Dean Smith had a fairly benign public image when he was coaching UNC, but he had an iron grip on his program. It really was pretty amazing. His players knew exactly where the line was and they very rarely even came close to it.
Of course, Mike Krzyzewski had a similar level of control at Duke, but Smith did it in a different way. It’s kind of hard to explain the difference. We’re not saying one was better than the other, just that they did things differently. As a younger Coach K might have said, they didn’t necessarily smoke out of the same pack.
Towards the end of Smith’s epic run in Chapel Hill, his grip began to loosen slightly, particularly after the 1993 national championship when he brought in Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Jeff McInnis.
But even before that class started to shake things up a bit, there was Brian Reese, who, at least from a distance, appeared to have a bit of a rebellious streak when it came to Smith.
In the 1993 NCAA tournament game against Cincinnati, which was tied 66-66 with 0.8 left in regulation, UNC had called timeout. Smith told his team that there wasn’t time for anything except a very quick shot and certainly not time enough for a dunk.
But Reese came out of the inbounds stack, curled into the lane and got a pass from Derrick Phelps with time enough to get off a shot.
He gathered himself and tried to dunk it. He missed, but it didn’t matter because the clock had gone off wheel the ball was still in his hands.
Smith glared at him, with about as much emotion as he usually chose to display. It was not always obvious but it was never far from the surface.
UNC survived Cincinnati and went on to defeat Michigan for the national championship.
The next year, Stackhouse arrived and ultimately supplanted Reese, who complained that “being a senior used to mean something around here,” to which Smith drolly responded that his priority was winning.
You have to wonder if this small rebellion, which could have cost UNC dearly, was part of Smith’s reasoning.