clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Passing Of A Legend

"The low point came in January of 1965. UNC had lost three straight games, including a blowout loss at Wake Forest that dropped the team to 6-6 on the season. When the team returned to Carmichael in the early hours of the next morning, a mob of students were waiting with a dummy hanging from a tree."

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When I was a young sports writer, working for the Burlington Times-News, my first major assignment was to cover a UNC basketball game.

I can't remember who the Tar Heels were playing that Saturday afternoon, but I do recall sitting in the rafters at Carmichael Auditorium to watch the game on press row, racing down the long flight of stairs for the postgame interviews, then meeting with Dean Smith in a tiny locker room in adjacent Woollen Gym.

Most of all, I remember Smith, who was in 1970, the dominant figure in ACC basketball.

Although he had endured a rough start - including twice being hung in effigy by impatient UNC fans - by 1970, he was coming off three straight ACC championships and three straight Final Fours. I couldn't have imagined that he still had more than a quarter-century as UNC's coach ahead of him - a tenure that would include 10 more ACC titles, eight more Final Fours and two national titles. And an Olympic Gold Medal.

Over the last couple of years, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has scrambled to the top of the college basketball pyramid. But to do it, he's had to climb over the records that Smith piled up in his 36-year tenure. When the Tar Heel icon retired in 1997, he had more wins than any coach in NCAA men's Division 1 history, more NCAA Tournament wins, more Final Fours and more ACC championships than any other ACC coach.

Indeed, he had 13 ACC titles … and at that time, Coach K had three.

Since that time, Krzyzewski has passed Smith in total wins, in NCAA Tournament wins and, of course, in national titles. Just last week, he passed Smith in ACC wins. He's caught (but not yet passed) Smith in ACC titles (both have 13) and Final Four appearances (both have 11).

But Krzyzewski's achievement doesn't diminish what Smith accomplished - just as it won't diminish K if 30 or 40 years from now another ACC coach surpasses his records.

Babe Ruth didn't cease to be a great baseball player because Hark Aaron topped his career homer total.

Dean Smith was a great coach.

He wasn't the perfect saint that his admirers sometimes portray and he wasn't the evil hypocrite that his detractors try to depict. For the most part he was a gentleman, who didn't break NCAA rules, who waged a long battle to encourage sportsmanlike behavior from the fans (for years, he tried to stop UNC fans from waving their arms behind the basket during free throws) and who was almost fanatically loyal to his players - past and present.

"His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man," Duke's Krzyzewski said in a statement. "That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself. All of his players benefited greatly from his basketball teachings, but even more from his ability to help mold men of integrity, honor and purpose. Those teachings, specifically, will live forever in those he touched."

Coach K, who had to build his program out from under Smith's shadow (just as Smith had to do with Vic Bubas), had a realistic view of Smith. The man was a consummate competitor and to compete at the highest level, he could be brutal to refs, harsh to his ACC peers and - while he strove never to break NCAA rules - he never hesitate to push those rules to the brink.

Smith sometimes exploded on the sidelines. He had famous confrontations with Coach K and Rick Barnes during ACC Tournament games and once berated Kentucky's Rick Robey as they left the floor at halftime. Many Duke fans remember his childish display in Cameron in 1984, when an irate Smith pounded the scorer's table and hit scoreboard controls, giving his team a quick 20 points (without getting a technical foul).

But that's merely evidence of his unbridled competitiveness.

More disturbing is the evidence that has emerged that the academic shenanigans in UNC's African-American Studies Department actually began in the early 1990s - when Smith was still the Tar Heel coach. Did he know that several of his players were taking phony courses? Or is it significant that the Wainstein Report found that the system of corruption exploded in 1999 - AFTER Smith's retirement? If it was relatively rare in Smith's years, is it possible that he didn't know what was going on?

Frankly, we can't know the answer to those questions. I find it hard to believe that Smith was involved in such blatant corruption. That was not his style.

Indeed, the tone was set for Smith's regime in August of 1961, when the young assistant coach was promoted to replace Frank McGuire. UNC was coming off a one-year probation for recruiting violations - basically for McGuire's undocumented recruiting expenses. That spring, the national point-shaving scandal had touched the UNC program - reserve guard Lou Brown (no relation to Larry Brown) had been the go-between for New York gamblers and Tobacco Road basketball players. As a result of the scandal, the University system was planning to de-emphasize basketball and UNC and N.C. State.

