North Carolina

Jacobs: Dean Smith’s lessons still reverberate at UNC

UNC coach Dean Smith with a young assistant coach Roy Williams during a 1979 game in Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill.
UNC coach Dean Smith with a young assistant coach Roy Williams during a 1979 game in Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill. Scott Sharpe

After Kentucky defeated North Carolina at Rupp Arena this month, a reporter asked Tar Heels coach Roy Williams how the absence of an injured Wildcats starter had affected top-ranked UK. Williams probably had not rehearsed his answer. It wasn’t necessary. An instructive observation – doubtless cast in a nasal Midwestern twang – sprang immediately to mind.

“Coach (Dean) Smith used to always think that if you lose a guy, at that next game you’re going to be so much better because everybody’s going to try to pull for him, give a little more effort and play even better,” Williams said.

These days Smith, Williams’ mentor at North Carolina, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks little, his mental capacities diminished. Yet it is a measure of Smith’s intellect, success and staying power in his profession that his insights and opinions echo loudly more than 17 years after he retired as what was then the all-time leader in victories among major college coaches (879).

Jimmy Black, the point guard on Smith’s 1982 national championship squad, hears himself channeling Smith when admonishing his own boys. The echo lingers from 1979, when the Tar Heels were in Landover, Md., to play the Maryland Terrapins. The team had arrived at its hotel exceptionally early. With a long afternoon stretching ahead, senior Dudley Bradley asked Smith if the players could go to a movie. “For some reason, that stirred him,” Black says of his coach. “He said, ‘My gosh, you get more when you don’t ask for it.’ I say that to my children all the time.”

Smith, the son of teachers, might well have been irked a veteran like Bradley forgot the careful calibration that went into every aspect of North Carolina’s program, including game-day preparation. Through relentless study and contemplation the former point guard had mastered the game, then enveloped his players in that understanding. “Everything was thought out, there’s no question about that,” recalls Black, now a branch manager for a financial services firm in Durham. “I will say this – there was nothing that could happen that I wasn’t prepared for. Nothing. In a basketball game.”

Smith’s meticulously orchestrated practices stressed a disciplined team approach to basketball. “Just basically playing the right way,” recalls Derrick Phelps, the point guard on Smith’s 1993 national championship squad. “He wanted the right way to be the Carolina way. … The two-handed chest pass is the correct way to play. You don’t have to go between your legs to throw a chest pass.”

Using the rules

For 36 seasons Smith, an avid competitor, guided players to live up to the program’s internal standards. Remarkably, Black doesn’t recall ever seeing a scouting report on an opponent. “Just play the way we talked about” was the message the team received, Black says. “I never heard him talk about winning or losing. Just go play.”

Smith was a master of the improbable comeback, fueled by intermingling strategic fouling and assiduously husbanded timeouts to lengthen the game. “He said, ‘You’re not allowed to use timeouts,’ ” says Phelps, currently an assistant coach at Columbia University. “It’s his timeouts.”

Smith explored every nook and cranny of the rules and tried to take advantage. Many of his manipulations – the foul-and-timeout endgame, impromptu team confabs when a player fouls out, defensive huddles at the free-throw line – now are ubiquitous. Having his players incessantly jockey for position contributed to elimination of the jump ball.

Then there was “that damn Four Corners” offense, as retired Maryland coach Gary Williams calls it. Copied from others but perfected during the mid-1970s with star Phil Ford as the ball-handler, UNC’s maddening delay hastened the advent of the shot clock and 3-pointer, which Smith embraced.

Smith employed every tool at his disposal, the mental as well as the strategic. If he could distract an opponent, get under another coach’s skin, so much the better. Gary Williams, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, says he even studied how Smith conducted postgame news conferences, soaking in the subtle way he criticized officials and rivals.

Stats as weapons

A mathematics major at Kansas, Smith was a student of statistics decades before analytics were popularized by the likes of baseball researcher Bill James and “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis. Smith’s 1982 book, “Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense,” focuses in part on “performance evaluation statistics” he helped develop in the mid-50s.

Black recalls that, as a freshman, the coach had his “head spinning” with arcane talk of points per possession. ACC press room veterans still mimic Smith saying, twang and all, “Ah, the way we keep assists …” to describe how UNC gave its players in-house credit for the pass leading to free-throw attempts, a modern analytic measure that never makes a box score.

For Smith, stats were not only a precision tool but a blunt weapon. Maryland’s Williams savors a sideline exchange at the Smith Center after official Lenny Wirtz abruptly called a technical foul on Smith, seated unassumingly on the bench with his staff. When the action brought a colorful Wirtz near Williams, the visitor inquired what had precipitated the technical.

Wirtz referred to Smith as something mildly profane, then he asked rhetorically, “You know what he did?”

“I said, ‘No.’ ”

“ ‘He told me his record’ – say it was 78-50 – ‘in games that I have worked.’ ”

“And I said, ‘Yeah?’

“Then he said, ‘That’s the worst record of any referee that’s worked my games.’ ” Thus criticized, Wirtz called the technical foul.

“That’s Dean,” Williams concludes. “Take 50 coaches. Poll them. How many coaches would know their record with officials? Not me. … That was the attention to detail, the attention to detail that Dean had.”

Open shot

Smith’s ability to apply information for instantaneous effect could produce more than amusement or annoyance. Phelps cites with relish an open shot the coach magically conjured following a timeout with eight-tenths of a second remaining in the ’93 NCAA East Regional final against Cincinnati. Smith explained the play would go to forward Brian Reese, presently an assistant coach at Monmouth under King Rice, another former Tar Heel.

“He said: ‘Just drop it in the basket. You don’t have time to sit there and dunk it,’ ” Phelps says of the prescient instruction. “It’s amazing. He said, ‘Brian, you will be open.’ That’s the amazing part. ‘They’re going to play (center Eric) Montross. They’re going to play Donald Williams’ ” – eventually the most outstanding player in that year’s Final Four.

The play worked exactly as Smith described, except Reese didn’t follow orders. “Of course Brian tried to dunk it,” says a laughing Phelps, who inbounded the ball on the play. The dunk missed and the game went to overtime before North Carolina prevailed. Phelps still teases his friend about the shot.

Back in Chapel Hill, several days a week Smith, 83, visits his office inside the building that bears his name. He keeps to a select circle of friends and family, his life severely circumscribed by disabilities. But his basketball influence remains strong, emerging at odd moments and embraced in defining concepts, echoing even as his victory and championship totals are eclipsed, and less-principled operators taint his insistence on integrity and education as off-court keys to his carefully nurtured Carolina way.

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