Twice a season, the day featured a game against North Carolina and Dean Smith. And twice a season, this dictated the gustatory habits of young Duke assistant coaches. Mike Brey was unable to eat much at all in the hours preceding tip-off, wound tight by the highest level of college basketball preparation and anxiety. And if the Blue Devils were to lose, Brey and fellow assistant Tommy Amaker knew what it meant: Order in. They weren’t leaving the building for lunch that week.
But a victory? A triumph over a bitter rival led by a legend?
“We win, we’re going out, baby!” Brey says now. “We’re going to Golden Corral!”
Such was the figure cut by Smith, the man who would retire years later with more wins than anyone else in college basketball history. And such was the pressure his program applied to meet or surpass the standard it set -- especially just down the road in Durham, as a future legend and his staff set about building a powerhouse. It was ferocious competition. Yet there was a paradox in it, too, acknowledged after Smith’s death by three men intensely involved in trying to outdo the North Carolina program over many years.
For Brey as a coach, and for Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins primarily as players, the mission at Duke essentially was to take down Dean Smith. And somehow Smith nevertheless helped build them up, in ways big and small. “More than anything, I loved the demeanor with which carried himself, the respect he had for the game, the way he cared about the game,” Collins says. “As much as he wanted to win, everything he talked about, he was always trying to make the game better.”
Brey (Notre Dame), Wojciechowski (Marquette) and Collins (Northwestern) all run their own programs now. For obvious reasons, all three would count Smith’s greatest foil, Mike Krzyzewski, as a primary influence. But they collected at least a few drops of Smith’s impact and carried them along, the natural antagonism of a rivalry notwithstanding.
Some links to Smith that pre-dated their arrivals in Durham may help explain that. Morgan Wooten, Brey’s mentor at DeMatha Catholic High, was close with Smith and borrowed his pregame warmup routine and even the Four Corners offense (DeMatha called it “Four to Score”). That established a level of respect and admiration, as did the in-home visits that Smith made to Collins and Wojciechowski when they were high school stars. “He was a first-class gentleman,” Wojciechowski says.
But Marquette’s coach also well recalls a scene from high school: Playing soccer in the fall before basketball season, and seeing Krzyzewski and Brey at one end of the field … and Smith and assistant Phil Ford at the other. The adversarial dynamic, even in recruiting, was as clear-cut as that. “Behind closed doors, the intensity and animosity was off the charts, there’s no question,” Brey says, particularly of the early years of the Smith-Krzyzewski battles. “You sat with all these guys (recruiting in gyms), but yet you knew behind closed doors, we were trying to cut each other’s you-know-whats off.”
Years have blurred the details a bit, but playing against Smith-coached teams was an exercise in frustration at times. There was high-level ability, but thorough preparation and cohesion exacerbated the problems North Carolina caused. Then there was Smith’s calm and confident demeanor no matter what position opponents put his team in. Brey says the Tar Heels coach might have invented setting a plan in a timeout based on free throws that hadn’t yet been made: “He’d say, ‘OK, after Steve makes these free throws, we’re going to be in our ‘Green,’” Brey says. And Collins took note of those North Carolina teams, especially late in Smith’s tenure, that had a knack for overcoming large second-half deficits. This owed, in Collins’ estimation, to Smith’s clock management and strategic tweaks. “He had such a great feel for the game,” Collins says.
“His teams were always really talented,” Wojciechowski says. “But they played extremely hard, they had amazing pride in the jersey, and I always remember them being very unselfish. When you mix talent with a pride of representing the uniform they wore and a spirit of cooperation and working together -- that’s obviously an amazing winning formula.”
It was worth stealing, in some ways. Smith never coached with a marker-board and Brey appreciated the philosophy behind that. “His feeling was, if we haven’t done it in practice, damned if I’m going to draw that thing up,” the Notre Dame coach says. Though Brey occasionally moves some magnets around a board during timeout huddles, to this day, he prefers to rely on what’s been installed and worked on during practice.
Even Krzyzewski would use his nemesis -- the man he called a “magnificent teacher and tactician” in a statement released after Smith’s death -- as a corrective measure. Collins recalls the Duke coach being displeased with the team’s enthusiasm and support of one another at one juncture. When Krzyzewski cued up film to demonstrate how his team should act, it was a video of the North Carolina bench, on its feet and exuberantly cheering teammates on. It was one of the elements of the game Smith has been credited with pioneering. “That was kind of the main thing: That’s what winning teams do,” Collins says.
More broadly, all three were struck by the relationship Smith had with his former players. Returning every call, remembering every name, helping out in any way possible. “Never heard a former player ever say a bad word about him,” Wojciechowski says. It was an impregnable bond that all three attempted to emulate when they sat in the sideline chairs.
“When I was a kid, my Dad coached Michael (Jordan) with the Bulls,” Collins says. “The way that Michael would look at (Smith), looked up to him, that always struck me as an amazing thing -- the way his players loved him and the way his players would do anything for him.”
By early Sunday afternoon, just hours after the news of Smith’s death became public, Brey had recalibrated the end of his practice plan for that day. He was going to teach his Notre Dame team the Four Corners offense, in honor of the former North Carolina coach. Then Brey was going to tell his players to Google it when they returned home, to absorb just a bit of the basketball history that had lingered with their coach for decades.
For three coaches who tried to solve the man for years, from the bench or on the floor, Dean Smith gave them fits. That didn’t blind them to what else he offered.
“There are certain times when, as a player, you know you’re competing against an icon,” Wojciechowski says. “Not only were you competing against the great players they had, you’re competing against a guy who has done it as well as anybody has ever done it.”