Chapel Hill: Sports

W.E. Warnock: The great coach was a great teacher


Most great coaches are teachers.

John Wooden taught high school English before becoming a basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.

Knute Rockne was educated as a chemist and worked as a chemistry lab assistant at Notre Dame before going into coaching.

Few college coaches teach classes anymore, but they know that teaching the game is as important as recruiting.

Dean Edward Smith was a great teacher.

It’s no accident that the few books he wrote concentrated on explaining strategies and tactics, not on self-help or motivation.

Still, the son of public school teachers in Emporia, Kan., Smith taught a generation of student-athletes about much more than basketball.

“He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” Michael Jordan said upon learning of the death Saturday of Smith, 83, after an extended illness. “In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”

Summing up Smith’s impact on the game of basketball, let alone the individuals he met while coaching the University of North Carolina to 879 wins in 36 years – the most of any NCAA Division I coach when he retired – would require volumes.

Many of the people who never met Smith personally will remember him mostly for the wins: the 1982 and 1993 NCAA championships, 13 ACC tournament titles, 11 Final Fours, plus an NIT championship and a gold medal for the USA in basketball from the 1976 Olympic Games.

Those are great numbers, and there and many, many more to cite, but his curriculum vitae runs deeper than that.

Time spent alone with Smith would reveal some of his nature. He was one of the greatest multi-taskers of all time: taking phones calls from alumni lettermen who needed a favor, listening to messages relayed by his trusted assistant Linda Woods, talking to a reporter, looking at mail – all at the same time. Were Smith alive today, no doubt he would be tweeting, too.

Smith shared some of that precious time with some of his fiercest rivals, ACC coaching counterparts who knew they could call him personally for advice before a game. Several did.

Smith not only carried around a huge workload on his shoulders and a huge amount of information in that enormous brain of his, he also knew how to prioritize it all.

Within minutes after the 1982 championship, while reporters were still eager to delve into the game’s details, Smith said, “There are a billion Chinese who don’t know we won this game, and who won’t care if they learn we won.”

Smith would be the first to tell someone – and did – that he was no saint. He regretted smoking. He regretted the errors he committed and acts of omission he felt had failed others.

He was as tough on himself as he could be on his players, for whom he was a demanding taskmaster. Smith could run players until they retched and punished small infractions of team rules, such as being one second late for a team bus ride.

But Smith also treated players equally and with equanimity. He protected them from the vicissitudes of public life and, as much as he could, from their personal mistakes.

“My father said, ‘Value each human being,’” Smith was quoted by John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins in “A Coach’s Life” (1999).

That value was at the core of Smith’s principles and actions. That’s a significant reason he recruited Charlie Scott, the first African-American star of the Atlantic Coast Conference. That’s why in the 1960s he insisted on the racial integration of a Chapel Hill restaurant where Carolina ate pregame meals.

He saw the NCAA’s denial of the smallest stipend for athletes as hypocritical. (Smith thought it ridiculous that NCAA rules barred schools from giving their player a blazer, shirt and tie for travel.)

Smith also fumed that so many schools, especially in the South, failed to properly educate their student-athletes, and he could cite the gradation statistics of many state universities.

In Smith’s mind, the single greatest failure was the failure to try, and if trying, to give 100 percent.

He would share that belief with any UNC student who would listen. It may have been his best lesson.

W.E.Warnock is the sports editor of The Chapel Hill News. Contact him at 919-932-8743 and at