North Carolina

Legendary UNC coach Dean Smith dies at 83

UNC coach Dean Smith comes out of his seat on the bench as he calls a play in the 1996-97.
UNC coach Dean Smith comes out of his seat on the bench as he calls a play in the 1996-97. 1996 News & Observer file photo

Former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who had a Hall of Fame career, was beloved by his players and became one of the nation’s most revered sports figures, died Saturday evening in Chapel Hill, according to a statement released by the university.

Smith, who had been in declining health the past few years, was 83.

“Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children,” the Smith family said in a statement. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public. Thank you.”

Smith retired in October 1997 as the winningest men’s basketball coach in NCAA Division I history, having passed former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. That distinction now is held by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who remembered Smith on Sunday as a coach, teacher and role model for his players.

“I am incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of coach Dean Smith.” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “We have lost a man who cannot be replaced. He was one of a kind and the sport of basketball lost one of its true pillars.

“Dean possessed one of the greatest basketball minds, and was a magnificent teacher and tactician. While building an elite program at North Carolina, he was clearly ahead of his time in dealing with social issues,” he said. “However, his greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself.”

UNC coach Roy Williams once was an assistant on Smith’s staff. With Smith’s urging, Williams left to be the head coach at Kansas. Later, Smith helped coax Williams back to UNC, where Williams continued to rely on Smith’s advice and guidance.

“As sad as I am, I also feel very blessed because he was such a great influence on me,” Williams said Sunday. “I cannot imagine anyone being a better influence than coach Smith. I just cannot imagine that. So even in times like this when you’re really sad, and I’ve been sad the last few years not having him in the same shape and form that I’d had before, you got to feel very blessed.

“His whole thing was to do the best you could do, the absolute best you could do. Don’t leave any stone unturned. Do the absolute best you could do. And then live with it. ’Til I die, a lot of the things that I do will be from him. And that’s a pretty good legacy.”

Smith, whose UNC teams won 13 ACC tournament championships and two NCAA titles, received many awards and accolades. He is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was selected national coach of the year four times and named the ACC coach of the year eight times.

In 2013, