Fanfare for an Uncommon Man: Dean Smith is SI's Sportsman of the Year
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 22, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated.
He Became The Winningest College Basketball Coach Of All Time And Capped An Exemplary Career With A Graceful Retirement. For All Of That We Honor North Carolina's Dean Smith.
In 1968, shortly after North Carolina reached its first NCAA basketball final under Dean Smith, grateful boosters presented the Tar Heels' coach with a Carolina-blue Cadillac convertible. "I'm not the Cadillac type," he said. "I accept the gift because I'm certain you're really expressing appreciation for the fine play of our team."
That comment reeked of platitude, and it would never pass the cynic's smell test today. Yet in 1983, when fund-raisers wanted to name a new 21,000-seat arena after him, Smith protested again, agreeing to lend his name only when he was persuaded that nothing else would allow people to fully express appreciation for the fine play of his many teams.
So it was that several years ago, as Smith pushed closer to both retirement and the alltime record of 876 wins held by Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, those who had played for and coached under him knew just how to get him to stay on: Break the mark for us, they pleaded. He protested -- he said he just might quit one game short of the record, to flout what he regards as society's unhealthy obsession with who is No. 1 -- but ultimately he agreed. By then we had long since stopped doubting the sincerity of his protestations.
The passage of time is the greatest of tests, and time has flattered Dean Smith. It has lent gravitas to the nasal voice and provided a grandfatherly setting for that jewel of a nose. It has also authenticated all those utterances over four decades that seemed hopelessly homiletic or falsely modest.
Time, too, has drawn for us a portrait of someone far more complex than the usual sideline screamer. Smith is a privacy freak who thrived gracefully in an intensely public line of work. He's a traditionalist who will rejigger anything if reason warrants. We marvel at how a man so stern summons such compassion, and a man so competitive summons such perspective; how he simultaneously tends to niggling detail and sees the big picture; and how he makes his wondrously jesuitical distinctions. (For the college hoops promotional ad currently airing on ESPN, he pulled a half-basketball over his head, but that's a stand-in waving the foam finger that says we're no. 1. Smith refused to shoot that scene.) Loyalty versus Integrity is the trade-off that college coaches have never gotten quite right (take Loyalty, give the points), but he has proved it's possible to abide by both.
Dean Smith is the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year because his teams won, his players graduated, the rules went unbroken. But we honor him as much as anything for his conscientiousness in pulling off that trifecta. He never forgot that the arena is but an outbuilding of the academy.
This may seem at first blush to be a sort of lifetime achievement award. But the year just past makes a case all on its own. It was during 1997 that Smith caught and passed Rupp. After January, which the Tar Heels began with three straight defeats, they didn't lose again until the Final Four, and their coach had much to do with that, abandoning a pressure defense when he realized its unsuitability to his players' talents. Then, after all the hoopla subsided, he took soundings of himself. What do I owe my players? Can I still give them their due? Above all, the sportsman is honest, especially with those who share a locker room with him. Dean Smith gave the signal that he was tired.
He would protest, again, that his story isn't worth telling. But if it is going to be told, he would surely prefer that it be told in the same spirit that he accepted that Cadillac, lent his name to that gym and broke Rupp's record--as a way of highlighting the many people who have transited his life. Here then is that story, with the coach in his rightful place, on the sideline.
Growing Up, 1931-49: "Mother called him Christopher Columbus"
Dean Edwards Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in the east Kansas railroad town of Emporia, the only son of devout Baptist schoolteachers. His mother, Vesta, was an organized woman who would lay out the breakfast place settings the night before. His father, Alfred, was a forward-thinking coach at Emporia High whose Spartans won the 1934 state title with the first black basketball player in Kansas tournament history.
Over the summer of 1947, in time for Dean's junior year in high school, the Smiths moved to Topeka. In high school Dean always held down the coachly positions -- quarterback, catcher, point guard. But he was also a spirited boy and seemed unlikely to become a man who would stay on one campus for nearly 40 years.
