, shortly after North Carolina reached its first NCAA
basketball final under Dean Smith, grateful boosters presented
the Tar Heels' coach with a Carolina-blue Cadillac convertible.
"I'm not the Cadillac type," he said. "I accept the gift because
I'm certain you're really expressing appreciation for the fine
play of our team."
That comment reeked of platitude, and it would never pass the
cynic's smell test today. Yet in 1983, when fund-raisers wanted
to name a new 21,000-seat arena after him, Smith protested
again, agreeing to lend his name only when he was persuaded that
nothing else would allow people to fully express appreciation
for the fine play of his many teams.
So it was that several years ago, as Smith pushed closer to both
retirement and the alltime record of 876 wins held by Kentucky's
Adolph Rupp, those who had played for and coached under him knew
just how to get him to stay on: Break the mark for us, they
pleaded. He protested--he said he just might quit one game short
of the record, to flout what he regards as society's unhealthy
obsession with who is No. 1--but ultimately he agreed. By then
we had long since stopped doubting the sincerity of his
December 22, 1997
The passage of time is the greatest of tests, and time has
flattered Dean Smith. It has lent gravitas to the nasal voice
and provided a grandfatherly setting for that jewel of a nose.
It has also authenticated all those utterances over four decades
that seemed hopelessly homiletic or falsely modest.
Time, too, has drawn for us a portrait of someone far more
complex than the usual sideline screamer. Smith is a privacy
freak who thrived gracefully in an intensely public line of
work. He's a traditionalist who will rejigger anything if reason
warrants. We marvel at how a man so stern summons such
compassion, and a man so competitive summons such perspective;
how he simultaneously tends to niggling detail and sees the big
picture; and how he makes his wondrously jesuitical
distinctions. (For the college hoops promotional ad currently
airing on ESPN, he pulled a half-basketball over his head, but
that's a stand-in waving the foam finger that says we're no. 1.
Smith refused to shoot that scene.) Loyalty versus Integrity is
the trade-off that college coaches have never gotten quite right
(take Loyalty, give the points), but he has proved it's possible
to abide by both.
Dean Smith is the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year
because his teams won, his players graduated, the rules went
unbroken. But we honor him as much as anything for his
conscientiousness in pulling off that trifecta. He never forgot
that the arena is but an outbuilding of the academy.
This may seem at first blush to be a sort of lifetime
achievement award. But the year just past makes a case all on
its own. It was during 1997 that Smith caught and passed Rupp.
After January, which the Tar Heels began with three straight
defeats, they didn't lose again until the Final Four, and their
coach had much to do with that, abandoning a pressure defense
when he realized its unsuitability to his players' talents.
Then, after all the hoopla subsided, he took soundings of
himself. What do I owe my players? Can I still give them their
due? Above all, the sportsman is honest, especially with those
who share a locker room with him. Dean Smith gave the signal
that he was tired.
He would protest, again, that his story isn't worth telling. But
if it is going to be told, he would surely prefer that it be
told in the same spirit that he accepted that Cadillac, lent his
name to that gym and broke Rupp's record--as a way of
highlighting the many people who have transited his life. Here
then is that story, with the coach in his rightful place, on the
GROWING UP, 1931-49
"Mother called him Christopher Columbus"
Dean Edwards Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in the east Kansas
railroad town of Emporia, the only son of devout Baptist
schoolteachers. His mother, Vesta, was an organized woman who
would lay out the breakfast place settings the night before. His
father, Alfred, was a forward-thinking coach at Emporia High
whose Spartans won the 1934 state title with the first black
basketball player in Kansas tournament history.
Over the summer of 1947, in time for Dean's junior year in high
school, the Smiths moved to Topeka. In high school Dean always
held down the coachly positions--quarterback, catcher, point
guard. But he was also a spirited boy and seemed unlikely to
become a man who would stay on one campus for nearly 40 years.
JOAN SMITH EWING, his older sister:
Dean wasn't mischievous so much as curious. When he was very
small, he and the little girl next door took off and walked to
the florist around the block. They were pretending they were
Bill and Betty--Bill was a player on Dad's team, and Betty was
his girlfriend. My parents were scared to death when they
discovered them missing. When he was 10 or so, Dean and a
neighbor friend went down a manhole at the end of our street and
explored the sewers. Another time he climbed the tower at the
teachers' college. Mother used to call him Christopher Columbus
because he always wanted to explore.
