SI Vault: Long Ago He Won The Big One: Dean Smith's best victory
This story originally ran in the Nov. 29, 1982 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The much-awaited NCAA title he got last season wasn't the most important victory of Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith's career.
With 32 seconds left against Georgetown, Dean Smith, who couldn't win the big one, called time. Except at the end of a game, such as now,Smith will signal time-outs only in the most desperate straits. Professionally, he's flexible, even aggressively innovative, but there are certain tenets he clings to, and that's one of them. Now, Georgetown: The Hoyas had only one time-out remaining, but they were a point ahead, 62-61.
Smith gathered his players about him and, kneeling, told them to take the first good shot. Most everybody watching assumed that the ball would go to James Worthy or Sam Perkins, but Smith, thinking a move ahead, figured that Georgetown would operate on that same premise and try to deny the two stars the ball. So somebody else would be clear. Smith guessed that it would be Michael Jordan. The last thing the coach did as the huddle broke up was to take a step after the freshman and say to him, "Knock it in, Michael."
A few seconds later, sure enough, Jimmy Black swung the ball left, overhead to Jordan, just in front of the Carolina bench. Another instant, and it was apparent that Jordan had the first good shot.
Larry Miller was watching from the third-row seat he had obtained at the last minute. He hadn't even come down to New Orleans from Virginia Beach, where he runs a construction firm, until after Carolina had won its NCAA tournament semi. But now Miller had an excellent view of Jordan as he got set to shoot. Miller was always a savvy kid, and bold. When he arrived in Chapel Hill in 1964, he told Smith he didn't think he should have to go to church, as required by a team rule, because he wouldn't be going to church if he were home, so why do it in college? Smith thought it over and agreed, the first time he'd ever given in to a player like that.
Miller was "the key, the one player who turned it around for Dean," says Billy Cunningham, a former Smith player who now coaches the Philadelphia 76ers. In 1963-64, Miller's senior year in high school, he was, after Lew Alcindor, the most desired recruit in all the land, but he was headed for Duke, glamorous Duke, the dominant team in the ACC and the East. Once Miller changed his mind, Smith had another outstanding player to go with his first prize recruit, Bobby Lewis. Duke was thwarted; Carolina was ascendant, in the Final Four by Miller's junior year. The rest was a glide. Fact is, except for a few minor setbacks, there wasn't all that much drama (let alone trauma) for Smith and Carolina over the next 15 years, except, of course, for the one thing—that he couldn't win the big one.
On television, Mike O'Koren watched Jordan go up from 17 feet out, shooting over the weak side of the Georgetown zone. O'Koren now plays for the New Jersey Nets, but once before when he watched the crucial moment in a Carolina NCAA final, he had been considerably closer, kneeling at the scorer's table, trying to get back in the game. He had had the hot hand that night. Eddie Fogler, one of Smith's assistants, suggested to his boss that he call time and get O'Koren right in, but Smith shook his head. Carolina had gone up a point, and Smith had put his team into the Four Corners. In any place where it matters, the above piece of business is known only as The Marquette Game. Carolina lost it by being outscored 22-14 in the last 12:45 of the contest. It's said that the two things in his life Smith doesn't care to get into are his divorce in 1973 and The Marquette Game in 1977.
On TV, O'Koren watched Jordan's shot fly. "But you know," O'Koren says, "the really more fascinating thing is to look at the picture of Jordan's shot. That tells it all." The picture shows the whole grandstand behind Jordan up on its feet. Down the way, the Georgetown bench stands, too, the coaches having wandered, in the tension, down the sideline. But the Carolina bench: It is so calm, even detached, that it appears otherworldly. Smith's top assistant, Bill Guthridge, holds his chin in his hands, idly; Fogler contemplatively touches his fingertips together; Smith's own hands are peacefully locked, palm to palm. There is no fear on his face. "Go look at it," O'Koren says. "It's like they're all just hanging out." There were 17 seconds left when Smith watched Jordan's shot drop through the net.