JOAN SMITH EWING, his older sister:
Dean wasn't mischievous so much as curious. When he was very small, he and the little girl next door took off and walked to the florist around the block. They were pretending they were Bill and Betty--Bill was a player on Dad's team, and Betty was his girlfriend. My parents were scared to death when they discovered them missing. When he was 10 or so, Dean and a neighbor friend went down a manhole at the end of our street and explored the sewers. Another time he climbed the tower at the teachers' college. Mother used to call him Christopher Columbus because he always wanted to explore.
BUD ROBERTS, high school classmate:
We'd play one-on-one in the alley, games to 20 by twos. He was very competitive, yet neither of us had any money, so he'd say, "Whoever loses has to tell the winner, 'You're a much better basketball player than I am.'" I was the one who always had to say it.
JOAN SMITH EWING:
The summer before ninth grade he lost his best friend, Shad Woodruff, to polio. He and Shad had played baseball on the Fourth of July, and the next day Shad was dead of lumbar polio. All of us were devastated. But Dean's reaction was very positive. He made a scrapbook of Shad's accomplishments, awards and activities at school and gave it to Shad's mother and father. It was his way of working out his grief. He's never been one to linger over disappointments. He values what comes from the past but has always been ready to move forward, to do more exploring.
COLLEGE YEARS, 1949-53 "Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach"
Though he played basketball there, Smith went to Kansas on an academic scholarship. He joined a fraternity and majored in math. Smith played little as the Jayhawks won the 1952 NCAA title and were runners-up the following season. But during his time in Lawrence, the guard at the end of the bench established his place in basketball's genealogical line: The game's inventor, James Naismith, taught legendary Jayhawks coach Phog Allen, who taught Smith, who would in turn teach Michael Jordan. Smith never met Naismith, who died in 1939, but one Memorial Day he was among a group of Jayhawks who decorated Naismith's grave.
Good things always seemed to happen to Dean. The summer before we left for college, about five of us worked at a cement plant, lifting and opening 100-pound sacks of cement. The owner of the company came over one day and said, "You're Dean Smith. I understand you pledged Phi Gam at Kansas. Well, I'm a Phi Gam." From then on Dean got to sit and read coaching manuals on top of a gravel pile, while we ripped open 100-pound sacks.
MARILYN TOWLER ROBERTS, a former girlfriend, now Bud Roberts's wife:
There was someone else who wanted to date Dean, and he decided that he couldn't handle two girls at one time, so he and Bud flipped a coin to see what he was going to do. So I started dating Bud, and Dean started dating this other girl.
RICH CLARKSON, sportswriter and photographer, The Lawrence Daily Journal-World, 1951-57:
The Jayhawks bench had a strict pecking order. The trainer sat at the head of it, then Phog Allen, then Dr. Allen's assistant Dick Harp with the first substitute, the sixth man, sitting next to him, and so on down the line. Dean would start at the far end of the bench, but after a few substitutions, a few timeouts, things would start sorting themselves out, and eventually you'd see Dean sitting next to Coach Harp and Doc Allen. It was just understood that Dean was seeing things that he would want to mention. Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach.
Starting Out, 1953-65: "You could see his genius even then"
After graduation Smith served his alma mater briefly as an assistant coach, then his country with the Air Force in Germany. Lieutenant Smith coached his base team to an 11-0 record and hoped to find a high school job Stateside when his hitch was up. But in 1955, at a service tournament in France, Smith met Bob Spear, who had just been named coach at the Air Force Academy. Spear later offered him a job as an assistant, and Smith accepted. Three years later North Carolina coach Frank McGuire hired him in the same role.
McGuire was an extravagant New Yorker whose so-called Underground Railroad had delivered to Chapel Hill a stream of big-city talent. But his lavish recruiting style also put the Tar Heels in contravention of NCAA rules. In 1961 the administration let McGuire go and named his 30-year-old assistant to replace him.
Smith's influence in Chapel Hill extended beyond the basketball arena. With his pastor and a visiting black theology student, he helped integrate a local restaurant. In his second season as head coach, North Carolina scored an astonishing victory at Kentucky, and his players began to believe in him. As his innovations started to take hold--including the delay game he and Spear had developed at Air Force, which would evolve into the Four Corners offense--belief morphed into a kind of faith.
