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The Dean of Coaches: CHD reflects on the life of Dean Smith

Sunday morning turned into Sunday mourning after learning that former North Carolina coach Dean Smith passed away in Chapel Hill Saturday night at the age of 83.  His full resume cannot be encapsulated into a few lines, but among the many highlights: 879 wins (#4 in NCAA history), 27 NCAA tourney appearances, an NIT title, an Olympic gold medal, and a pair of NCAA titles.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to speak with Smith’s former assistant Bill Guthridge and former player/current UNC radio analyst Eric Montross about the legendary coach who led them to great heights. 

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Smith’s father Alfred coached Emporia HS to the 1934 KS state basketball title (and had the 1st team with an African-American basketball player in Kansas state tourney history): what impact did Alfred have on his son in terms of becoming a coach as well as racial integration? BG: Dean’s dad came to a lot of our games when I was here and died in his 90s. He was probably influential on his son to a certain extent: Dean has always been great about racial integration in everything. EM: Every son learns lessons from his father either by word or through example.

In the 1952 NCAA tourney as a player at Kansas under HOF coach Forrest “Phog” Allen, Clyde Lovellette had 33 PTS/17 REB in a win over St. John’s in the title game (becoming the only player to ever lead the nation in scoring and win a title in the same season): how good of a player was Smith back in the day, and how big of an influence was Phog on his decision to become a coach? BG: Phog Allen was at the end of his great coaching career. Dean’s dad moved to Topeka for his final 2 years of HS. Dean was a sub for the Jayhawks but still got to play on a championship team.

Smith served as assistant under HOF coach Frank McGuire at NC for 3 years, then took over after McGuire was forced to resign in the wake of recruiting and point-shaving scandals: how important was it for him have a clean program, and how much importance did he place on academics (his players had a graduation rate over 95%)? BG: He always made sure to recruit student-athletes. EM: His entire life was about integrity and our academics were always at the forefront. Study groups were considered excused absences from practice and there was an absolute directive that we were student-athletes (with “student” coming 1st).

Smith is credited with creating or popularizing several techniques, including huddling at the foul line before a FT, using the 4 corners offense to stall at the end of a game, and starting all of his seniors in their final home game: which of his many innovations impressed you the most? BG: I am proud of all Dean’s accomplishments. He did not have a lot of real good players when he took over in the early 1960s but by the end of the decade he was winning conference titles and making it to the Final 4. He had great poise and made sure his players went to class. EM: I loved pointing to the passer in order to recognize who started the play. The piece I liked the most is that he would make sure to take us back to our home state so that we could play in front of our friends/family who could not come see us play in Chapel Hill.

Smith is the author of “Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense”: why do you think it is the best-selling technical basketball book ever? BG: It covered all basketball fundamentals. He wrote several books about the way that the game should be played. EM: Success! When you have a tremendously successful coach with a recognizable program you have the components for a great book. It was not magic: he just tried to simply explain how to do things in layman’s terms. It appealed to people because it was about leadership/teamwork.

In the 1968 NCAA tourney title game Lew Alcindor had 34 PTS/16 REB in a win by defending champion UCLA: were those legendary John Wooden teams simply unstoppable? BG: They definitely were with Alcindor just dominating. I think if we would have played in a different era then we would have won several titles. EM: I do not think even Wooden would call his teams unstoppable. It is exceptionally difficult to win a championship: there are several great coaches who have never won 1. Those 2 programs demonstrated the very best players/coaches. They were both masters of creating a team.

He helped promote desegregation in by recruiting Charlie Scott (the school’s 1st African-American scholarship athlete): how big a deal was it to have Scott on the team back in the 1960s? BG: Charlie was the 1st African-American to play south of the Mason-Dixon line. It was a big deal at the time: there were several times where Charlie had to take a lot of abuse/taunting from the fans on the road but he handled things very well. EM: That was 1 of the big factors mentioned when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Coach stood for equality and opportunity.

In the 1969 NCAA tourney Scott scored 22 PTS in a 1-PT win over Duquesne and 32 PTS in a 2-PT win over Davidson: did he just put the team on his back for the entire month? BG: He played very well and also hit a buzzer-beater that year. EM: There is always 1 player who consistently performs at a high level, which was evidenced in Charlie’s performances.