All along Smith has said that he wasn't monomaniacal about his failure to win the big one. The NCAA final, he asserted, was no different to him from "Duke at Duke," and it was the party line in Chapel Hill, N.C. to point out that it was far more difficult to go lose in the Final Four six times than to win it once. Statistics were trotted out to prove this. The coaches, though, never once so much as mentioned the subject to the players, even though the topic was otherwise so ubiquitous that Point Guard Black had felt obliged to call a team meeting in his room weeks before to discuss how they must gain victory for the coach, so that everyone would lay off Smith and stop saying that he couldn't win the big one. And now, at last: 63-62, :00.
Then there was a great deal of hugging. Smith hugged his players, and when some fool microphone person jammed the apparatus right inSmith's face, he roughly pushed it away. "Wait, wait!" he cried. "First, I've got to find my coaches." And he hugged them, one by one. And then he hugged John Thompson, the Georgetown coach and his friend.
Like a good assistant, Fogler noticed something extra in the films of that scene, too. Fogler saw that after Thompson and Smith hug, they break, and everybody figures, well, that's that. Thompson turns, and the photographers scurry off, but Smith lingers. His eyes follow Thompson, studying him. You can see it clear as day on the films, Fogler says. He has stopped the movie at that spot, frozen it, just as if it had revealed a good pick, and watched Smith's face. "He's been in Coach Thompson's position so many times, and he had to check to make sure he was O.K.," Fogler says.
Only then does Smith go back and rejoin the celebration, mere Duke at Duke again. Only: "His eyes gave him away," Worthy says. "There was a drop of a tear here and there." Still, who would ever know what Smith was crying for, whether it was in joy for the triumph finally gained or lament for the quest finally lost? Striving has its advantages, too, that's for sure. "Creativity rises out of the pit of life, rather than the high places," Smithhad read 17 years before, in the days right after he had been strung up in effigy at North Carolina and was pondering whether he was right for coaching, or it for him.
On Aug. 5, 1961, Dean Smith, 30, was appointed to preside over what survived as basketball at the University of North Carolina. It was something of a shotgun marriage. There were only a couple of months left before practice opened, and the team was just coming off a one-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations. Meanwhile, the fear of gambling influences had prompted the university to cut back the 1961-62 schedule from 23 to 16 games, and to limit recruiting to two players a year from outside ACC territory. These restrictions were especially debilitating because the region had little high school basketball tradition, and besides, more than half of what good homegrown players there were came in a shade that still contrasted starkly with Carolina blue.
As for Smith, he was largely an unknown quantity. He had been assistant coach to Frank McGuire for three seasons, but he was an outlander from Kansas, content to stay in the background juggling X's and 0's. As Marquette's Al McGuire was to say later of coaching staffs: "Only one of us can wear the brassiere." Dean Smith knew that that was not his attire. Carolina's McGuire, the man who had hired Smith, was the hero who had guided the Tar Heels to their first national title in 1957, a fellow with a D cup worth of charm. Now Frank had gone off to coach Philadelphia and Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA, and on this summer's day Smith was introduced to Carolina and the world.
"The successor to Frank McGuire, one of the most dynamic men in sports, is not overpowering in personality," one of the local papers noted, gagging on understatement. And another: "...McGuire in one corner, parrying questions with the dexterity of an accomplished fencer, supplying the correct anecdote at the proper time, dropping a joke when the atmosphere became too solemn. And Smith, with his back to the wall, answering everything with the only public relations weapons at his command—a smile and straightforwardness."
The boy coach was duck soup for impressionists, a regional Ed Sullivan, the staple of every press box comic's act. Even now that he's venerated and lionized, Smith is everywhere still done. The impersonator turns his voice into a numbing buzz saw, droning, a verbal ebb tide of forced humility and transparent obfuscation, all the while glancing at his watch, smoking or, with one hand, alternately circling and jabbing the air, index finger and pinky raised. Nobody ever said it was pretty.
