1. Coach Smith takes over
Dean Smith became North Carolina’s coach in 1961 following the departure of Frank McGuire. Although UNC had won the NCAA title in 1957, an NCAA investigation into excessive recruiting expenses in 1960 and a point-shaving scandal in 1961 led to McGuire’s departure.
Smith inherited a program with limited scholarships and little talent. But Chancellor William Aycock “believed Smith was a natural teacher and had the fundamental integrity he was looking for.”
2. The turning point
Smith went 8-9 his debut season, his only losing season in 36 years. The Tar Heels were 15-6 the next season but regressed to 12-12 in Smith’s third season. Year 4 got off to a rocky start. It included a four-game losing streak that left UNC 6-6. Smith was 41-33, and fans were restless.
“People were not happy with Dean Smith, to the point there were sorts of rumblings at that stage of him being removed,” Billy Cunningham, who played for UNC during Smith’s first four seasons, told ESPN.
Frustration was obvious after UNC’s 107-85 loss at Wake Forest. When the Tar Heels’ bus returned to campus, the team was greeted by a Smith dummy hanging from Woollen Gym.
Cunningham rushed through the crowd and helped tear it down.
The unranked Tar Heels won at No. 8 Duke three days later, won at N.C. State and toppled Duke again to close the regular season.
3. Changing the face of ACC basketball
“Some people have given me kind but undue praise for integrating North Carolina’s basketball team in the early 1960s. My father was the true reformer, however,” Smith wrote in “A Coach’s Life.”
Smith signed Charlie Scott as UNC’s first black scholarship athlete in 1966. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 22.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game at UNC. But Smith said the roster of his father’s 1934 basketball team at Emporia (Kan.) High included a black teenager.
4. Four corners
UNC began using the four corners offense during the 1965-66 season. Other schools had used a similar offense, including the Air Force Academy when Smith served as an assistant coach.
“If there was an ‘innovation’ at Carolina, it was to put our best ball handler in the middle, rather than a big man,” Smith wrote in “A Coach’s Life.”
Smith used the four corners in numerous situations, not just to protect a late lead. He frequently used it as a tactic against stronger teams, or as a device to force teams to play man-to-man.
Smith famously used it throughout the first half of a 1979 game against Duke. The Heels trailed 7-0 at the break and lost 47-40.
“I thought Naismith invented basketball, not Dean Smith,” Duke Coach Bill Foster told reporters afterward.
Nobody ran it quite like Phil Ford, who left UNC as its all-time leader in points and assists.
The offense had detractors, including UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, who said Smith was over-coaching.
“When I use the four corners and win, I’m a genius,” Smith told reporters after UNC upset No. 1 Virginia 47-45 to win the 1982 ACC tournament championship. “When I use it and we lose, I’m all wrong.”
5. First ACC title
Smith won his first ACC tournament title in 1967, the first year the event was held at the Greensboro Coliseum. The team went to the NCAA tournament and played in the Final Four, where it lost to Dayton 76-62.
UNC won the ACC tournament and went to the Final four for the next two seasons as well.
Smith won 13 ACC tournament titles, tied with Mike Krzyzewski for most in conference history.
6. Jordan’s jumper nets elusive NCAA title
The 1981-82 season opened with huge expectations. James Worthy and Sam Perkins were back after leading North Carolina to the 1981 championship game, which it lost to Indiana.
The Tar Heels also added a freshman from Wilmington, Michael Jordan.
North Carolina entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed but barely escaped James Madison in its opening game, winning 52-50. It beat Houston 68-63 in the semifinals to advance to the championship game for the fourth time under Smith. UNC had lost the previous three.
Late in the 1982 title game, a similar fate looked likely. The Tar Heels trailed Georgetown 62-61 with 32 seconds left when Smith called timeout.
“The talk he gave in the huddle was the most inspirational talk I’ve ever heard in my life, and it was the most confident,” Roy Williams, then an assistant, told ESPN. ‘“We’re in great shape. I’d much rather be in our shoes than theirs. Isn’t this fantastic? We get to determine who wins this game.’ When they left that huddle at the end of that timeout, I knew we were going to win.”
Jimmy Black’s skip pass found Jordan alone on the left wing. With no hesitation, Jordan delivered. His jump shot gave the Tar Heels a 63-62 lead and Smith his first title.
7. No. 877
Smith entered the 1996-97 season with 851 career wins, 26 shy of breaking Adolph Rupp’s record. The Tar Heels, led by Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, lost their opening game to Arizona (who they would lose to again in the Final Four in Smith’s final game). They lost their first three ACC games to Wake Forest, Maryland and Virginia and were just 11-6 after losing at Duke in late January. They won their next 16 games. The streak included a three-game run in Greensboro to give Smith his 13th and final ACC tournament title. Smith tied Rupp in the next game, an 82-74 victory over Fairfield in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. With a berth to the Sweet 16 at stake, Jamison scored 19 as the Tar Heels routed Colorado 73-56 for victory No. 877. Many former players, from George Karl to Sam Perkins and Bobby Jones, sat behind the Tar Heels bench. “It was so fun to see them in the hallway,” Smith said afterward. “That is a special time, as any teacher knows when a former pupil comes back or for a coach when a former player comes back.”
8. Farewell, UNC
At a press conference on Oct. 9, 1997, Dean Smith leaned into the microphone, smiled and said, “I have decided to resign as head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina.” Smith retired with 879 wins and a recommendation: He said the Carolina basketball family wanted long-time assistant Bill Guthridge to become the next coach. Guthridge did, and he took Smith’s team back to the Final Four.
Compiled from N&O Archives