Only He Could Have Done What He Did
On March 19, 1977, with 22 seconds left in the NCAA East Regional championship game, Dean Smith ran 75 feet down the basketball floor.
The North Carolina coach had seen Kentucky’s big man, Rick Robey, use his forearms to knock down Carolina’s little guard, John Kuester. Robey’s foul was purposeful. Losing 75-72, Kentucky’s only chance at victory was to get the ball after Carolina missed free throws. Necessary or not, the hard foul left Kuester dazed and so angered Smith that the coach put himself next to Robey.
That day I wrote . . . Smith shook his finger in Robey’s face. He was saying something. Robey moved away, saying something, at last waving a hand as if to tell him he’d made a fool of himself. Early in the game, Smith had pointed at Robey and swung his elbow at air as if to say the Kentucky player was a public menace.
“On that Kuester foul, Coach Smith came up to me and called me ‘a cheap son of a . . . ,’ ” Robey said later. “He said, ‘All you do is throw elbows.’ I told him to look at the films and show me where I ever threw an elbow meaning to hit somebody.”
Smith denied Robey’s report of his language. “I did not swear. I do not swear. Every other bad habit, I have. But I don’t swear.” Then Smith smiled. “I was badly misquoted. My mom and dad will be mad if they hear I said those things.”
An amazing thing to say. At the time 46 years old, Smith had done his life’s work in rooms where profanity is not only routine but practically required to certify a warrior’s credentials. Yet Smith insisted he didn’t swear because it would upset his parents. I believed him. This was before he’d won a national championship. Before Michael Jordan. Before he’d won more games than any college coach. Before the Carolina folks built a palace in his name.
Even 20 years ago, before his beatification by mystique, Dean Smith was extraordinary. And it certainly is clear now that Robey’s accusation of profanity may have been the least important aspect of an incident that told a little about Smith the coach/competitor and a lot about Smith the man.
Robey’s foul all but guaranteed Carolina’s victory, satisfaction enough for most coaches. Smith had nothing to gain by confronting Robey; he might have lost something had a referee objected to his presence. Still, seeing Kuester hurt, Smith rushed to his side and, not coincidentally, into Robey’s face.
For as much as Smith cared about winning, he cared more about his people. And he cared most about winning the right way. It’s Smith’s legacy. He won big and with class. So it’s fashionable to praise the retiring coach for his 36 seasons, 879 victories, 11 Final Fours and two national championships.
He is called a model. He is called proof you can win big without compromising yourself or your university. As nice as that praise is, it’s wrong if it suggests that Dean Smith’s work can be duplicated. That makes no more sense than to suggest that any pianist can do wonders because Duke Ellington showed they can be done. No. The great ones come with gifts denied to the rest of us. What Dean Smith did, only he could do. Or, as Lefty Driesell put it in a fit of envy while coaching Maryland, “Dean holds the ball, Dean’s great, Dean’s a genius, Dean’s God. I hold the ball, I’m a dog.”
Five seasons after Coach Frank McGuire led North Carolina to the 1957 NCAA championship, Smith succeeded the legend. Art Heyman, a Duke All-American in Smith’s first years, once said, “When I was here, Dean Smith was the biggest joke around. Everybody wanted him fired.”
Smith’s first five teams went 8-9, 15-6, 12-12, 15-9 and 16-11. Hung in effigy by students and denigrated by fans, Smith persevered.
The first time I sat with him for an hour, I asked how he’d survived. He said, “A book I read, by Kathryn Marshall, had a chapter called ‘The Power of Helplessness.’ It says when you’re finally helpless . . . " Here Smith let his head drop. " . . . then you’re . . . “
He stopped. “But I don’t want to get into that in the paper. It has religious connotations and I’d rather not.”
Of this private man, we know this surely: His public life changed with a string of three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships beginning in 1967. “Ever since then,” said Art Chansky, a Carolina newspaperman, “there’s been a mystique about him. It’s like he’s saying to his players, ‘You believe in me and everything’s going to be all right.’ And it works.”
The passing game worked. The scrambling, trapping defenses. The four corners. Foul-line huddles. I’m-tired-get-me signals. Platoon substitution. It all worked and it works yet because, as Charlotte columnist Ron Green has said, “His strengths have always been consistency and innovation. For four decades now, he has stayed young in his ideas. He has his system, but he has adapted it so that he has always stayed ahead of most people.”
A progressive in a reactionary world, Smith stood out from the start. While McGuire’s assistant in 1959, he accompanied a black student into a segregated restaurant; as head coach in the mid-'60s he signed Carolina’s first black basketball player, Charlie Scott. Smith has advocated paying college athletes; he has encouraged players to leave school for the NBA; and he has helped create rules that permit a player to explore NBA possibilities without losing eligibility.
I have quoted Dave Pritchett on Dean Smith many times. There’s no reason to stop now. Pritchett was a Lefty Driesell assistant and thus a blood enemy of the cursed shining knights from Chapel Hill. Yet, late one night as we ranked coaches, Pritchett said, “The best? I gotta go with the Music Man . . . “
Music Man? “Dean. I call him the Music Man because there aren’t words to describe him.”