But that faith didn't yet extend beyond the team. In January 1965, during Smith's fourth season, the Tar Heels returned to campus after a thumping at Wake Forest to find that students had hung their coach in effigy. Center Billy Cunningham bounded off the bus and angrily tore the likeness of Smith from the tree. If, as scuttlebutt had it, the university elders had hired a greenhorn because they wanted to scale back a basketball program run amok, they seemed to have gotten their wish.
WILLIAM AYCOCK, university chancellor, 1958-64:
The idea that I wanted to de-emphasize basketball is ridiculous. When Frank McGuire got in trouble with the NCAA, he sent Dean to me to deal with the charges. Over a period of several months he and I worked on preparing a response, and I got to know him well. Frank wouldn't have hired him if Dean didn't know a lot about basketball. But I also discovered he was a person of great character. It took me about 15 minutes to decide to appoint him.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR, pastor, Binkley Baptist Church, 1959-88:
The Pines was a restaurant where the basketball team ate its meals. The management liked Dean and benefited financially from his bringing the team by. Dean had a vested interest in getting The Pines to open its doors, because he was recruiting a black player. Going there wasn't headline news, just responsible citizens making sure their community was complying with the law.
CHARLIE SHAFFER, guard, 1962-64:
When we won in Kentucky, it was the first time he ever coached against Adolph Rupp. We got there for the freshman game, and the place was already packed with 16,000 people. In the dressing room he said, "There are going to be a lot of people cheering for Kentucky. But when you look at that jersey, imagine it says Tennessee, not Kentucky. There's nothing special about that jersey."
We played a box-and-one, with Yogi Poteet, who was 6'1", guarding their best player, Cotton Nash, who was 6'5". Cotton literally couldn't get the ball. Afterward I told Coach Smith it was the best-coached game I'd ever seen. You could see his genius even then.
He had put in a play two or three days before the game. We called it the Kentucky play. Larry [Brown, Carolina's point guard] would bring the ball down the floor and take it into the middle, and the other four players would back out to the corners. Once, Larry drove to the foul line, and I slid in from the corner, and he dished it to me for a basket. That may have been the first Four Corners layup, though it didn't have that name at the time.
JOAN SMITH EWING:
After the Wake Forest game he called me with the score. Reverend Seymour called me, too--he had gone over and sat with Dean most of the night. I remember him searching, asking himself if he was doing the right thing with his life.
Installing the System, 1965-82: "It was as if he said, 'Just do as I say, and we'll win'"
After seeing their coach dangling from a tree, the 1964-65 Tar Heels went on to win nine of their remaining 11 games. The following season they added Smith's breakthrough recruit, a swaggering forward from Pennsylvania named Larry Miller. Freed at last from NCAA purgatory, finally with a team of his own choosing, the coach began to put together something that, if it wasn't a system -- he bristles at the word, for to him it connotes rigidity--did have a kind of daunting industrial strength.
Smith started to make a family of the players passing through his program, from which none would be entirely weaned. (His feistiness in showing his loyalty once caused Terry Holland, then Virginia's coach, to remark, "There's such a gap between the man and the image the man tries to project.") In keeping with the spirit of a time of social turbulence, Smith did his own groping and struggling, both personally and professionally. During the 1970s he divorced and remarried, and he was widely second-guessed for losses in which he ordered his team into the Four Corners too early. Given his nature, he did plenty of second-guessing himself. Rules remained at the foundation of his philosophy. But no rule was exempt from the test of reason, which would sometimes introduce a rule to its exception.
LARRY MILLER, forward, 1965-68:
One of his rules was that we had to go to church on Sunday and bring back a brochure to prove we'd gone. After I didn't go a couple of weeks Coach Smith called me into his office. At the time I had objections to what I thought was hypocrisy in the church. So I told him that if I were at home, my parents wouldn't make me go--that I could have had someone grab a brochure for me, but that wouldn't have been right. I asked him to respect my beliefs. And he did.
