They named a building after Dean Smith, and hung a banner in his honor in the rafters of that building. Tangible things. The physical reminders of Smith’s legacy are easily noticeable – from the Smith Center, where North Carolina has played since 1986, to the trophies Smith’s teams won during his 36 seasons at UNC.
Yet, legacies don’t live on in steel and bronze as much as they do through souls and hearts – through people.
A doctor goes to work having built part of his professional philosophy on things he learned playing for Smith more than 30 years ago. An executive, one of the most powerful men in college sports, draws on those days when he watched how Smith worked with people. Two of Smith’s best players still remember how their lives began to change from the first time Smith walked into their homes.
Legacies are often simplified and scaled down. Over time, they narrow so that people are defined by one thing, or a small number of things.
Smith coached some of the greatest teams in college basketball history, and some of the greatest players. He is linked to them – to Michael Jordan and Phil Ford, to James Worthy. He is linked to those two indelible nights in New Orleans, where the Tar Heels won national championships in 1982 and 1993.
It would be impossible to discuss Smith’s legacy without mentioning those names, and those moments. Yet, more than 16 years after he coached his final game, Smith’s legacy is defined as much as by the small, everyday lessons he imparted on his players, and those around him, as it is by the games he won.
His teachings live on in doctors’ offices. In the minds of business leaders. In coaches he inspired. Long before he became Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame college basketball coach, Smith thought he would remain in Kansas, his native state, and that he would spend his life teaching and coaching high school basketball.
He envisioned a life in education. Smith, who in recent years has been affected by a neurological disorder that has robbed him of his memories, likely would be proud to know how much his lessons live on through those he coached. He likely would be proud to know that basketball served as a conduit for an education his former players and colleagues couldn’t have received from anywhere else, or from any other man.
Smith coached basketball, but that was just a way for him to teach. The first lesson he taught players often was this: There are far more important things than the game.
He didn’t support egos. He rejected the notion that a player gets by in life on sports. When he met a recruit – regardless of how good he was – Smith typically ignored basketball during initial conversations.
That’s how it went with one of the best who ever played at UNC. Toward the end of his years at Rocky Mount High, everybody wanted Phil Ford. Smith was interested, too. When he started to recruit Ford, he knew enough about the basketball player. He wanted to learn a lot more about the person.
The first time Smith met with Ford in his house, Ford said recently, the two spoke for more than 30 minutes about anything other than the game.
“We talked about race relations,” Ford said. “Being a good student, a good citizen.”
To woo Ford, who went on to have one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the ACC, it might have been easy to make grand promises. Smith didn’t make any. It might been even easier, at least, to share a basic vision of how Ford might fit into the team. Smith didn’t do that either.
If anything, he did the opposite.
“He actually told me when he recruited me that I was going to have to play JV basketball,” Ford said.
A little more than 15 years later Smith recruited another high school All-American. Eric Montross, a standout from Indianapolis, could have gone anywhere. From the time he met Smith, though, Montross felt a connection.
“The first time I met him, you could tell there was substance,” Montross said. “I think that a lot of people view basketball as holy ground. And that if you’re really good at that, then you can pretty much do whatever. Well, that’s not true. I think it’s a skewed perspective. I think talking to coach Smith, you could tell there was a thinker.”
Ford became one of the best players in school history, and he’s still remembered as one of the best point guards to play in the ACC. Montross led the Tar Heels to the 1993 national championship.
Both are remembered for what they did on the court. Smith taught them basketball needed to be placed in its proper place.
It’s fitting, then, that Ford and Montross remember Smith as more than a basketball coach.
“The lessons from coach Smith I think are pervasive for many of us throughout our life,” Montross said. “When I think of coach Smith, I don’t think of him between the end lines of a basketball court. I think of him as a mentor. And that mentoring extends well beyond the parameters of the out of bounds lines.
“I know for myself personally, he was very instrumental in encouraging engagements outside of the basketball court, and to take the same enthusiasm that we had and commitment to our sport, and apply that to something that has a bigger feel, or a bigger impact.”
Inspiring young leaders
Roy Williams spent 10 years working alongside Smith, sitting near him on the bench, working with him in practices and pregame meetings and in huddles during timeouts late in tense, close games.
Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels coach, still uses some of the same practice drills Smith did, and some of the same terminology. The slogan for Williams’ program – “play hard; play together; play smart” – is what Smith used. On the court, Smith’s influence on Williams is clear.
It was off the court, though, where Smith taught Williams the most.