BUD ROBERTS, high school classmate:
We'd play one-on-one in the alley, games to 20 by twos. He was
very competitive, yet neither of us had any money, so he'd say,
"Whoever loses has to tell the winner, 'You're a much better
basketball player than I am.'" I was the one who always had to
JOAN SMITH EWING:
The summer before ninth grade he lost his best friend, Shad
Woodruff, to polio. He and Shad had played baseball on the
Fourth of July, and the next day Shad was dead of lumbar polio.
All of us were devastated. But Dean's reaction was very
positive. He made a scrapbook of Shad's accomplishments, awards
and activities at school and gave it to Shad's mother and
father. It was his way of working out his grief. He's never been
one to linger over disappointments. He values what comes from
the past but has always been ready to move forward, to do more
COLLEGE YEARS, 1949-53
"Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach"
Though he played basketball there, Smith went to Kansas on an
academic scholarship. He joined a fraternity and majored in
math. Smith played little as the Jayhawks won the 1952 NCAA
title and were runners-up the following season. But during his
time in Lawrence, the guard at the end of the bench established
his place in basketball's genealogical line: The game's
inventor, James Naismith, taught legendary Jayhawks coach Phog
Allen, who taught Smith, who would in turn teach Michael Jordan.
Smith never met Naismith, who died in 1939, but one Memorial Day
he was among a group of Jayhawks who decorated Naismith's grave.
Good things always seemed to happen to Dean. The summer before
we left for college, about five of us worked at a cement plant,
lifting and opening 100-pound sacks of cement. The owner of the
company came over one day and said, "You're Dean Smith. I
understand you pledged Phi Gam at Kansas. Well, I'm a Phi Gam."
From then on Dean got to sit and read coaching manuals on top of
a gravel pile, while we ripped open 100-pound sacks.
MARILYN TOWLER ROBERTS, a former girlfriend, now Bud Roberts's
There was someone else who wanted to date Dean, and he decided
that he couldn't handle two girls at one time, so he and Bud
flipped a coin to see what he was going to do. So I started
dating Bud, and Dean started dating this other girl.
RICH CLARKSON, sportswriter and photographer, The Lawrence Daily
The Jayhawks bench had a strict pecking order. The trainer sat
at the head of it, then Phog Allen, then Dr. Allen's assistant
Dick Harp with the first substitute, the sixth man, sitting next
to him, and so on down the line. Dean would start at the far end
of the bench, but after a few substitutions, a few timeouts,
things would start sorting themselves out, and eventually you'd
see Dean sitting next to Coach Harp and Doc Allen. It was just
understood that Dean was seeing things that he would want to
mention. Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach.
STARTING OUT, 1953-65
"You could see his genius even then"
After graduation Smith served his alma mater briefly as an
assistant coach, then his country with the Air Force in Germany.
Lieutenant Smith coached his base team to an 11-0 record and
hoped to find a high school job Stateside when his hitch was up.
But in 1955, at a service tournament in France, Smith met Bob
Spear, who had just been named coach at the Air Force Academy.
Spear later offered him a job as an assistant, and Smith
accepted. Three years later North Carolina coach Frank McGuire
hired him in the same role.
McGuire was an extravagant New Yorker whose so-called
Underground Railroad had delivered to Chapel Hill a stream of
big-city talent. But his lavish recruiting style also put the
Tar Heels in contravention of NCAA rules. In 1961 the
administration let McGuire go and named his 30-year-old
assistant to replace him.
Smith's influence in Chapel Hill extended beyond the basketball
arena. With his pastor and a visiting black theology student, he
helped integrate a local restaurant. In his second season as
head coach, North Carolina scored an astonishing victory at
Kentucky, and his players began to believe in him. As his
innovations started to take hold--including the delay game he
and Spear had developed at Air Force, which would evolve into
the Four Corners offense--belief morphed into a kind of faith.