CHARLIE HOAG, college teammate and fraternity brother:
I remember him telling me once that he recruits the parents harder than the kids. "Parents help me sell the kid," he told me. "And if the kids don't respect their parents, they sure won't respect me."
GEORGE KARL, guard, 1969-73:
Before we lost in the 1972 Final Four, he said Florida State was a team we probably shouldn't press. But we'd pressed all year, so we weren't going to change. He was right; we shouldn't have pressed. But it showed that he wasn't going to back off his belief in us. We returned that belief with our belief in him.
Coach Smith kept us believing, even when we probably shouldn't have. Sometimes just believing resulted in miracles.
MITCH KUPCHAK, center, 1972-76:
At home against Duke in 1974, we were down eight points with 17 seconds left. There was no three-point shot, so we had to score four times to tie it. The final shot in regulation was a 35-footer by Walter Davis, and we won in overtime.
His calm throughout was amazing. The way he walked us through those 17 seconds, it was as if he said, "Don't think about this. Just do as I say and we'll win." There he was in the huddle, looking up at us with a kind of smile, saying, "Bobby [Jones], make these two free throws, then we'll go into this defense, steal the inbounds pass, score and call timeout." He didn't let us think about being down eight. He gave us step one--just do that. So Bobby made both free throws. We stole the pass. We scored. We called timeout. It all happened so fast.
I remember the last play in particular. Their best free throw shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one. We grabbed the rebound and called our last timeout. We had the ball under their basket and had to go the length of the floor. Coach calmly told us to run the 5-3-5. The five man, me, took the ball out and threw it to the three man on a five pattern, which is a square-out at midcourt. We'd run the play in practice so often that we wondered when we'd really need it. Normally we'd try to get the ball to half-court and call timeout. But we had none left, so the plan was to get Walter the ball, have him take one dribble and shoot. He did, and banked it in.
The key to it all was that we were prepared -- and that we believed. I'll tell you, we believed a lot more afterward, too.
BOBBY JONES, forward, 1970-74:
One thing I'll always remember is his honesty. He'd tell you he was struggling with smoking. We all knew he had problems, just like everyone else, but most coaches would never admit to them. He also admitted he didn't have all the answers.
TOM LAGARDE, center, 1973-77:
If one of us got a technical, we all had to run suicides the next day in practice. Now, Dean would get technicals too, but his were usually calculated. But once or twice a year he'd get one he didn't intend to get, and he and the coaches would run suicides for the unintentional technicals. [Assistant] coach [Bill] Guthridge ran five to 10 miles a day, but Dean didn't run much. So he would get pretty winded.
TERRY HOLLAND, Virginia coach, 1974-90:
He thought one of my players, Marc Iavaroni, was roughing up Phil Ford, and at halftime when the teams came off the court at the ACC tournament in 1977, he confronted Marc--physically touched him and said things. That's one area where I think Dean always had a problem. He felt he had a right, in order to protect his players in his own mind, to confront other people's players. That's extremely dangerous and way over the line. I'm sure Dean would say that Marc was a dirty player. But that's what the officials were out there for. You can't be objective in that situation.
MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, Duke coach, 1980-present:
We've all probably done things we're not proud of, backing up one of our players. But I can't think of a time I've ever heard him blame or degrade one of his own players, and in return, his kids are fiercely loyal to him. That kind of loyalty doesn't just happen. Things done on a day-to-day basis develop that kind of relationship.
The Big Ten was really physical back then, and the ACC was more of a finesse league. I wanted us to be more physical. At a team meeting I said we ought to go out there and throw some elbows. Coach Smith said, "No, we shouldn't. That's not the way to play the game." He was very competitive, but he wasn't win-at-all-costs.
MIKE O'KOREN, forward, 1976-80:
The halftime score at Duke in 1979 was 7-0, Duke. The game ended up 47-40--we played them even in the second half--and afterward reporters asked me about our decision to stall, and I said, "Personally I thought we should have played with them. He wanted to stall." Well, he saw that in the papers, and he told me that I should do the playing and he would do the coaching. So I had to put on the weighted vest and run pretty much all of practice. A week later we played Duke in the ACC championship and beat them [71-63].
