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SI Remembers: Writers and editors share their memories of Dean Smith

Past and present SI college basketball writers and editors like S.L. Price, Frank Deford, Gary Smith, Alexander Wolff and Larry Keith share their memories of late North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.

Legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died on Saturday night at 83 after a long battle with dementia. Smith's outstanding record over his 36 seasons in Chapel Hill included 879 wins -- the Division I men's record when he retired in 1997 -- as well as two national championships, 11 Final Fours, 13 ACC tournament titles and the 1976 Olympic gold medal. Among the future NBA stars who played for Smith were Billy Cunningham, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and, of course, Michael Jordan, who did in fact average 20 points per game under Smith as a sophomore. Smith was an innovator who changed the game: thanking the passer, huddling at the foul line to set defenses, the run-and-jump defense, the 1-3-1 zone and, most notably, the Four Corners offense, which helped hasten the addition of the shot clock to college basketball.

His greatest legacy, though, came off the court. As a Tar Heels assistant he helped integrate the town of Chapel Hill, and as head coach he recruited the first African-American athlete in UNC history, Charlie Scott. Smith later campaigned against the death penalty and spoke out in favor of a nuclear freeze. He also graduated over 95 percent of his lettermen and never had any NCAA violations.

All of that has been well documented, however, so asked a variety of past and present Sports Illustrated staffers, many of whom are UNC alums, to share their private memories of Smith.

S.L. Price
SI senior writer, UNC  Class of 1983

I try not to be a fool. So I’ll begin this by saying that I don’t presume to have known Dean Smith, because in general reporters can rarely “know” their subjects well, and student reporters, if swept by chance and timing into the orbit of greatness, are about as clueless as they come. At least, this one was.

I covered North Carolina basketball for The Daily Tar Heel during the 1982-83 season, the first after Smith won his first national title. Sam Perkins at his peak, Michael Jordan ascending, freshman Brad Daugherty coming into his own: The team won plenty. Smith’s graduation rate was 95 percent. The tone of coverage was, to say the least, complimentary.

Afterward, a scrum of writers would meet with Smith outside the locker room and he’d stand in the bowels of Carmichael Auditorium, cigarette cupped in one palm, the other sometimes holding a glass of something. Scotch was supposedly his drink, but no one ever asked. “We’d like to congratulate Whoever State,” he would invariably begin, no matter if UNC had won by four or 40, and then Smith would go on about how tough the opponent was and said nothing quotable, and after a few minutes he left and everyone hurried off imitating that famously nasal squawk. It sounded like penguins in retreat.

Dean Smith, legendary North Carolina basketball coach, dies at 83

By then, Smith had a reputation that became entwined with the university’s, and so he worked vigilantly to keep both unsullied. If there’s a photograph of him with cigarette or drink in hand I’ve never seen it. “We don’t do that here,” he’d say to abusive fans, or students trying to distract a free throw shooter. Opponents found that maddening. At the time Virginia was UNC’s biggest rival, and then-Cavaliers coach Terry Holland was infamous in Chapel Hill both for having said – after Smith allegedly shoved Virginia center Marc Iavaroni during a halftime set-to in a tunnel in 1977 – that there was a gap between Smith and “the image he tries to project”. He also named his dog “Dean", allegedly because of the whining.

What did I know? Nobody’s more alive to the idea of middle-aged hypocrisy than a 20-year old with a notepad, and it was easy then to wonder whether Smith’s morally upright persona jibed with the cutthroat competitor, the man in thrall to minor vices. Sure, he had helped integrate the state, and campaigned against the death penalty. But he had none of the qualities – glibness, bombast, self-promotion – that TV rewards; compared to flamboyants like Maryland’s Lefty Driesell and Jim Valvano of N.C. State, Smith seemed smaller than life. He liked it that way.

My two times alone with him bookended the season. Smith met with me for a pre-season piece at his locker before practice one afternoon, undressed, took questions while standing in his underwear. Surreal, yes, but I liked that a man supposedly so buttoned-up didn’t care that some student saw his knobby knees, his softening gut. The second came after the season ended; I had written a piece questioning the coming of the Dean Dome and the way UNC practiced athletics, and Smith called me in. Of all the school officials who did, he was the only one who didn’t say, ‘How dare you’ and instead asked real questions. He wanted to make sure, I think, that he hadn’t missed something.

Still, those were just glimpses. With time, though, I began to notice something else. With alums of other “legendary” coaches, I’d seen enough cocked eyebrows to understand that opinions often become shaded the farther one gets from the old school. Smith’s players and managers and coaches were different. I’d bump into Larry Brown, George Karl, Doug Moe, Kenny Smith, Matt Doherty five, 10, 20 years later, and their reverence for Smith hadn’t wavered a whit. On the contrary. Grown, rich, maybe legends themselves: They all still called him “Coach Smith” – and meant it.