But that faith didn't yet extend beyond the team. In January
1965, during Smith's fourth season, the Tar Heels returned to
campus after a thumping at Wake Forest to find that students had
hung their coach in effigy. Center Billy Cunningham bounded off
the bus and angrily tore the likeness of Smith from the tree.
If, as scuttlebutt had it, the university elders had hired a
greenhorn because they wanted to scale back a basketball program
run amok, they seemed to have gotten their wish.
WILLIAM AYCOCK, university chancellor, 1958-64:
The idea that I wanted to de-emphasize basketball is ridiculous.
When Frank McGuire got in trouble with the NCAA, he sent Dean to
me to deal with the charges. Over a period of several months he
and I worked on preparing a response, and I got to know him
well. Frank wouldn't have hired him if Dean didn't know a lot
about basketball. But I also discovered he was a person of great
character. It took me about 15 minutes to decide to appoint him.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR, pastor, Binkley Baptist Church, 1959-88:
The Pines was a restaurant where the basketball team ate its
meals. The management liked Dean and benefited financially from
his bringing the team by. Dean had a vested interest in getting
The Pines to open its doors, because he was recruiting a black
player. Going there wasn't headline news, just responsible
citizens making sure their community was complying with the law.
CHARLIE SHAFFER, guard, 1962-64:
When we won in Kentucky, it was the first time he ever coached
against Adolph Rupp. We got there for the freshman game, and the
place was already packed with 16,000 people. In the dressing
room he said, "There are going to be a lot of people cheering
for Kentucky. But when you look at that jersey, imagine it says
Tennessee, not Kentucky. There's nothing special about that
We played a box-and-one, with Yogi Poteet, who was 6'1",
guarding their best player, Cotton Nash, who was 6'5". Cotton
literally couldn't get the ball. Afterward I told Coach Smith it
was the best-coached game I'd ever seen. You could see his
genius even then.
He had put in a play two or three days before the game. We
called it the Kentucky play. Larry [Brown, Carolina's point
guard] would bring the ball down the floor and take it into the
middle, and the other four players would back out to the
corners. Once, Larry drove to the foul line, and I slid in from
the corner, and he dished it to me for a basket. That may have
been the first Four Corners layup, though it didn't have that
name at the time.
JOAN SMITH EWING:
After the Wake Forest game he called me with the score. Reverend
Seymour called me, too--he had gone over and sat with Dean most
of the night. I remember him searching, asking himself if he was
doing the right thing with his life.
INSTALLING THE SYSTEM, 1965-82
"It was as if he said, 'Just do as I say, and we'll win'"
After seeing their coach dangling from a tree, the 1964-65 Tar
Heels went on to win nine of their remaining 11 games. The
following season they added Smith's breakthrough recruit, a
swaggering forward from Pennsylvania named Larry Miller. Freed
at last from NCAA purgatory, finally with a team of his own
choosing, the coach began to put together something that, if it
wasn't a system--he bristles at the word, for to him it connotes
rigidity--did have a kind of daunting industrial strength.
Smith started to make a family of the players passing through
his program, from which none would be entirely weaned. (His
feistiness in showing his loyalty once caused Terry Holland,
then Virginia's coach, to remark, "There's such a gap between
the man and the image the man tries to project.") In keeping
with the spirit of a time of social turbulence, Smith did his
own groping and struggling, both personally and professionally.
During the 1970s he divorced and remarried, and he was widely
second-guessed for losses in which he ordered his team into the
Four Corners too early. Given his nature, he did plenty of
second-guessing himself. Rules remained at the foundation of his
philosophy. But no rule was exempt from the test of reason,
which would sometimes introduce a rule to its exception.
LARRY MILLER, forward, 1965-68:
One of his rules was that we had to go to church on Sunday and
bring back a brochure to prove we'd gone. After I didn't go a
couple of weeks Coach Smith called me into his office. At the
time I had objections to what I thought was hypocrisy in the
church. So I told him that if I were at home, my parents
wouldn't make me go--that I could have had someone grab a
brochure for me, but that wouldn't have been right. I asked him
to respect my beliefs. And he did.
CHARLIE HOAG, college teammate and fraternity brother:
I remember him telling me once that he recruits the parents
harder than the kids. "Parents help me sell the kid," he told
me. "And if the kids don't respect their parents, they sure
won't respect me."