Such a pale presence did Smith offer in those early years that a folk tale grew up, still repeated in some precincts, that William Aycock, the university's chancellor at the time, had purposely hired Smith because he wanted the program de-emphasized, and he figured that Smith, in hopelessly over his head, would hasten the ruin. Aycock, who's now a professor at the North Carolina law school, puts that canard to rest—"I ain't that big a fool," he says, laughing—but he readily acknowledges that Smith's very lack of stature worked in his favor. "Coach Smith was, primarily, a case of the right man at the right time," Aycock says. "He was quiet, but it was also apparent to me that he was smart, and there was something fundamentally strong about this guy."
Smith understood, however, that Aycock would be leaving the chancellor's office soon enough to return to teaching and that otherwise his support was virtually nonexistent. "Dean is the program now," Cunningham says, "but people forget. He really paid his dues. You know, he wasn't Dean Smith when he started. He wasn't anybody then."
Chapel Hill wasn't anything very special at that time, either. Now...oh, now it's very chic. The present chancellor, Christopher Fordham (who just happens to be one of Smith's closest friends), says that even W, a women's fashion review, has fallen for Carolina, listing it as an In in its regular compendium of great American Ins and Outs. Carolina is widely accepted as one of a handful of outstanding American state universities, its campus beautiful, its athletic teams triumphant—UNC, the stickers boast, UNIVERSITY OF NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Now, God help us, even its sissy baby blue has come to be admired as manly handsome. Why, the whole place reeks of momentum itself. At least during those blessed intervals when the state's two antediluvian senators—Jesse Helms and John East—keep their mouths shut, North Carolina is generally admired in a way that no southern state has been since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. And there's no doubt that much of this esteem derives from the glamorous university and its basketball team and, thereby, from the little man with the beef nose and the pot belly and the grating voice who coaches it.
In 1961, though, neither Carolina nor its university were much to treasure. The shroud of segregation still covered the state, and the enmity of much of the rest of the U.S. was specifically directed against North Carolina because of the lunch-counter sit-ins that had originated in Greensboro the year before. Tobacco reigned; Tobacco Road. The university itself probably was a fine regional institution, but to say that some place was a good Southern school then had the same odor of faint praise as when one talks of "fine English cuisine." Sports was in ragged retreat at Chapel Hill. McGuire's 1957 championship was a memory fading before the harsh present of probation here and Duke divine. The woebegone football team had scuffled to a 3-7 record in 1960.
So, Smith installed a tightly controlled offense that was completely at variance with the popular wide-open style McGuire had won with; Carolina finished below .500 the first year (see box, page 116). Of Smith's recruits the next, none made an impression. The third season began with the freshmen whipping the varsity in a scrimmage watched by 5,000 fans. By the middle of Smith's fourth year, each defeat was supposed to be his sayonara. Larry Brown, the coach of the New Jersey Nets and the best player on Smith's first team, says, "I don't know how many men could have gone through those first few years."
Also, it was during this grim time that Smith began to understand that his marriage was broken and probably could never be put back together, and that was tearing him into even smaller and more jagged pieces.
Of course, almost nobody knew that. Smith is an insular being, and, almost pathologically, his existence is built upon giving. He seems to fear that if for one moment he were to relent from his outpouring of care and concern, those on the receiving end might seek to help him, to give back, to encroach, to pry. Blessed with a need for little sleep and with an extraordinary memory for names and minutiae alike, Smith takes the lead in any conversation he has with a player and never lets up.
In fact, virtually everything under discussion always concerns the younger man across the desk or at the other end of the phone line. That's the way Coach wants it; that's the way it must be. And the players respond by turning to him for advice in all aspects of their lives.
Each description of Smith the mentor is more cloying than the last. If Tar Heel basketball were a food, you would never let your children touch it for the sugar content. Nearly 100 of Smith's 121 letter-men paid their way back to Chapel Hill two summers ago to attend a tribute to him. By all accounts it was like OD-ing on Osmond Family reruns. The blood runs cyclamate. The highlight of the evening—numerous grown men giggle uncontrollably as they recount this—came when Doug Moe, the coach of the Denver Nuggets, the class clown, kissed Smith on the forehead and actually called him El Deano.
