per possession, preached by so many coaches (Bo Ryan included) and analysts today. His players went on to score 332,066 points in NBA, which translates to 8.65 Kareem Abdul-Jabbars.

There was always something a bit tragic about Dean Smith’s coaching career, though, and the fact that for all those successes, he won “only” two national championships. His luck was abysmal. His two greatest teams were in 1977 and 1984. His 1977 team featured future NBA players Tom LaGarde, Walter Davis and Phil Ford; LaGarde blew out his knee, Davis broke two fingers and Ford hyper-extended his knee. In 1984, a team that included Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty was 17-0 when Smith had his wrist broken on a flagrant foul in the final minutes of an LSU game.

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Speaking of Jordan brings us to the great libel that you will be hearing as a back-handed compliment to Dean Smith as others eulogize him: that he was “the only man who held Michael Jordan under 20 points a game.” The slap intends to convey either that Dean did not recognize Jordan’s greatness or that he was too wedded to his system to allow Jordan to score. First, if the worst thing someone says about you is that you are too wedded to a system of sharing the ball to allow Michael Jordan to score more than 20 points per game, count yourself a lucky man. But it isn’t true. Jordan started as a freshman at Carolina when that was a rarity there, and everywhere; he famously took the shot to win the national championship that year. In his sophomore and junior years, he scored a combined 19.8 points per game for a team that averaged 80.7, so basically a quarter of the points for one of the best offensive teams in the country. Those Jordan teams also spent 29 weeks out of a possible 50 ranked No. 1 in the country and saw Jordan often sitting on the bench in the second half because Smith, no surprise here, believed that running up the score was impolite.

Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bobby Knight might have more wins, John Wooden might have more championships and been more dominant, but when I think about just what Dean Smith was, somehow an even better man than he was a coach, I think I’d want him running my program more than any of those other guys. Krzyzewski could win another 1,000 games, and that would still be true.

Everyone knows that Carolina and Duke are rivals, but that rivalry is driven by fundamental differences between their two best-known coaches that go well beyond college basketball. For those Carolina fans who love Dean Smith—and that word is no overstatement—they seek in Coach K his antithesis: a conservative Republican versus Coach Smith’s liberal Democrat; the master of the F-bomb to Coach Smith’s refusal ever to swear (lest it set a bad example); a man who has won the Olympics with a dream team and garnered extraordinary credit for it versus a man who won the Olympics, invisibly, with a group of college students; and a private university with among the wealthiest students in the nation to the nation’s first public university.

UNC’s next game against Duke, Feb. 18, just became required viewings for the sports world. The Tar Heels (and probably the Blue Devils) will undoubtedly be wearing a black patch that says DES or Dean, though he would undoubtedly have told them not to do so. If Roy Williams wants to make his on-court tribute, we might just see four corners one more time, and perhaps a point in the direction of the Carolina blue sky.

In case you haven't figured it out yet, Jack was a bit of a UNC fan growing up. Think Dean Smith was the man? Email Jack at or hit him up on Twitter through @jfordbaer.

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