Not long ago, I caught up with Daugherty, whom I saw regularly in psychology class when we were undergrads, and who left UNC to go onto a superb career with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We talked about Smith’s declining health, and soon Daugherty was speaking of the way Coach tailored his coaching to the player, not vice-versa. Jordan? “He would always challenge a guy like Michael,” said Daugherty, now an ESPN analyst. “We played Maryland one year, and Coach Smith calls timeout and he’s saying he’s going to take Michael off this one player and put him on another because it’d be ‘an easier defensive assignment’. That made Michael really angry, and we go back out and Michael dominates and wins the game.

“But then Coach Smith would get to me and break it down and explain. We’re playing Wake Forest, in a timeout, and he’s drawing a play and he wants me to run this play and he’s showing me exactly how he wants to run it -- three, four times in a row, front and back -- and he says, ‘You do this, over and over, we’re going to win this game.’ And we did. I talked to him later and that’s what he said: ‘The real Type-A guys, you could challenge.’ Guys like myself? He said, ‘If I told you to run through a wall, you’d probably laugh at me.’”

But it wasn’t Smith’s coaching during their college days that inspired such player loyalty. It was his own unending loyalty to them – and his coaching forever after. When I asked Daugherty to explain, he spoke for a long time.

“The funny thing is, he would call you,” Daugherty said. “He would call all of us -- me, Michael, if you were a manager on his team. He remembered weird stuff: My grandmother’s birthday, my mom’s, my daughter’s. And he’d write everyone handwritten notes or he’d call and say, ‘How you doing?’ and when I was in the NBA he’d say, ‘How many cars have you bought? What kind of watch are you wearing? Still wearing a Timex? You don’t need a Rolex.’

“He was just always really working hard to make sure you understood the humble side of life, working toward your goals, always being mindful of others, trying to give back to your community. And he’d always say, ‘Your community is where you’re at right now. You don’t always have to give back just to your hometown.’ Just stuff like that, man: Almost too-good-to-be-true type stuff.”

Daugherty knows how this sounds. These are scandal days in Chapel Hill, and skepticism fills the air. But if there was a gap between man and image, he never saw it. His coach was great and good to the end, he’ll tell you, and every fine word was true.

Frank Deford
Former Sports Illustrated senior writer

He was a very, very decent man. That was apparent from the very beginning. The first time I covered him was when he was finally coming into his own in the 1960s with Bobby Lewis and Larry Miller. That was only slightly removed from him being hung in effigy a couple years before. 

He was always so forthright from the very beginning. On the one hand he was an extraordinary human being, even fragile to some degree, because he held himself to such a high standard. On the other hand he was extraordinarily confident in what he believed in. For example the Four Corners. A lot of people thought was sitting on a lead was a dumb thing to do, but that strategy changed the sport, even if it did cost him a championship in 1977 against Marquette.

More than any coach I know Smith developed this fellowship whereby his players always remained so very close to him. That’s true with a lot of coaches but in my experience there was never a coach who retained such affection from his players in the years that followed. It was extraordinary. They saw something in him, and yet those of us on the outside looking in couldn’t understand what it was that made all these guys retain this amazing connection with Dean all his life.

In 1982 I called him and said the magazine wanted me to do a profile on him. He said, “Frank, I won’t talk to you.” I was stunned. He said, “I don’t like some of the things you wrote about Coach [Bear] Bryant. So I’m sorry, I won’t talk to you.”

I was speechless. First of all I hadn’t expected it, and second, I thought, what a weird thing. He never told me what set him off, but a lot of people in Alabama didn’t like that story either. But Dean always stood up for coaches.

So I got my back up and I said, “Well, Dean, I’m going to do it anyway.” He said, “That’s fine Frank.”

SI Vault: Long Ago He Won The Big One: Dean Smith's best victory

What was so weird is that I went down to North Carolina and talked to his top assistant, Bill Guthridge, and with his good friend, Chancellor Chris Fordham, and I would see him every day because I would be there at the facility. And we always had the most cordial relationship. He never tried to get anybody else not to talk to me. Normally in those circumstances someone would tell people, “Don’t you dare talk to that guy who is doing a story on me,” There was none of that. He was not going to talk to me but that would not influence the way that he expected anybody else to deal with me. I always found that very, very intriguing and it was certainly the only experience I’ve ever had with anything like that. In the years that I saw him after that we were back to being cordial again as if it never happened. But that’s Dean. He was going to take it out on me professionally but in no other way.

I’ve never heard any other writer tell a comparable story. I’ve heard writers say he wouldn’t talk to them and that’s because they didn’t want to get involved in the story. He wouldn’t get involved because he was mad at me but he wouldn’t let that anger carry over to anyone else.