JAMES WORTHY, forward, 1979-82:
He didn't allow players to wear beards. I had a skin problem and couldn't shave close, and I complained so much that he said, "O.K., if you get a doctor's note, I'll let you wear one." But if you look at the Sports Illustrated cover in 1981, with Jimmy Black, myself, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins and Coach Smith, I had to shave for that. He said, "Can you shave just this once?" So I shaved.
Having a system has its advantages and disadvantages. You knew they were always going to reverse the ball, that they were never going to shoot too quickly. But every now and then he'd suck you into defending his system and surprise you. When they beat us in the Final Four in 1981, they just turned Al Wood loose.
I later found out that he'd had someone come in to scout his team, and that person had told him, "Your guys are easy to guard because you make them easy to guard." Evidently he took that advice and shook things up. To take someone's advice to that extreme, at that time of year, shows he's not as inflexible as people might think. That was brilliant.
Breaking Through, 1982-1997: "We are going to determine who wins this game"
After Larry Miller's arrival, the Tar Heels would never again finish lower than third in the ACC standings. Smith would guide them to 11 Final Fours, including at least one in four different decades, and two NCAA titles.
To be sure, each championship came with the help of an opponent's blunder in the dying seconds -- in 1982, Georgetown's Fred Brown threw the ball to Worthy by mistake, costing the Hoyas a shot at beating the Heels; and in 1993, Chris Webber of Michigan was charged with a critical technical for calling a timeout when his team had none left. But on both occasions the Tar Heels stood in cool counterpoint: In '82 they got the game-winning jump shot from Jordan, who was then only a freshman, and in '93 they husbanded their timeouts and played with prepossessing calm.
ROY WILLIAMS, assistant coach, 1978-88:
Against Georgetown in '82, when Coach Smith called time with 32 seconds left, I didn't like the looks on our faces. For the first time I thought we could actually lose the game. But he told the team, "We're in great shape. I'd rather be in our shoes than theirs." He said it so confidently that I had to sneak a peak at the scoreboard to make sure it said Georgetown 62, North Carolina 61. Then he said, "We are going to determine who wins this game." And he grabbed Michael and said, "Knock it down."
When our guys broke the huddle, the looks on their faces had changed 180 degrees. The way he talked to them had more to do with us winning the national championship than anything else that happened that season.
MATT DOHERTY, forward, 1981-84:
In a team meeting once we were going over a trapping defense, and he referred to "the farthest point down the court." Then he stopped and said, "You know why I said 'farthest,' not 'furthest?' Because far, F-A-R, deals with distance." That's an English lesson I got with the basketball team, and I've never forgotten it.
S.L. PRICE, sportswriter, The Daily Tar Heel, 1981-83:
When they were building the Dean Dome, I wrote a column arguing that it was an extravagance, that athletes on campus were coddled, that the school could learn from Notre Dame and Harvard, where athletes lived among the other students. There was a huge uproar. There were letters to the paper. Roy Williams took me to task. The chancellor called me into his office. Their reaction was, We're North Carolina. How could you possibly criticize the way we do things?
Dean wrote me and asked me to come by his office at the end of the season. I was a know-it-all senior, and from my experience with everyone else I expected a dressing-down. But his reaction wasn't, Who are you or how dare you? He wanted to know what I knew, whether the system had gotten out of hand--whether there was something I could teach him that he didn't know. He was a man who didn't think he had all the answers. I left Chapel Hill with an understanding that here was the one guy who didn't buy into the myth that had been created around him.
Early in my career at Duke, I prepared hard for every opponent, but even harder for North Carolina, to the point of overcoaching. After several years I asked myself why I changed to play them. Why not have a system of our own -- the way they have a system of their own--to beat anyone, them included? Then playing them wouldn't be a matter of adjusting. It would be a matter of habit.
I learned from Dean that a system works against anybody. And probably the biggest win in the development of our program came right after I made that change, in 1984, when they were No. 1 and had Jordan and Perkins.