“We don’t have enough time to list all of them,” Williams said recently, when asked how he employs what he learned from Smith. “I mean, every day when I come in I’m thinking, ‘OK, I need to do this, and I need to do that. Which is the most important, and how much time do I need to (spend).’
“So the organizational skills of doing the job every single day. The skills of trying to understand that it’s still a game, and it’s about the individuals, it’s about the student-athletes, the young men that you’re able to work with.”
Williams said he asks himself one question “all the time.” It’s a simple one.
“What would coach Smith do right now?” Williams said. “Would coach Smith be proud of the way I’ve handled some things?”
John Swofford, the ACC Commissioner, has drawn on his experience with Smith too.
Swofford was 31 when he became the athletics director at North Carolina in 1980 – nearly the same age as Smith when he became the Tar Heels’ coach in 1961. Swofford grew up in North Carolina, played football for the Tar Heels and then worked in UNC’s athletic administration.
Then one day he became the youngest athletics director in the nation, and Smith’s boss. Smith by then hadn’t yet won his first national championship, but he had already become an icon in his sport, and in North Carolina.
“He could have been very difficult for a young athletic director had he wanted to be, and had he been that kind of individual,” Swofford said.
Smith wasn’t that kind of individual, though. With his players, he tried to develop true teams, ones that maximized the potential of each individual part. With the people he worked with, like Swofford, the philosophy wasn’t all that different.
Swofford said Smith taught him lessons that he has used throughout his professional life. Swofford learned the great majority of them simply by watching Smith – watching him interact with his players, with opponents. Watching him handle conflict.
“I’ve had the chance to be around some terrific leaders,” Swofford said. “To watch him at an early age was tremendously beneficial, and tremendously inspiring.
“His focus was on the process of being as good you need to be as a person. It’s almost like winning was a byproduct.”
People who weren’t even alive to watch it, or old enough to remember it, have seen it countless times. Every March, CBS replays Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in 1982 against Georgetown that gave Smith his first national championship, and UNC its first since 1957.
For Jordan and Smith, it was a defining moment – one that gave birth to Jordan’s reputation as perhaps the greatest clutch player in history, and one that ended the talk that Smith couldn’t win the big game.
Yet some of Smith’s finest moments – at least to his players – came off camera, far out of sight.
The year before Jordan made his shot, UNC in 1981 lost against Indiana in the national championship game. It was the sixth time UNC had made the Final Four under Smith, only to lose.
The scene inside the Tar Heels locker room was emotional. Smith still hadn’t broken through.
Smith, though, wasn’t concerned with that. Instead, he was thinking about his seniors.
“It was a tough, emotional thing to go through,” Eric Kenny, a forward and a senior captain on that 1980-81 team, said recently. “But immediately after the game, he came up to myself and each and every senior and said, ‘I want to meet with you as soon as possible and talk about your future.’”
More than 32 years have passed, and that’s one of Kenny’s enduring memories from the three seasons he played under Smith. He can still feel the pain that came with losing against Isiah Thomas and the Hoosiers, but what feels even more vivid is the comfort and direction Smith attempted to provide after that game.
Smith understood then that his coaching career would continue. For some of his seniors, like Kenny, defeat represented the end of their basketball life.
“It was almost as if it was like a transformation of relationship immediately, from coach to parent-father figure,” Kenny said. “(He was) going through the same process (as us). He’s still never won a national championship. Yet that’s what he was thinking of (were the seniors). And I’ll never forget that.”
During his 36 years at UNC, Smith coached a wide spectrum on talent. Jordan is on one end. Those like Kenny are on the other. Kenny averaged less than one point per game during his three seasons. Yet Smith never defined success solely through statistics. He valued players for the intangibles they brought, and how they fit into a team.
After UNC lost against Indiana, the Tar Heels came home, and Smith met with his seniors. Kenny told him about his plans to go to medical school.
Now Kenny is Dr. Kenny – a rheumatologist in Lynchburg, Va. His name has long faded into the forgotten history of UNC basketball, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons Smith taught him: About teamwork. About punctuality. About, especially, organization.
“I always think of how organized he always was,” Kenny said. “I just think about how our practices were run, how he had certain goals in mind, but the way he went about achieving them was from being organized and just sticking to the plan that he had.
“I think about that a lot. I think about how he taught us lessons about just the basis and the importance of teamwork. One of the life lessons that really you can take to anything you do afterward is just how much is based on being able to work with other people and make the group better than the whole.”
Smith was a master at that. Which is why, after one of his most painful defeats, he focused not on himself, or on losing. But on what he could do to help the players who would be leaving his program.