McGuire, who turned down a chance to coach the New York Knicks in the spring of 1961, expected a raise for his success on the court. Instead, he got a letter from Chancellor William Aycock telling McGuire that he needed to clean up his program - not just the recruiting violations and the point-shaving, but the chancellor expected better academic performance and better behavior on and off the court by the UNC players.

Rather than address those issues, McGuire elected to accept an offer to coach the Philadelphia 76ers and Wilt Chamberlain. Aycock turned to Smith, telling him not to worry about wins and losses. He wanted a team that the university could be proud of: "If you do the job I asked of you, you'll have a job here as long as I'm chancellor."

The first news reports said that the 30-year-old assistant was to be UNC's "interim" head coach. Aycock disputed that the next day, introducing Smith as UNC's head coach "and there is no interim about it."

Smith inherited a program that was very much like the Duke program that Krzyzewski inherited in the spring of 1980. Both UNC in '61 and Duke in '80 had known recent success - UNC had won the 1957 national title; the '61 UNC team had finished No. 5 in the nation - but both young coaches were catching programs on the downswing.

Smith inherited junior guard Larry Brown and incoming freshman Billy Cunningham (the last passenger on McGuire's Underground Railroad). His first few years in Chapel Hill were rough - 8-9 in 1962, but 15-6 in 1963 when Cunningham was a soph and Brown a senior. The team slumped to 12-12 in 1964 and the critics were out.

The low point came in January of 1965. UNC had lost three straight games, including a blowout loss at Wake Forest that dropped the team to 6-6 on the season. When the team returned to Carmichael in the early hours of the next morning, a mob of students were waiting with a dummy hanging from a tree.

"I knew it was me because of the long nose," Smith wrote in his autobiography. "It certainly wasn't an experience I'd wish on anyone. My standard comment over the years was that I was glad there was that much interest in basketball here and I'm glad it was a dummy and not the real thing."

Three days later, UNC went to Duke Indoor Stadium and upset No. 6 Duke with a perfectly executed game plan. But the next time out, UNC lost at home to N.C. State and Smith was again hung in effigy.

In hindsight, those students look as stupid as the Concerned Iron Dukes who tried to run off Coach K in his early years.

Smith was close to success in 1965. He got lucky on the recruiting trail in 1963, when Duke's Bubas passed on slender guard Bob Lewis. The Blue Devil coach thought Lewis too small to play forward and not a good enough ballhandler to play guard. But Lewis could shoot - averaging 27.4 points a game as a junior at UNC in 1966.

A year later after lucking into Lewis, the Tar Heel coach scored a huge recruiting win when he beat Bubas for Pennsylvania forward Larry Miller.

"He's the first player we got that Vic wanted," Smith later told me.

The final pieces fell into place in the spring of 1965. Smith put together a five man class that would form the foundation of his first three championship teams - specifically center Rusty Clark from Fayetteville, forward Bill Bunting of New Bern and 6-4 high school center Dick Grubar from Schenectady, New York, who would play point guard for the Tar Heels.

When they joined the varsity in 1966-67 - to team with Miller and Lewis - Smith's program finally took off - No. 4 in the nation, 26-6 and a trip to the Final Four. A year later, Charles Scott, the ACC's first black superstar, replaced Lewis in the lineup and UNC won 28 games and again finished No. 4 in the nation.

Smith had UNC at the pinnacle of the ACC and they would never come down. He didn't win the ACC every single year, but every year he was in the hunt. Between 1965 and Smith's retirement in 1997, UNC never finished lower than third in the ACC.

That's a record of consistency that no ACC coach - not even Krzyzewski -- can match.


Smith is also being celebrated for his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina and in college basketball.

That legacy is often misunderstood - overstated by Tar Heel partisans and diminished by others.

In a sense, Smith was born into the Civil Rights movement. His father was a high school coach in Emporia, Kansas, who integrated his team - and Kansas high school basketball - in 1934. Smith himself played at Topeka High School, which was integrated as a school, but fielded two separate basketball teams - one white and one black. Smith, the captain of the white team, went to the school's principal and argued that the two teams should be combined to represent the school.

Nothing immediately came of Smith's protest, but the year after he left Topeka High, the school's athletic program was integrated.

When Smith arrived at UNC in the summer of 1957, Chapel Hill was still a relatively backward town on racial matters. The new assistant coach was a devout Baptist, but found that most of the town's Baptist churches represented a racial attitude that he couldn't abide. Instead, he joined a new church that was meeting on campus - the Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, headed by young pastor Bob Seymour.