JEFF LEBO, guard, 1985-89:
He quit smoking my junior year. In a team meeting, before he quit, his nose started to bleed. It filled up a towel, but he wouldn't stop the meeting. "When you have a big nose, it bleeds a lot," he said. He missed like a week of practice after that, which was unbelievable, but doctor's orders. I think that helped get him to give up smoking.
He was a little on the cranky side the season he quit, not quite as patient. We all knew what he was going through. Some days we'd be saying, Oh, man, somebody give him a cigarette.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR:
In the early 1990s our church went through a very painful crisis. A senior at Duke Divinity School asked to be ordained and indicated he was gay. This fractured the congregation. The church did the right thing, licensing him to preach as a seminarian. We lost some members, but Dean didn't waver in his support. He wasn't involved in the debate, but he was there, and he was visible.
He's always been willing to take a stand. Back when we all had nuclear arms hanging over our heads, he was willing to go public in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons. I'm now chairman of a statewide group called People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, and he was the first to volunteer that his name be used up front.
There's no question I had my little obstacle to overcome in Houston [when he was arrested for soliciting prostitution in 1990]. Coach Smith was the second person to call me, and he said, "We're all human. I know you're a great man. Just deal with it as a man."
At The Top And Stepping Down: "Good men plan"
Smith broke Rupp's record on March 15, 1997, with his 877th career victory, a second-round NCAA tournament defeat of Colorado in Winston-Salem. He deflected credit, choosing instead to dedicate the achievement to those who had come through his program. When he retired the following fall, he did so in a way just as mindful of his basketball family, waiting until the eve of fall practice to ensure that the job would go to his aide of 30 years, Bill Guthridge.
Smith is left with a wealth of memories, which, given his astonishing powers of recall and nearly 67 years to cull from, will serve him well.
MARILYN TOWLER ROBERTS:
I talked to him a few months ago, and he said, "You sound just like your mother." And I thought to myself, How could he remember what my mother sounded like? She's been gone for more than 20 years. Before he hung up he said, "Your birthday's on the 29th. Happy birthday."
BILL GUTHRIDGE, assistant, 1967-97:
One of our recruits my first year was Steve Previs, a guard from Bethel Park, right outside Pittsburgh. Dean and I had been there once in the fall to visit Steve, who lived in this subdivision with a maze of streets. We went back in the spring, and Dean made 10 or 15 turns, right to the house. There were five guys in that recruiting class, and I have no doubt he could drive back to the homes of any of them today.
LARRY BROWN, former player (1961-63) and assistant coach (1965-67):
A few years ago, during one of those times when we all come back to visit him over the summer, he talked to [former Tar Heels assistant coach] Eddie [Fogler] and Roy [Williams] and me about the possibility that he might step down before he broke the record. He knew there'd be all the media attention, and he didn't want it. All of us made a pact that we wouldn't let him step down.
KRISTEN SMITH, daughter and a North Carolina freshman:
Last spring I was enrolled in an advanced placement American history course. My mom [Chapel Hill psychiatrist Linnea Smith] and dad weren't going to let me go down to Winston-Salem [for the record-breaking game] unless I brought my homework with me. It became this big deal in the newspaper: Coach Smith's daughter was reading her history book before the game.
Everybody was teasing me about it at school. It's not that I was bored, just that this was a Thursday night, a school night, and that was the rule before a game. Even that game.
When I got back to Atlanta the night he broke the record, watching his press conference on the news, I heard him say, "I want to recognize all the assistants who coached with me and all the players who played for me. I don't have time to name them all, but I could do it." Which I don't doubt. And then he said, "They all share in this moment, if indeed it is a moment." I thought, You've broken the alltime record. You can at least call it a moment.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR:
When I retired, he and others chided me for leaving. But I told them I'd rather leave when people want me to stay than have them dance in the streets when I left. And I think that was part of his thinking.
My phone rang in January. It was Dean. He said, "Bob, before each practice I give my team some brief words of wisdom. Today is Martin Luther King's birthday. Can you give me something he said?" I thought for a moment and said, "When evil men plot, good men plan."
He had a style that no one's ever going to copy. To be that smart, that psychologically aware, that good with X's and O's -- with that system, and to always take the high road -- that just isn't going to happen again.