"I know nobody on the outside can believe all this stuff is that good," Cunningham says, "but I swear it is. I'd hate Dean Smith, too, if I were a guy who had to coach against him all the time."
Smith may, in fact, have made himself a coach, but what he is first is a born uncle. Accounts of his childhood indicate that he was never less than 62 years old. It's no wonder that his first years as a coach were the most difficult, because it is obvious he was never cut out to be a young man. "Whoever heard of anybody named Dean?" Frank McGuire railed in mock anger when he first met Smith. "Where I come from, you become aDean. You're not named Dean." But Dean is the perfect name for Smith, and he can only get better as his chronological age catches up with the real old age he has always been.
"What about your youth?" an interviewer asked Smith shortly after he had gotten the head coaching job. "Do you see it as an advantage?"
"It could never be an advantage," Smith replied. "The more experience you have, the better job you can do."
Smith, the uncle-child, planned to grow up and teach math, his major at the University of Kansas. As an athlete, he was a basketball playmaker, a football quarterback and baseball catcher. "I've always wanted to call the signals," Smith intones. When he did become a head coach, he employed the word "family" as a euphemism for "team," and his program was constructed in that vein, inside out, rather than the way most coaches do it—by seeking to create aura first. Smith has often said that he could never coach a sport like football, which has too many athletes for a family setting. Above, all, what distinguishes Smith as a coach is his singular ability to treat all his players as equal members of the family, regardless of their unequal status as components of the team.
Originally, though, it wasn't easy for him blithely to dispense family spirit. While his players sensed his avuncular attitude and his inherent fairness/ honesty/ loyalty, which they all cite as if it were a litany, Smith's natural aloofness guaranteed that what he sought to build could only grow over a long time.
"He was so different from Coach McGuire," Brown says. "Until you knew Coach Smith well, he could give you a very uncomfortable feeling. Why, he could give you a compliment and still make you wonder. Coach McGuire would get mad and call me a Jew bastard, and it rolled off my back. He called everybody something. But Coach Smith would just say, 'Larry, I think you could have fought over that screen,' and it would hurt me much more. It would go through me like a knife."
As a rookie head coach, Smith was too unyielding and overreacted to players' innocent indiscretions, and at the blackboard Smith was just as rigid, force-feeding his myriad defenses and the incontrovertible math of the shuffle offense. There'd be some mumbling from the back," says Charlie Shaffer, who played on Smith's first three teams. "There'd be some laughing. There were times he had to stop and say, 'Hey, remember, I'm coaching this team.' "
Recruiting, however, was something else. That was not exactly Smith's long "Suit, and his distance and diffidence usually left him at a disadvantage against the hail-fellow raconteurs who plied blue-chip parlors with grace and aplomb and silver tongues.
Now, of course, it's a breeze. Smith comes advertised as an athletic demigod, and prospects genuflect when he deigns to enter their humble abodes. North Carolina doesn't recruit now; uncle taps. Back then it was altogether different. "Now, I know, the kids go for Dean Smith," says Bobby Lewis, who rejected 'Kentucky and other notable powers for Carolina in 1963. "Then, you went to Carolina for itself and what you thought "you could find there." The lovely campus, matching coeds, the McGuire memories—embodied best by Cunningham, personable Billy C, the Brooklyn boy—and Ken Rosemond, Smith's down-home assistant, were all more responsible for attracting what early talent did play for Smiththan Smith himself.
Rosemond remembers well his visits to Larry Miller's home on Wood Street in Catasauqua, Pa. Day after day he would spring for a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and sit with Larry's father, guzzling it down, never letting on that he hated beer, talking about any number of things, especially, whenever he could fit it in casually, about why Larry might choose Carolina over Duke. For his part, Smith was so awkward then, so distant, that even after Lewis and Miller did come to Carolina, even as they were becoming the fabled L & M Boys, when Rosemond left to become head coach at Georgia, both Lewis and Miller independently "made overtures" to Rosemond to transfer with him. It was that close. Even in 1966-67, the season Carolina finally began to prevail, when it was on the way to the Final Four, a friend of Smith's remembers cringing one night as one of the team's top players banged on a motel wall and screamed "I hate you, I hate you" over and over at the top of his lungs. "He wanted Dean to hear. He wanted him to know."
