DEAN OF COACHES AN APPRECIATION

March 24, 1997

Several years ago I found myself called on the pile of Dean
Smith's office carpet. In a biographical sketch of the North
Carolina basketball coach, I had referred to him as someone who
"quaffed" an occasional whiskey. I had intended the reference
only to humanize this intensely private son of strict Baptist
schoolteachers. But it had upset him, and I asked him why, since
from time to time he does take a drink, and that is just what
quaff means. Or so I believed. In fact, Smith insisted, the word
means "to drink deeply."

The dictionary proved him correct, of course. Dean Smith is
always correct, and that is at once the most maddening and most
impressive thing about the man who became the college game's
winningest coach last Saturday with victory number 877, a 73-56
defeat of Colorado in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
But there was more at stake to him than mere semantics. "After
all Linnea and I have done to try to ban alcohol advertising at
collegiate sports events," he said, referring to one of the
causes he and his wife fervently espouse. He seemed to be
saying, Can't you see what I'm trying to do?

It has been said that a liberal is someone who believes in the
perfectibility of society. Smith may be sport's last pure
example of the species, and not just because he subscribes
publicly to the usual articles of faith, from abolition of the
death penalty to nuclear disarmament to opposing discrimination
in all forms. He is a proud collectivist as he goes about
business in the building that bears his name. It's with his full
support that the millions in revenue his team generates is
shared with sports like women's soccer. He wants no one's
sympathy whenever one of his stars leaves early to go pro, for
he doesn't believe players should come to school to gratify
coaches. Yet at the Hotel Carolina, even as players check out
any time they want, they never leave, for Smith keeps up with
virtually every one of them. "We're his flock," says Bobby
Jones, one of a fresco of former Tar Heels players who lined the
wall outside the North Carolina locker room following Saturday's
game. "He takes great pains to shepherd us."

There's something Nietzschean about most coaches, with their
invocations to individual strength and dig-down-deep
self-reliance. The humbler, more pious musings of Kierkegaard
grace Smith's nightstand. In 1965 the Tar Heels returned to
Woollen Gym after a loss at Wake Forest to find their
34-year-old coach, then struggling with a 15-9 record in his
fourth season, hung in effigy. The episode left Smith shaken,
and in the aftermath of that night his sister Joan gave him a
book called Beyond Our Selves, by Catherine Marshall. In a
chapter entitled "The Power of Helplessness," Smith found a
lesson: Individuals can find strength within only after they
acknowledge the limits to what they can accomplish alone.

"Beyond our selves" isn't merely a credo for a coach who sees
his likeness dangling from a tree, or for a team, like this
season's Tar Heels, that opens its league season 0-3. It gets
right to Smith's vision for college athletics and explains why
he was so uncomfortable in the spotlight last week.

That discomfort is nothing new. At a banquet tipping off the
1989 Maui Invitational, the participating coaches were invited
to say a few words and introduce their teams, and James Madison
coach Lefty Driesell launched into a monologue so windy and
vaudevillian that by its end he had forgotten to acknowledge his
Dukes. Smith followed Driesell at the rostrum. "O.K., Lefty,
I'll take care of it," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like
you to meet the James Madison University basketball team. And
the University of North Carolina basketball team." And he sat
down.

Over the years Driesell, the longtime coach at ACC rival
Maryland before going to James Madison, was Smith's reliable
foil. But there's a more meaningful contrast between Smith and
Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, whose alltime victory record Smith
broke. In 1964, at a time when Smith was joining a pastor and a
black theology student to integrate The Pines, a Chapel Hill
restaurant, Rupp was asking a sports editors to affix an
asterisk to the names of black players in high school box scores
so he might know where not to bother to send his recruiters. Two
years later North Carolina enrolled its first black player,
Charlie Scott, and that spring, in the NCAA title game,
all-white Kentucky's loss to Texas Western, with an all-black
starting five, began Rupp's twilight slide. "I wasn't trying to
leave a legacy," Smith says. "I was trying to do what I thought
was right."

He isn't politically fashionable. He isn't politically
expedient. What he is--in the best sense of the phrase--is
politically correct. After tracking him through 36 years and 877
victories, we know exactly what Dean Smith is trying to do. He's
trying to make the imperfect less so.

Whether drinking to that mission or quaffing to it, let's raise
a glass.

--A.W.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO At the center of Smith's success is the all-for-one, one-for-all attitude he unfailingly preaches. [Dean Smith surrounded by University of North Carolina basketball players and coaches]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
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