This'll be really big news back home. Unless Dean Smith retires
tomorrow, that is.
North Carolina State basketball coach, right after his Wolfpack
won the 1983 NCAA title in Albuquerque
It took 14 more years for the day to come, and when it did, the
most vivid image wasn't that of the throng gathered in the
catacombs adjacent to the Dean E. Smith Center--hundreds of
boosters, friends and members of the press, along with current
and former players and coaching colleagues. Dean Smith's
leave-taking last Thursday afternoon, after 36 years at North
Carolina, might best have been summed up by a scene in the
parking lot behind the building in which he guided his teams to
so many of his 879 victories, the most of any college basketball
On this tract of asphalt clogged with dozens of TV trucks,
scores of rental cars, even a couple of opportunistic catering
vans, only a single space was empty: Smith's. A sign reading
RESERVED AT ALL TIMES stood sentry where fans had scrawled with
chalk their plangent sentiments. We love you, Dean. Please don't
But he had already left. At his retirement press conference
Smith's usual meet-the-press manner--a thrust at a flimsy
interrogatory premise here, a parry of an intrusive or
irritating query there--was absent. The fencer had laid down his
foil. He let the questions pierce his armor, let all who were
there see the blood, see that he bled. There had been countless
times over the years when Smith shared with the public what he
thought; here, for the first time that anyone could remember, he
was letting outsiders know how he felt.
October 19, 1997
He said he still loved teaching basketball to young men. When it
came time to acknowledge the players he would be leaving behind,
college basketball's Organization Man had to pause lest he go
all to pieces. No, what was driving him away were all the
ancillary things that tapped into his time and energy. He had
spent only one weekend with his family in the seven months after
fall practice began a year ago.
"Do you feel any guilt toward the young players on the team who
won't get to play for you?" asked a reporter with the campus
Daily Tar Heel. Perhaps it takes youth to pose so blunt a
question. But Smith didn't flinch.
"Yes, there is guilt," he replied. "I looked in their faces and
couldn't handle that yesterday [when he had told the Tar Heels
that he would be leaving]. I couldn't handle it if I turned and
looked at them right now. But I still believe it's best for them."
He had come to believe so after a former North Carolina player
and assistant under Smith, Larry Brown, brought his Philadelphia
76ers to Chapel Hill for training camp in the first week of
October. The old coach, 66 now, measured himself against this
younger one and found himself wanting. "Watching Larry out on
the court, I said to myself, I used to be like that," Smith
said. "If I can't give this team that kind of enthusiasm, I
should get out." The man who had ordered so many teams into the
four-corners to run out the clock wasn't going to do the same
Like most of the Tar Heels, senior guard Shammond Williams broke
down on Wednesday evening after Smith told the team of his
intentions and then dissolved all over again the next afternoon.
"Dean Smith not coaching at Carolina?" he said. "It sounds too
crazy to believe. I keep thinking it's a dream, and I'll wake up
and everything will be normal."
North Carolinians would have been no more shocked if Smith had
announced he was taking up the challenge of managing the Chicago
White Sox. Bob Holliday of WRAL-TV in Raleigh aired one of the
first reports that Smith would step down, and that longtime
assistant Bill Guthridge would take his place, in a live
stand-up from campus on Wednesday night. As soon as Holliday
pronounced the name Dean Smith and the word retire, he heard
shrieks from the upper floors of nearby dormitories.
The next morning Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill was a
trail of tears. DEAN, OLD FRIEND...PLEASE, SAY IT AIN'T SO!
implored a sign outside Sutton's Drug Store. Clerks at the
Shrunken Head Boutique, an emporium for Tar Heels T-shirts and
other powder-blue regalia, fielded calls from Georgia, Ohio,
even California, asking for anything pertaining to Smith, and
then shut the store for the afternoon's press conference. Even
in the java joints along the town's main drag, slackers buzzed
over the news.
Those who cared to look might have seen this coming. North
Carolina wrestling coach Bill Lam had passed Smith on campus a
couple of days earlier and said, "How ya doin', Coach?"
"I'm really tired," Smith replied.