GEORGE KARL, guard, 1969-73:
Before we lost in the 1972 Final Four, he said Florida State was
a team we probably shouldn't press. But we'd pressed all year,
so we weren't going to change. He was right; we shouldn't have
pressed. But it showed that he wasn't going to back off his
belief in us. We returned that belief with our belief in him.
Coach Smith kept us believing, even when we probably shouldn't
have. Sometimes just believing resulted in miracles.
MITCH KUPCHAK, center, 1972-76:
At home against Duke in 1974, we were down eight points with 17
seconds left. There was no three-point shot, so we had to score
four times to tie it. The final shot in regulation was a
35-footer by Walter Davis, and we won in overtime.
His calm throughout was amazing. The way he walked us through
those 17 seconds, it was as if he said, "Don't think about this.
Just do as I say and we'll win." There he was in the huddle,
looking up at us with a kind of smile, saying, "Bobby [Jones],
make these two free throws, then we'll go into this defense,
steal the inbounds pass, score and call timeout." He didn't let
us think about being down eight. He gave us step one--just do
that. So Bobby made both free throws. We stole the pass. We
scored. We called timeout. It all happened so fast.
I remember the last play in particular. Their best free throw
shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one. We grabbed the
rebound and called our last timeout. We had the ball under their
basket and had to go the length of the floor. Coach calmly told
us to run the 5-3-5. The five man, me, took the ball out and
threw it to the three man on a five pattern, which is a
square-out at midcourt. We'd run the play in practice so often
that we wondered when we'd really need it. Normally we'd try to
get the ball to half-court and call timeout. But we had none
left, so the plan was to get Walter the ball, have him take one
dribble and shoot. He did, and banked it in.
The key to it all was that we were prepared--and that we
believed. I'll tell you, we believed a lot more afterward, too.
BOBBY JONES, forward, 1970-74:
One thing I'll always remember is his honesty. He'd tell you he
was struggling with smoking. We all knew he had problems, just
like everyone else, but most coaches would never admit to them.
He also admitted he didn't have all the answers.
TOM LAGARDE, center, 1973-77:
If one of us got a technical, we all had to run suicides the
next day in practice. Now, Dean would get technicals too, but
his were usually calculated. But once or twice a year he'd get
one he didn't intend to get, and he and the coaches would run
suicides for the unintentional technicals. [Assistant] coach
[Bill] Guthridge ran five to 10 miles a day, but Dean didn't run
much. So he would get pretty winded.
TERRY HOLLAND, Virginia coach, 1974-90:
He thought one of my players, Marc Iavaroni, was roughing up
Phil Ford, and at halftime when the teams came off the court at
the ACC tournament in 1977, he confronted Marc--physically
touched him and said things. That's one area where I think Dean
always had a problem. He felt he had a right, in order to
protect his players in his own mind, to confront other people's
players. That's extremely dangerous and way over the line. I'm
sure Dean would say that Marc was a dirty player. But that's
what the officials were out there for. You can't be objective in
MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, Duke coach, 1980-present:
We've all probably done things we're not proud of, backing up
one of our players. But I can't think of a time I've ever heard
him blame or degrade one of his own players, and in return, his
kids are fiercely loyal to him. That kind of loyalty doesn't
just happen. Things done on a day-to-day basis develop that kind
The Big Ten was really physical back then, and the ACC was more
of a finesse league. I wanted us to be more physical. At a team
meeting I said we ought to go out there and throw some elbows.
Coach Smith said, "No, we shouldn't. That's not the way to play
the game." He was very competitive, but he wasn't
MIKE O'KOREN, forward, 1976-80:
The halftime score at Duke in 1979 was 7-0, Duke. The game ended
up 47-40--we played them even in the second half--and afterward
reporters asked me about our decision to stall, and I said,
"Personally I thought we should have played with them. He wanted
to stall." Well, he saw that in the papers, and he told me that
I should do the playing and he would do the coaching. So I had
to put on the weighted vest and run pretty much all of practice.