Seymour, a graduate of Yale, was deeply committed to ending segregation in the South, He found a supportive ally in Smith.

The legendary Tar Heel coach is often portrayed as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. That might be overstating things - Smith was certain a supporter of the movement, but the only active role he took was in about 1959, when he joined Seymour and a black student to integrate the Pines Restaurant, where the UNC basketball team ate its pregame meals.

To his credit, Smith never claimed to have done more.

"Years afterward, some reports made it sound like I personally integrated every restaurant in Chapel Hill," Smith later wrote. "You have to understand, this was a small event in the context of what was going on around us."

The day after Smith was named UNC's head coach in August of 1961, he received a phone call from Seymour, pointing out that he was now in position to integrate basketball at North Carolina. But it took Smith almost five years to find his first black player - and by the time he signed Charles Scott in the spring of 1966, there were already black players at Maryland (Billy Jones and Pete Johnson) and at Duke (C.B. Claiborne) as well as a black signee at Wake Forest (Norwood Todmann).

Again to his credit, Smith is honest about his role.

"People saw this effort to break the racial barrio in athletics as a courageous move, but I disagree," he wrote. "That's why I was reluctant to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs in 1998. If I had truly been courageous, I would have gone to every black high school gym in the state looking for players. That would have taken real courage.

"Instead, I just followed leads through occasional hearsay and it wasn't until 1965-66 that we successfully recruited Charles Scott. I wasn't the only coach looking either."

I don't mean any of this to diminish Smith's role as a racial pioneer. He was certainly was on the right side of history and he was more sensitive to what the first black players had to go through than almost any coach in his era. He was mocked for referring to Scott as "Charles" instead of "Charlie" - he did it because Scott had told him that's what his mother called him. When he couldn't get the UNC pep band to stop playing Dixie before every game, he routinely took his team off the floor while the racist anthem was played.

Scott was not as some Tar Heel fans assert, the first black player in ACC history (Maryland's Jones debuted two years earlier) or even on Tobacco Road (Duke's Claiborne debuted a year earlier). But he was the league's first black superstar and he paved the way for those that would follow - from Charlie Davis to David Thompson to John Lucas to James Worthy and Michael Jordan to Johnny Dawkins, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, Shane Battier … and all the rest, now too numerous to count.

Smith's support of Scott had a lot to do with that.


Smith's critics like to lambast him for his use of the Four Corners - a spread delay that has led to some ridiculous basketball.

But a few points:

-- Smith didn't invent the delay game - not by a long shot. Frank McGuire held the ball on N.C. State on the first day of the first ACC Tournament in 1954, long before Smith arrived. And the lowest scoring game in ACC history was Norm Sloan holding the ball on Duke in the 1968 tournament - a 12-10 game.

-- Smith never claimed to have invented the Four Corners. He admits that the spread offense dates back to black Hall of Fame coach John McLendon and to Mississippi State coach Babe McCarthy and others, such as Chuck Noe. Smith claims to have gotten it directly from his mentor at Air Force, Bob Spears.

The one change that Smith made was to run the Four Corners with a small, quick guard in the middle - the previous coaches usually ran it with a big man in the middle.

-- Smith almost always used the Four Corners as a late-game strategy to protect a lead. The times he used it for an entire game are rare and, surprisingly, almost always resulted in UNC losses: for example the 21-20 loss to Duke in the 1966 ACC Tournament semifinals and the 78-55 loss to UCLA in the 1968 national title game; the 47-40 loss to Duke in the 1979 ACC regular season finale (when it was 7-0 Duke at the half).

Smith actually advocated an up-tempo style and his teams were usually among the nation's scoring leaders. And he was one of the strongest coaching advocates of the shot clock, arguing that it should be coupled with the 3-point shot.

So while the Four Corners was an unpopular tactic for the first quarter-century of Smith's tenure, it didn't define his program. And, like it or not, it was legal - and effective, especially with Phil Ford in the middle.


Smith died Saturday night in Chapel Hill after a long battle with a degenerative neuro-cognative disorder. He was 83.

The accolades have poured in - from his protégés, his rivals and even from President Barack Obama, who awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Obviously, they are all well-deserved.

Personally, I hope Duke will do something to honor Smith next week when the Tar Heels come to Cameron. I also hope the ACC will do something to honor Smith at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro next month.

Maybe I'm prejudiced because Smith was the greatest ACC coach of my youth. And I still think - with mature hindsight - that he is the second-greatest coach in ACC history.

That ain't a bad legacy.