In the magical 1971 NIT George Karl scored 21 PTS in a 4-PT win over Duke (which remains the only time that Duke and NC have faced each other in the postseason): can you imagine what would happen if the 2 archrivals squared off in the NCAA tourney in the future!? BG: The entire state goes nuts even for a regular season game so it would certainly be crazy. EM: When you look at the national picture there is nothing that can compare to the Duke-UNC rivalry. They even set the tip-off late enough so that people on the West Coast can make it home in time to watch the game. If a postseason matchup were to ever occur it could end up being the 4th game of the season. It would be a real grudge match but also a chess game due to the familiarity.

NIT MVP Bill Chamberlain scored 34 PTS to beat Georgia Tech and win the title: what did it mean to Smith to win a title? BG: Chamberlain had a great game. We were 1 of the best teams in the country but did not make the NCAA tourney because we did not win the conference.

In the 1976 Olympics he coached team USA to a gold medal: was it extra special to do so with assistant Bill Guthridge and 4 of his Tar Heel players (Walter Davis/Phil Ford/Mitch Kupchak/Tom LaGarde)? BG: John Thompson was our other assistant coach and we had a great team that went undefeated. We had tryouts and ended up having 4 of our players make the team. EM: I am certain it was special to have the Tar Heel lineage on the team as he cared a lot about the UNC family and the chance to have them shine on a worldwide stage.

After President Reagan was critically wounded in an assassination attempt during the day of the 1981 NCAA tourney title game, NCAA officials decided to go ahead and play the game, and Isiah Thomas scored 23 PTS for Indiana to get a revenge win after losing to UNC earlier that season: did Smith think that the game should have been postponed, and was he worried that he kept getting so close without being able to get over the hump? BG: Dean got together with some other people and decided that they should play. EM: I am sure that he would have liked to win that title but I do not think he thought of a title as a feather in his cap. It was always about the players.

In the 1982 NCAA tourney title game freshman Michael Jordan scored 16 PTS (including the game-winning 16-foot jumper with 16 seconds left) and Fred Brown accidentally passed the ball to James Worthy to clinch a 1-PT win over Georgetown to win the title: how did he have so much confidence to let a freshman take the final shot, and what was the reaction like when they got back to campus? BG: It was an exciting time. We were a very good team with Worthy/Sam Perkins/Jimmy Black, as was Georgetown with our close friend Coach Thompson. Michael made a big basket that led to his great career. Michael is still loyal to the school and to Coach Smith. I do not know that the play was specifically run for Jordan but he was open and we got the ball to him. EM: Coach had confidence in the players he put on the court. People probably did not expect a freshman to take that shot but that just shows how he put people in the right place to attain success. Coach was great at last-minute situations: we practiced them every day.

In the 1990 NCAA tourney Rick Fox scored 23 PTS and made a driving layup with 1 second left in a 2-PT win over Oklahoma: where does that rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen? BG: It was a big shot because the Sooners were a #1-seed. Dean drew up a play to get the ball to Fox and he made it. EM: I was being recruited by Coach Smith at the time so I certainly remember it. The thinking is that with preparation success is attainable. It was not “clutch” because we practiced it to be done correctly.

In the 1993 NCAA tourney title game Chris Webber had 23 PTS/11 REB but called a timeout that Michigan  did not have with 11 seconds left to give UNC a 6-PT win: was the team out for revenge after a 1-PT loss to Michigan on a Jalen Rose put-back at the buzzer only a few months earlier, and when did you realize that the Wolverines were out of timeouts? BG: We played them in Honolulu earlier that season and both teams were very good. We were up by 1 PT when they called a timeout at the end. We definitely knew that they were out of timeouts. EM: It was certainly a bitter pill to swallow when they beat us in Hawaii in a very hard-played game. That being said, he did not coach us to get redemption but just prepared us to beat the teams that we played. We recognized that they had beaten us earlier, but both teams were so different from what they were at the start of the season. When I looked down at our bench after the call I realized that they were out of timeouts.

JonTeitel