Art Heyman, the Duke All-America in Smith's first two seasons, was amazed when, years later, he visited North Carolina and found out how revered Smith had become. "Dean Smith?" Heyman said. "Why, he was the biggest joke around."
The year after Miller enrolled. Smith picked up three very good local players—Rusty Clark, Joe Brown and Bill Bunting. At last, a decade later,Frank McGuire's Carolina legacy was complete: The state had begun to develop its own talent. Now, Smith gets his pick of the litter virtually every year. It's instructive that three other North Carolina colleges—Duke, North Carolina State and North Carolina at Charlotte—have made the Final Four in the last decade, but their coaches soon fled the state, unable to compete with Smith.
Moreover, beginning with the recruitment of Charlie Scott in 1966, Smith was in the Dixie vanguard of bringing in blacks. In the black community the word got around that in 1960, years before Smith could bring blacks to Chapel Hill and use them to his advantage, he had gone out of his way, as we shall see, to do something personally valorous, something dear to black people.
And so, as a consequence of all these factors, the Tar Heels are inexorable. They have made the Final Four seven times since '67. They have had 12 straight 20-win seasons, and 15 of 16. And, most impressive of all, over the last 16 years they have finished no worse than second in the ACC, the nation's most competitive conference. There are just never any off-years. Over this time the two men who have most resembled Smithin the steadiness of their accomplishments are Earl Weaver and Tom Landry, but they did it in the pros, supported by whole computerized organizations. Carolina is still uncle-powered.
Steve Previs, UNC '72, who many think is probably the most intelligent player Smith has ever had and, more important, does the best DeanSmith imitation, perhaps sums up his old coach most precisely: "He's a mathematician, and, in effect, he's simply written a program for winning basketball games." And then Previs smiles and adds, "Or, even better, Coach Smith is a Japanese car."
Yet these are not exactly endearing qualities. Would you want your daughter to marry a Celica? At first, Smith's considerable basketball intellect was the only reservoir he had to draw on. True, the players accepted their young coach; it was impossible not to see how much he cared. But he was ill at ease, and certainly no laff riot; for light reading in those salad days Smith pored over theology, Kierkegaard and Buber, and otherwise carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, trying, as Brown says, "to be everything to everybody." Without the personality to sustain a holding operation, Smith needed something more substantial to prove he wasn't just another brilliant assistant who had been promoted to illustrate what we now call the Peter Principle.
In Smith's second year, Cunningham moved up to the varsity to play with Brown, but skinny as he was and barely 6'4", Cunningham had to be used at center. A rout at Indiana showed the Tar Heels how thin their soup truly was. And more of the same was expected two days later when the team moved on to Kentucky. When the players entered the huge Kentucky arena, the Wildcats' freshman juggernaut was shell-lacking somebody something like 130-18 in the prelim, and the crowd was screaming for more blood. Shaffer remembers looking around on the way to the locker room and saying out loud, "What have we got ourselves into?" In the locker room, the tension was so great that Brown broke out in hives all over his body. Smith went over the plans. On defense the Tar Heels would play a box-and-one, with a senior by the euphonious name of Yogi Poteet shadowing Cotton Nash, the premier player in the land. Then, on offense, if Carolina got ahead, it would try something that had worked in practice, with Brown taking the ball in the middle of the court and the other four players spreading out. "And, look, don't worry about the crowd, and don't think about who you're playing," Smith said. "Pretend it's Tennessee, not Kentucky."