Lam, an irrepressible man of 54, shot back, "Oh, when you hit
the floor the first day of practice, you'll get that shot of
adrenaline and be ready to go."
"I'm really tired," Smith said again.
He nonetheless said health had nothing to do with his decision.
A physical on Oct. 6 had found him fine, except for some extra
pounds he could afford to lose. Certainly his coaching skills
hadn't declined; last season's Tar Heels opened the ACC schedule
with three losses and then ripped off 16 straight wins to reach
the Final Four. "He never makes comparative statements," said
Woody Durham, the school's longtime broadcaster, "but I thought
he enjoyed the last part of last season as much as any."
No, it wasn't some big thing. "It was all the little things that
got him," said Guthridge, who assisted Smith for 30 years.
"There weren't hundreds of people who wanted his autograph,
wanted to shake his hand, wanted him to make an appearance,
there were thousands. He was playing golf in Ireland in late
August and even got hounded over there."
Those unfamiliar with Smith's utterances on the subject of
retirement over the past decade might have found the timing of
his decision bizarre, coming scarcely a week before the start of
fall practice. In fact, his exit unspooled exactly as longtime
North Carolinologists expected it would. Smith would never
announce at the beginning of a season that this would be his
last. "Could you imagine how many rocking chairs I'd get," he
said last week, "and all those people acting like they like
you?" Nor would he want to saddle his successor with a thin
team, and this year's Tar Heels, with six returning regulars
justifying a No. 1 ranking in several preseason magazines,
bristles with talent. And forget about quitting in April. He had
learned not to trust April; he always felt like quitting in April.
Until this year the pattern had been the same. "After the season
we'd get him out to play golf, get him to relax," said
Guthridge. "And I always knew that if late August rolled around
and he said, 'I'm sick of playing golf,' we had him. This time
the season rolled around, and he wasn't quite ready."
Of course, Smith's timing assured that Guthridge, 60, would be
offered the job and, because of the exigencies, would have to
take it, notwithstanding Guthridge's repeated insistence over
the years that he expected to retire when his boss did. There
would be no time to convene a search committee to interview
Carolina expatriates like Brown, Kansas coach Roy Williams and
South Carolina's Eddie Fogler, or to consider alien candidates
like Chapel Hill chancellor Michael Hooker's good buddy John
Calipari. On the sidelines Smith was always several moves ahead
of everyone else; why would he leave any differently?
From afar, the promotion of Guthridge may seem baffling--as if
NBC hadn't considered signing Jay Leno and had just given The
Tonight Show to Ed McMahon. College basketball is full of
cautionary tales about replacing a legend with a longtime
assistant, from Hank Raymonds for Al McGuire at Marquette in
1977 to Brian Mahoney for Lou Carnesecca at St. John's five
years ago. But when he took over from Frank McGuire, in '61,
Smith himself had been a Guthridge of sorts--a nondescript and
loyal aide suddenly elevated to the top job, albeit at half the
age Guthridge is now. And everyone in the Carolina family, from
Brown, Williams and Fogler down to the players Guthridge
inherits, applauded the choice. "It's like losing your father,"
said junior forward Antawn Jamison, the best of the current Tar
Heels, "and having him replaced by your uncle."
Guthridge played for and later coached under Tex Winter at
Kansas State, where he was a roommate of current Purdue coach
Gene Keady. In 1967 Smith hired him to replace Brown, who left
Chapel Hill for a chance to play in the pros. Arkansas made a
run at Guthridge seven years later before hiring Eddie Sutton as
its coach, and Penn State actually got him to say yes in '78.
But while watching Tar Heels star Phil Ford tearfully peel off
his uniform following North Carolina's NCAA tournament loss to
San Francisco in Tempe, Ariz., Guthridge began to have doubts.
The next day he was scheduled to fly to State College, Pa., for
a press conference at which he was to be introduced as the
Nittany Lions' new man, but he checked his luggage only as far
as Chicago. Then, before boarding his connecting flight at
O'Hare, he phoned Smith to tell him: His bags were bound for
Chapel Hill, and he would be with them. He vowed never to
interview for another job again. "And he didn't interview for
this one," Smith said last Thursday, with evident satisfaction.