A week later we played Duke in the ACC championship and beat
JAMES WORTHY, forward, 1979-82:
He didn't allow players to wear beards. I had a skin problem and
couldn't shave close, and I complained so much that he said,
"O.K., if you get a doctor's note, I'll let you wear one." But
if you look at the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover in 1981, with Jimmy
Black, myself, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins and Coach Smith, I had
to shave for that. He said, "Can you shave just this once?" So I
Having a system has its advantages and disadvantages. You knew
they were always going to reverse the ball, that they were never
going to shoot too quickly. But every now and then he'd suck you
into defending his system and surprise you. When they beat us in
the Final Four in 1981, they just turned Al Wood loose.
I later found out that he'd had someone come in to scout his
team, and that person had told him, "Your guys are easy to guard
because you make them easy to guard." Evidently he took that
advice and shook things up. To take someone's advice to that
extreme, at that time of year, shows he's not as inflexible as
people might think. That was brilliant.
BREAKING THROUGH, 1982-1997
"We are going to determine who wins this game"
After Larry Miller's arrival, the Tar Heels would never again
finish lower than third in the ACC standings. Smith would guide
them to 11 Final Fours, including at least one in four different
decades, and two NCAA titles.
To be sure, each championship came with the help of an
opponent's blunder in the dying seconds--in 1982, Georgetown's
Fred Brown threw the ball to Worthy by mistake, costing the
Hoyas a shot at beating the Heels; and in 1993, Chris Webber of
Michigan was charged with a critical technical for calling a
timeout when his team had none left. But on both occasions the
Tar Heels stood in cool counterpoint: In '82 they got the
game-winning jump shot from Jordan, who was then only a
freshman, and in '93 they husbanded their timeouts and played
with prepossessing calm.
ROY WILLIAMS, assistant coach, 1978-88:
Against Georgetown in '82, when Coach Smith called time with 32
seconds left, I didn't like the looks on our faces. For the
first time I thought we could actually lose the game. But he
told the team, "We're in great shape. I'd rather be in our shoes
than theirs." He said it so confidently that I had to sneak a
peak at the scoreboard to make sure it said Georgetown 62, North
Carolina 61. Then he said, "We are going to determine who wins
this game." And he grabbed Michael and said, "Knock it down."
When our guys broke the huddle, the looks on their faces had
changed 180 degrees. The way he talked to them had more to do
with us winning the national championship than anything else
that happened that season.
MATT DOHERTY, forward, 1981-84:
In a team meeting once we were going over a trapping defense,
and he referred to "the farthest point down the court." Then he
stopped and said, "You know why I said 'farthest,' not
'furthest?' Because far, F-A-R, deals with distance." That's an
English lesson I got with the basketball team, and I've never
S.L. PRICE, sportswriter, The Daily Tar Heel, 1981-83:
When they were building the Dean Dome, I wrote a column arguing
that it was an extravagance, that athletes on campus were
coddled, that the school could learn from Notre Dame and
Harvard, where athletes lived among the other students. There
was a huge uproar. There were letters to the paper. Roy Williams
took me to task. The chancellor called me into his office. Their
reaction was, We're North Carolina. How could you possibly
criticize the way we do things?
Dean wrote me and asked me to come by his office at the end of
the season. I was a know-it-all senior, and from my experience
with everyone else I expected a dressing-down. But his reaction
wasn't, Who are you or how dare you? He wanted to know what I
knew, whether the system had gotten out of hand--whether there
was something I could teach him that he didn't know. He was a
man who didn't think he had all the answers. I left Chapel Hill
with an understanding that here was the one guy who didn't buy
into the myth that had been created around him.
Early in my career at Duke, I prepared hard for every opponent,
but even harder for North Carolina, to the point of
overcoaching. After several years I asked myself why I changed
to play them. Why not have a system of our own--the way they
have a system of their own--to beat anyone, them included? Then
playing them wouldn't be a matter of adjusting. It would be a
matter of habit.
I learned from Dean that a system works against anybody. And
probably the biggest win in the development of our program came
right after I made that change, in 1984, when they were No. 1
and had Jordan and Perkins.
JEFF LEBO, guard, 1985-89:
He quit smoking my junior year. In a team meeting, before he
quit, his nose started to bleed. It filled up a towel, but he
wouldn't stop the meeting. "When you have a big nose, it bleeds
a lot," he said. He missed like a week of practice after that,
which was unbelievable, but doctor's orders. I think that helped
get him to give up smoking.