As soon as the teams hit the floor, Brown's hives went away. And Carolina stayed with Kentucky. Yogi Poteet would not let Nash get the ball. And early in the second half Carolina moved ahead. The first time Smith signaled Brown to give the special spread offense a chance, Brown faked his man out and got a layup. The second time, one of the other Kentucky players came over to help out, and Brown dished the ball off to Shaffer for another layup. As he ran down the court, Shaffer thought to himself: "Hey, you know, that thing works." It was just a thing then. It didn't have a name. Later it would be called The Four Corners. Old Adolph Rupp, as they used to say, didn't know whether to spit or wind his watch. By the end of the game Nash was so frustrated he just went over and stood to the side, where he and Yogi Poteet watched the other guys go four-on-four. Carolina won 68-66.
In the locker room, Shaffer came over and said, "Coach, that was the greatest game of basketball anybody ever coached." All of the players were saying that. "Now we knew," Shaffer says. "We had proof that everything he said made sense."
But even with the Kentucky win, which sent Carolina off to a fine 15-6 season. Smith couldn't get the players. One of the prospects he recruited about this time remembers, with embarrassment, that a schoolmate had come into the high school locker room and asked him, "Who's the bum out there with a hole in his shoe?"
The player explained that it was the coach from North Carolina. "North Carolina?" the other kid said, incredulous. "What'd he do, walk all the way?"
More and more, Miller loomed as the prize. But he still leaned toward Duke. "You know, Larry, the saddest thing is," Rosemond told him one day, "that if you went from here down to Duke, then you'd be going all that way and you'd stilly be five minutes from heaven." Miller seemed to like that, Rosemond recalls. But more important, another idea was forming in Miller's mind: "Maybe I want to be the start of something." He wasn't quite sure anymore. He almost cried once when the Duke coaches came to visit him, and he couldn't bring himself to accept their offer of a scholarship and invite thereto his high school graduation. Whoever won, Miller would have them there, for all the world to see, at his graduation.
Duke still had the inside track. And, this year, 1963-64, the Blue Devils made the NCAA finals while Carolina dropped to 12-12. Smith's patron, Aycock left the chancellor's office that summer, and the next year, his fourth as coach. Smith was even more vulnerable. The Tar Heels lost four straight and fell back to 6-6. As Y.A. Tittle once said, "You can be a bum-bum-hero but you can't be a hero-bum-bum." The team bus came back to Chapel Hill from a bad loss at Wake Forest, and when it arrived at old Woollen Gym, there, over the front door, was an effigy, hanging high, of Coach Dean Smith. Everyone on the bus saw it right away, and no one dared breathe a sound.
In 1977 Terry Holland, the coach at Virginia, made a most memorable remark about Smith. Holland said, "There's such a gap between the man and the image the man tries to project." Consider the source.
And, consider the source when Chancellor Fordham says, "Dean has great character. He's an exemplar. He's all he appears to be." But, as Fordham also says, "You never get Dean to talk about himself." That's a problem; Smith's proclivity for privacy, increasing all the time, causes more suspicious misunderstanding than relaxed revelation ever could. Likewise, his regularly professed humility, no matter how sincere, appears phony, as it would for most any man who works in a vainglorious profession. The public simply won't accept certain types—basketball coaches prominently included—auditioning for roles in The Beatitudes.
Perhaps more damaging, though, Smith has a convoluted way of concealing what passing flaws he does possess, thereby encouraging his detractors to discover hypocrisy where there may well be none. The easiest example: cigarettes.
It's a well-known fact that Smith goes through something like three packs a day, yet often, in public places, he will sneak off and smoke with his hand cupped over the cigarette, like some teenager out behind the shed. It requires very little cynicism for someone to think: Well, if he can't even own up to that little failing, what else is he hiding?
Then, too, Dean Smith—a Baptist deacon, son of Baptist parents who had him in church four hours every Sunday, grandson of a Baptist preacher—that Dean Smith drinks Scotch. Not even his snidest critics have ever whispered that Smith abuses alcohol, but his deviousness with the Demon Rum—he hides his glass when minors enter a room, and he still won't drink in front of his parents—only widens the alleged man-image gap.