Dean Smith SI remembers

Sandy Treadwell
Former SI reporter, UNC Class of 1968

One afternoon Jeff MacNelly, who became a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist, and I were asked to meet with Coach Smith. He told us that a guy named Charlie Scott was coming to visit UNC that weekend. He asked us if we'd invite Charlie to a party at our fraternity, St. Anthony Hall, on Saturday night. We did and Scott had a nice time and felt welcome and accepted. The next fall, he became a pledge, though he ultimately decided not to join.

Integrating sports and basketball took great courage and was, I believe, Coach Smith's most notable achievement. Jeff and I were always proud that he asked us to help in a very small, but meaningful way.

Larry Keith
Former SI writer and editor, UNC Class of 1969

Ivory Latta’s tweet nailed it. The former Carolina women’s basketball heroine attributed a quote to Dean Smith that summed up his approach to others: “Treat people as if they are special.”

Although we didn’t always agree on editorial matters, he certainly gave me the respect that let me feel that way. It began with our very first meeting in the fall of 1967, when I interviewed him for The Daily Tar Heel, and later that Final Four season when he invited me into his Carmichael Auditorium film room (closet, actually) as he broke down a game tape.

Our relationship matured over the years, first the following season, when I was his pre and post-game host for Chapel Hill’s radio station, WCHL, and, then, as an SI college basketball writer and editor. He sent me a novelty basketball after the birth of my first son. He sent a tin of “Carolina pop corn” when I was laid up with a bad back and for years after always asked about my condition. And after his father, Alfred, died in 1993, he sent me an old DTH Carolina story he had recovered “From my Dad’s collection” and highlighted the picture of the “young guy!!” that accompanied my byline.

A much later story, a Sports Illustrated cover, in fact, became a one-sided running gag. When, as college basketball editor, I picked Carolina to be the country’s No. 1 team for the 1981-82 season, he refused to let freshman Michael Jordan appear on the cover with the four returning starters. Many years after that same freshman, who did indeed become a starter, had made the basket that won the 1982 national championship, he salted the wound in a letter acknowledging my 30th anniversary at SI: “You now have my permission to place Michael Jordan on the Sports Illustrated cover.” A few years after that, for my retirement, he graciously sought absolution: “Forgive me for not allowing MJ on the S.I. cover in the fall of 1981.” He added, “You have been a great friend for many years.”

The only Tar Heels starter missing from this cover is the man who went on to appear on more SI covers than anyone else: Michael Jordan.

The only Tar Heels starter missing from this cover is the man who went on to appear on more SI covers than anyone else: Michael Jordan.

Our friendship was renewed twice after he retired, when we had a convivial lunch with mutual friends in Chapel Hill and in a 2009 telephone interview for immediately after Carolina’s championship victory over Michigan State. By then, the downward spiral of his mental health was painfully underway.

But our most memorable and meaningful encounter may have been this one: Twenty years ago, during a New York City alumni reception, he interrupted his remarks to single me out in the crowd. I don’t think he was trying to treat me special as much as he was seeking to make me look special to the young person standing beside me, my teenage son. Damn, I wish I had gotten around to thanking him for that.

Gary Smith
Former SI senior writer who wrote a longform piece about Smith for Inside Sports magazine before coming to SI

One thing that immediately pops to mind is what a wreck his car was. It was trashed. And having seen how disciplined he was with his team, how meticulously he ran practice and how everything was perfect it was surprising to get in his car and see trash everywhere. It was a total mess.

The other thing that comes back is just what a very fair person he was. You could sense what a good person he was underneath. He really cared about people and had a good sense of right and wrong. Even outside of his circle of Midwestern, Caucasian, religious upbringing he really had a sense of other people’s worlds.

He had no interest in fame. He was kind and cooperative with me to the degree that he could be he just didn’t find importance in all that stuff. And yet the guys he played golf with said he was not above jingling the car keys when they were putting. That’s how competitive he was.

Alexander Wolff
SI senior writer

One day in the early 1990s I walked into Dean Smith’s office for a word with him. It turned out that he wanted a word with me — over a word.

The word was “quaff.” In a biographical sketch of the North Carolina coach, included in a book about basketball’s first 100 years, I’d mentioned how, despite being raised by Baptist schoolteachers and remaining devout through his adult life, he wasn’t above “quaffing” a Scotch. To which he objected. Not primarily because the description didn’t flatter him, but because it wasn’t constructive.

Here he was, trying to rid college sports of alcohol sponsorship and expose the hypocrisy of letting the lubricant of date rape and vandalism underwrite the games colleges played, and he was being described as “Scotch-quaffing.”

I protested that I didn’t mean to imply that he was a lush, or suggest that he was a hypocrite — and didn’t he in fact enjoy the occasional drink? Which were all true as far as they went. But he had already been to the dictionary. “Quaff” has a connotation, and it wasn’t the one I believed it to be. Words were supposed to be my business, and I here I was, called on the carpet of the Dean's office for using the wrong one. After leaving, I looked it up: To quaff is “to drink deeply” or “heartily.”