Even knowing that Dean Smith had been in declining health over the past number of years, hearing the news of his death still surprised me.
I’d seen Coach Smith lead his teams out of the apparent grasp of defeat to mount comebacks that are now the stuff of legend — eight points and 17 seconds, or erasing a 21-point Florida State lead in 1993. Wouldn’t there be some clever magic in his final huddle, some pick-and-roll, and misdirection: some innovative tactic that would defeat age itself?
Sadly, shockingly … no.
Former Universoty of North Carolina head men’s basketball coach Dean Smith died Feb. 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, surrounded by his wife and five children. He was 83 years old.
Over the past week, I’ve found myself wrestling with the need to write about Dean and how to rationalize that it somehow fit under the topic of “recreation” — the topic upon which I’ve been writing for the Chapel Hill News for nearly 15 years.
Over the same span however, my spare time (of which there’s been little) has been dappled with a good deal of coaching. I’ve coached everything from Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA T-ball and youth soccer to youth track and field with the Chapel Hill / Carrboro Pacers Running Club. Today, I’m an assistant track and field coach at Chapel Hill High School.
I now realize that everything I’ve needed to know about coaching was learned from Dean. … Or from my father, who was a high school coach for 39 years.
I’d wager that a good of my father’s coaching philosophy runs parallel to that of Coach Smith.
Boarding a team bus after a regional track and field championship meet, my father once addressed the entire squad and honored all the athletes who earned those important eighth-place points that had been essential to the win. Then, with a wry smile, he thanked the rest: “Oh, and everyone who earned first-place finishes, you did okay too.”
If that doesn’t sound like Dean, I don’t know what does.
To be sure, we would not be eulogizing Coach Smith in the same way had he only picked up a few victories here and there.
The fact that Smith was a fierce competitor is sometimes overshadowed with the dismissive way he sidestepped credit: “Players win; coaches lose.”
He may have won with elegance. But he won.
Smith was the head coach of the Tar Heels from 1961 to 1997, retiring as the winningest coach in college basketball. He won national championships in 1982 and 1993, earning 13 ACC Tournament titles and visiting 11 Final Fours during his tenure. He directed the US Olympic Basketball Team to a gold medal at the 1976 Summer Games and was named by ESPN’s SportsCentury as one of the seven greatest coaches of the 20th Century.
He went out of basketball on top of this game, leading UNC to the Final Four in four of his final seven seasons. Under Smith, the Tar Heels won at least 20 games for 27 straight years and 30 of his final 31. The ‘Heels finished at least third in the ACC regular-season standings for 33 successive seasons and finished first 17 times.
He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, and in 2013, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award that his wife, Linnea, accepted on his behalf from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony.
Beyond the win-loss columns, Dean Smith’s indelible mark on the game can be seen watching any game at any level, primarily in the way players and coaches conduct themselves.
His civil rights record is well celebrated, as he not only helped to integrate his own Chapel Hill, but also helped to desegregate the Atlantic Coast Conference through the signing of Charlie Scott.
He instituted the “tired signal” (whereby a player would raise a hand or fist to indicate that he needed a rest), huddling at the charity stripe before a foul shot, and, perhaps most famously, a scorer honoring a teammate’s great assist by pointing them out.
Smith is also credited with innovations like multiple defensive sets in one game, having point guards call out the defense, and creating a number of strategies, including the point zone defense and the four corners offense, as much a veiled protest for the institution of a shot clock as it was a stall strategy to help sit on a lead.
In this way, Dean Smith is never truly taken from us.
His legacy is certainly carried on by the network of coaches who have worked with him directly before heading from the Hill to reflect Dean’s genius before the greater basketball world.
But further than that, visit a local high school basketball game; stop by and watch a pick-up game at the Chapel Hill Community Center Gym, or at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA, Carmichael Arena, or Woollen Gym. Or visit a gym in Lawrence, Kansas, or Springfield, Mass., or a neighborhood court in New York City, or a playground in Brussels, or in Moscow.
There is evidence of Dean Smith everywhere basketball is now played—or where any sport is played for that matter.
Where there is still a glimmer of integrity, humility, and loyalty to team, there remains Dean Smith, influence shimmering in the seemingly dimming twilight of hope for big sports.
In this way, he coached all of us and continues to coach all of us in that way that earns a few precious professions a title of honor: Judge … Captain… Coach.
As a coach, my finger is pointed squarely at Dean Smith in gratitude for the assist, for he surely coached me. His domain may have been on the Carolina sideline for decades, and his time with us may have passed, but he’s still coaching all of us.