Baptists, of course, are traditionally expected to be abstainers, perhaps especially in Carolina, where, as Frank McGuire suggests, "The only thing there's more of than Baptists is sparrows." But Smith is also widely known to abhor the Baptist-deep Moral Majority and to possess serious reservations about certain tenets of slick fundamentalist sports religiosity. Smith plays dumb in these matters, helping the gap to widen. "He's so concerned with what people may think," Brown says. "The reason he wears a tie all the time is because he worries: You never know who may come by."
Smith's friends acknowledge that his deep penchant for privacy derives largely from his divorce and his determination never to be vulnerable.Smith came from a family, from a whole culture, in which people didn't get divorced. Divorce was failure. Divorce was shame. By the best accounts, Smith all but drove himself to the brink of madness, wrestling with his conscience, his morality, as he realized that his marriage had collapsed. Compulsively he immersed himself in his basketball family. "I think coaching literally kept Dean's sanity during that period," Bill Guthridge says. "He could throw all his energies into that." Well, not quite all. Between the breakup of his first marriage and the start of his second, Smith was something of a lady's man, and much of the criticism of his being holier-than-thou, dates to that period.
Smith also suffers merely for being a success in his profession; college basketball is such a corrupt enterprise that victory carries with it the implicit assumption of guilt. The wise guys wink that not even Saint John Wooden could escape his program's being tainted. Furthermore, on the bench, Smith isn't Mrs. Caesar, and when he's less than completely decorous, his critics are quick to wag their fingers. So Smith's winning record and his sanctimonious air encourage—beg—closer scrutiny. In a way, he's reminiscent of what Churchill once said of John Foster Dulles: "He is the only case of a bull I know who carries his china closet with him."
Smith can be stubborn, too, and occasionally it verges on haughtiness. It is, for example, the prime sin in his decalogue for anyone to be late, and on one occasion when Smith was himself late for a call-in radio show, the coach went on for several minutes of air time about how he couldn't possibly be late: Must be the clocks were all wrong. Any criticism of The Four Corners is his special tar baby, Smith never conceding—never conceding squared—when talk turns to The Four Corners and The Marquette Game. Smith has regularly made pious statements about how "society measures success too much through winning and losing." But though The Four Corners is demonstrably a bore and bad for Smith's sport, he invariably defends it on narrow legal grounds, that it's a useful instrument he has no qualms about wielding because it helps his team win...and the devil take the hindmost.
So there are contradictions. But hypocrite? Consistency, thy name is El Deano. The coach rises to any challenge. His regular golf games are legendary for their unholy intensity and gamesmanship. His contentiously happy foursome regularly includes Fordham; Simon Terrell, a high school athletic administrator; and Earl Somers, a psychiatrist. (Smith's present wife, Linnea, is also a psychiatrist. For a man so guarded, Smithcertainly sticks his head in the lion's mouth a lot, doesn't he?)
Ultimately, as with most any coach," the inner duel Smith fights is between his compassion and his competitiveness. But his own little private sin, if it be that, appears to be an odd form of hubris, which makes it possible for him to readily accept the greater limitations of man but, hard for him to deal with the petty, trifling flaws of excess and omission. It's only the everyday china he breaks. But therein lies his problem of image, and that is unfortunate, too, because Dean Smith certainly is a stouthearted man, carrying with him a noble spirit and a" warm dignity and, as his pastor says, "an enormous conscience."
One day in the summer of 1959, the Rev. Robert Seymour approached Smith. Then, as now, Seymour presided at the Binkley Baptist Church, which Smith has belonged to since he came to North Carolina. The Chapel Hill area was intellectually ahead of its region then, but like the rest of the state it still lay adrift in the horse latitudes of segregation, and so some clergymen and other citizens were attempting to integrate the town's public facilities.