He was a little on the cranky side the season he quit, not quite
as patient. We all knew what he was going through. Some days
we'd be saying, Oh, man, somebody give him a cigarette.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR:
In the early 1990s our church went through a very painful
crisis. A senior at Duke Divinity School asked to be ordained
and indicated he was gay. This fractured the congregation. The
church did the right thing, licensing him to preach as a
seminarian. We lost some members, but Dean didn't waver in his
support. He wasn't involved in the debate, but he was there, and
he was visible.
He's always been willing to take a stand. Back when we all had
nuclear arms hanging over our heads, he was willing to go public
in support of the abolition of nuclear weapons. I'm now chairman
of a statewide group called People of Faith Against the Death
Penalty, and he was the first to volunteer that his name be used
There's no question I had my little obstacle to overcome in
Houston [when he was arrested for soliciting prostitution in
1990]. Coach Smith was the second person to call me, and he
said, "We're all human. I know you're a great man. Just deal
with it as a man."
AT THE TOP AND STEPPING DOWN
"Good men plan"
Smith broke Rupp's record on March 15, 1997, with his 877th
career victory, a second-round NCAA tournament defeat of
Colorado in Winston-Salem. He deflected credit, choosing instead
to dedicate the achievement to those who had come through his
program. When he retired the following fall, he did so in a way
just as mindful of his basketball family, waiting until the eve
of fall practice to ensure that the job would go to his aide of
30 years, Bill Guthridge.
Smith is left with a wealth of memories, which, given his
astonishing powers of recall and nearly 67 years to cull from,
will serve him well.
MARILYN TOWLER ROBERTS:
I talked to him a few months ago, and he said, "You sound just
like your mother." And I thought to myself, How could he
remember what my mother sounded like? She's been gone for more
than 20 years. Before he hung up he said, "Your birthday's on
the 29th. Happy birthday."
BILL GUTHRIDGE, assistant, 1967-97:
One of our recruits my first year was Steve Previs, a guard from
Bethel Park, right outside Pittsburgh. Dean and I had been there
once in the fall to visit Steve, who lived in this subdivision
with a maze of streets. We went back in the spring, and Dean
made 10 or 15 turns, right to the house. There were five guys in
that recruiting class, and I have no doubt he could drive back
to the homes of any of them today.
LARRY BROWN, former player (1961-63) and assistant coach
A few years ago, during one of those times when we all come back
to visit him over the summer, he talked to [former Tar Heels
assistant coach] Eddie [Fogler] and Roy [Williams] and me about
the possibility that he might step down before he broke the
record. He knew there'd be all the media attention, and he
didn't want it. All of us made a pact that we wouldn't let him
KRISTEN SMITH, daughter and a North Carolina freshman:
Last spring I was enrolled in an advanced placement American
history course. My mom [Chapel Hill psychiatrist Linnea Smith]
and dad weren't going to let me go down to Winston-Salem [for
the record-breaking game] unless I brought my homework with me.
It became this big deal in the newspaper: Coach Smith's daughter
was reading her history book before the game.
Everybody was teasing me about it at school. It's not that I was
bored, just that this was a Thursday night, a school night, and
that was the rule before a game. Even that game.
When I got back to Atlanta the night he broke the record,
watching his press conference on the news, I heard him say, "I
want to recognize all the assistants who coached with me and all
the players who played for me. I don't have time to name them
all, but I could do it." Which I don't doubt. And then he said,
"They all share in this moment, if indeed it is a moment." I
thought, You've broken the alltime record. You can at least call
it a moment.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR:
When I retired, he and others chided me for leaving. But I told
them I'd rather leave when people want me to stay than have them
dance in the streets when I left. And I think that was part of
My phone rang in January. It was Dean. He said, "Bob, before
each practice I give my team some brief words of wisdom. Today
is Martin Luther King's birthday. Can you give me something he
said?" I thought for a moment and said, "When evil men plot,
good men plan."
He had a style that no one's ever going to copy. To be that
smart, that psychologically aware, that good with X's and
O's--with that system, and to always take the high road--that
just isn't going to happen again.