The two first met in 1953 when Guthridge, a sophomore at Parsons
(Kans.) High, visited his sister Joan, a Kansas student who was
then dating Smith, a reserve guard for the Jayhawks. The two
owlish math majors from eastern Kansas, each with a Dust
Bowl-dry sense of humor, have been inseparable even as they've
had their differences over the years. "Dean has appreciated that
I wasn't a yes-man," Guthridge said.
"Plenty of times I wondered if they were getting along and said
to myself, Please, don't make me choose sides," added assistant
coach Dave Hanners. "But you don't get that in sports very
often--someone who stays that long with you and doesn't want
your job. And someone you can delegate that much to without him
thinking he's the boss. They had a perfect marriage."
Hanners and Ford, who has been a North Carolina assistant since
1987, normally share scouting duties. But Smith always entrusted
Guthridge with prepping the Tar Heels for Duke. Like so many
assistants, Coach Gut, as the North Carolina players call him,
had a light touch with the troops, partaking in ritual pregame
good luck handshakes and laying a little drollery on them. (A
Tar Heel approaching Guthridge with the query "Coach?" might get
"Player?" in response.) But when it came time to mete out
discipline, Guthridge was more likely to play the bad cop than
the good because, Hanners said, "Coach Smith was so
Guthridge is expected to be offered a five-year contract, an
imperative for recruiting purposes. Two blue-chip high school
seniors who had verbally committed to the Tar Heels, 6'8" Jason
Capel of St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., and 6'10"
Kris Lang of Hunter Huss High in Gastonia, N.C., last week
reaffirmed their intentions to sign with North Carolina next
month. Guthridge's next test will come in November, when the Tar
Heels still hope to land Craig Dawson, a 6'5" guard from Kinston
(N.C.) High and a nephew of former North Carolina star Jerry
Stackhouse. "This is a long-term commitment," Guthridge said.
"But you never know. I might hate it. And I might love it and go
till I'm 70. There's no planned scenario."
Smith himself has no planned scenario, and that worries his
wife, Linnea, a Chapel Hill psychiatrist who once did a study on
postretirement depression. She found that the more precipitous
the retirement, the harder the transition. But her husband at
least has a notion of what he wants to do: exercise more, catch
up on his correspondence and continue to appear at clinics. He
would also like to teach a phys-ed class on basketball. And he
and the chancellor have spoken about some sort of consulting
arrangement with the university. "He can do anything he wants to
do," said Hooker.
Guthridge hopes Smith will make himself available to the Tar
Heels. "As his assistant I could make just about every decision
I wanted to," he said. "And if I didn't want to make one, I
could say, 'Better go see Dean.' So this year, if you see me get
out my little portable phone with two minutes to go in a game,
you'll know who I'm calling."
The challenge for Guthridge and so many others in Chapel Hill
will be to no longer depend on a man whose judgment has been so
unerring for so long. North Carolina was a Jim Crow state when
Smith arrived there in 1958, but things soon began to change,
thanks in part to Smith's efforts both in integrating Chapel
Hill restaurants and recruiting such pioneering black players as
Charlie Scott. Smith's attention to the university's academic
mission, particularly its school of social work, to which he and
Linnea have donated $100,000, helped lead Hooker, with no great
hyperbole, to declare last Thursday, "I don't think any person
has done as much for his university in the history of American
higher education as Dean Smith has done for Carolina." Smith has
ensured that millions of dollars in shoe-company money that
might have gone exclusively to the basketball program are
lavished on the entire athletic department. Part of that sum
even went to a former player who couldn't afford the cost of his
father's funeral. To an associate who described to him the mob
awaiting his announcement last week, Smith said, "Something is
wrong with that. Society is completely out of whack."
Last Thursday morning Smith had secreted his BMW in the service
tunnel of the building that bears his name. Late that afternoon
he gave one of the well-wishers on campus for the day,
Georgetown coach John Thompson, a lift to the airport. It was
quintessential Smith: Just when the basketball world was
celebrating him, all he wanted was to play chauffeur.
TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
Former Tar Heels, true blue to Smith, share their favorite
GEORGE LYNCH, Class of '93
Vancouver Grizzlies forward
One day in practice during my senior year we were going through
end-of-the-game situations. Donald Williams got trapped and
called timeout so he wouldn't turn the ball over. Coach Smith
stopped practice and said, "No one uses a timeout unless I tell
them to." In the NCAA final the same situation came up for
Michigan, and they wasted a timeout. That was big later, when
they didn't have a timeout at the end of the game [and Chris
Webber called an illegal timeout]. After it was over, I
remembered what Coach Smith had said.
RICHARD VINROOT, Class of '63
Former mayor of Charlotte
I served in Vietnam in 1968. The most frequent correspondent I
had was my mom. The second most was Coach Smith. He wrote to me
weekly--I hope you're doing well, keep your head down, here's
how the team is doing. A lot of guys like me weren't very good
players, but he's just as loyal to them. He just cares deeply
about his boys.
I have three children who went to North Carolina. Each one of
them got a call from the basketball office during their first
week at school, making sure they had tickets to the games. They
said, "Your dad played for Coach Smith, we want to make sure
you're taken care of." I don't know how he found out they were
in school there, because I never told him.
KING RICE, Class of '91
Assistant coach at Illinois State
I had an altercation with my girlfriend once, and a bunch of
things were being said about me in the papers. He called me, but
I was embarrassed and avoided his messages and didn't want to
see him. Finally, I went to his office. He said, "King, don't
you understand, I'm here for you in the good times and the bad?
If anything, I'm here for you more in the bad times." He tells
you from the start, when you join, you join for life.
MITCH KUPCHAK, Class of '76
General manager, Los Angeles Lakers
In my junior year I had a back problem. We played at Clemson on
a Saturday night, and I had a procedure scheduled the next
morning on my back. They were going to inject my spine with an
epidural block. I'm in the operating room, and Coach walks in
wearing a gown and a mask. I think he's pretty squeamish, but he
was there, first thing on a Sunday morning. Suffice it to say,
with my parents back in New York, it was comforting having him
there with me.
JEFF LEBO, Class of '89
Assistant coach at South Carolina
I'll never forget, we played Georgia Tech and we were up two
points, they had the ball with timeout and about five seconds
left. We came over to the side, and Coach diagrammed the play
they were going to run. He said, "Jeff, when they come off this
screen, you switch out and stop it." They tried to run that
exact play and couldn't. We stole the ball to win the game.
CHARLIE SCOTT, Class of '70
Marketing director, Champion Products
As one of the first black college athletes in the ACC, I
experienced many difficult moments during my time at North
Carolina, but Coach Smith was always there for me. On one
occasion, as we walked off the court following a game at South
Carolina, one of their fans called me a "big, black baboon." Two
assistants had to hold Coach Smith back from going after the
guy. It was the first time I had ever seen Coach Smith visibly
upset, and I was shocked. But more than anything else, I was
proud of him.
PAT SULLIVAN, Class of '95
Assistant coach at North Carolina
In 1993 we were playing Cincinnati in the East Regional final at
the Meadowlands for a chance to go to the Final Four. The score
was tied and there were eight tenths of a second left. He got in
the huddle, calm as can be, and drew up this play. He said to
Derrick [Phelps], "Brian [Reese] is going to run to the corner,
then come back off a screen from Eric [Montross]." He told
Donald Williams to stay out behind the three-point line. He
said, "Derrick, Brian's going to be wide open in the lane, just
throw it up to him." Then he said, "Now, Brian, you won't have
time to dunk the ball, just drop it in the basket and we'll
win." Sure enough, it was as if the Red Sea had parted. Brian
was open. But he tried to dunk the ball, and it clanked off the
back of the rim. We were like, Brian, Coach did everything else
for you. Why didn't you just drop it in? [Those Tar Heels won
the game in overtime and later won Smith's second national title.]
Smith could never announce his retirement in advance. "Can you
imagine how many rocking chairs I'd get?" he said.