A young black theology student was visiting that summer, and Seymour asked Smith to join the two of them in trying to eat a meal at a segregated restaurant in town. Smith was crucial to the action, for this restaurant served many training meals to Carolina athletic teams. Smithwas only an assistant, just 28 years old, largely unknown, but, as Seymour understood, "He was bread and butter for this one restaurant." And so the three men, two white and one black, entered and took a table. If the waitress and the shocked customers didn't know Smith, the manager did. He nodded at the waitress, and she handed out the menus, and the day was carried.
Smith was the ultimate assistant back then, loyally subordinating himself to McGuire. No one can remember Smith's ever asserting himself before. It's revealing what he chose to do the first time he acted independently in Chapel Hill.
The 1963-64 season, Smith's third, was a dismal disappointment, and as spring wore on, there were no eye-opening recruiting accomplishments. School let out, and in June Smith was using Woollen Gymnasium for his basketball camp. It was a sultry Sunday evening when the kids first congregated, and Smith was making his welcoming address when somebody told him he had a phone call. Smith, peeved, said he was obviously busy. The messenger persisted, saying it was Larry Miller from Catasauqua, P-A on the line. Smith went to his office and picked up the receiver, and Miller said he had thought it over and he'd like for Smith to come to his high school graduation.
Even now, in the basketball office at Chapel Hill, there are only two teams singled out for display. There is, of course, the 1981-82 club, the one that won the big one; the names of all the players are printed on a large, fancy stein. And the other is the 1966-67 team, the one starring Lewis and Miller, which was the first Smith team to make the Final Four. It's celebrated larger than the other squad: Up on the wall there's a huge, dark, hideous painting that features all the players' signatures.
How close Smith came to not being the coach of that team—and thereby missing all the success that followed—isn't certain. But it was close. Even after he got Miller, but before Miller reached the varsity, Smith was wrestling with himself about whether he should get out of big-time sports. And anyway, after the 1964-65 season, if things hadn't improved, he wouldn't have had any choice, no matter what he decided. The hue and cry to fire him was rising. Shaffer, in law school by then, recalls walking along with Smith after a defeat over in Raleigh and being appalled at the things people called Smith right to his face. Shaffer says, "I thought, 'My God, how can he stand this? This is a heckuva way to make a living.' " Cunningham, the senior, the captain, led the players in worrying that they were going to have blood on their hands, that they were going to get their coach fired. "You could see the strain on him," Cunningham says. "It was horrible."
And then they came back from Wake that night, having been routed by 22, and there was the effigy. Lewis, only a sophomore, remembers that he was too appalled to move. He ducked his head. No one dared even to look at Smith. But there they were at the gym, and that was the end of the line. Across the road, in Winston Dorm, the students had thrown their windows wide open to the chilly January air so they could lean out and watch the fun.
Suddenly, Cunningham shot up from his seat. He only remembers thinking, "How could they do this to this man?" Before he knew it, he was tearing down the bus steps and running and grabbing the effigy, yanking it down and kicking it aside. Then the rest of the team filed off, giving the effigy a wide berth and stealing away into the night.
The main question now had gone past "Will Smith leave?" The only speculation was, who would replace him?
In these depths, Smith began reading a book by Catherine Marshall entitled Beyond Our Selves, which his sister, Joan Ewing, had given him. Joan is his only sibling, and they are particularly close. Smith focused on a chapter entitled "The Power Of Helplessness." He began to see how little control he, a man of control, really had. "Crisis brings us face to face with our inadequacy and our inadequacy in turn leads us to the inexhaustible sufficiency of God," he read. And: "No sinner is hopeless; no situation is irretrievable. No cause is past redeeming." And: "Helplessness is actually one of the greatest assets a human being can have...the crucible out of which victory could rise."
Yes, just so. Before the next game, a few days later, over at Durham, five minutes from heaven, Smith gave a fiery pep talk. He never does that. And Carolina beat Duke 65-62. Duke at Duke. There was a crowd waiting when the team got back to Woollen Gym, and they cheered for Smithto speak. "Billy," he said to the captain, "you step up there and greet 'em. My throat's still sore from the other night."
Two years later Dean Smith made the Final Four. The big ones had all been played by then.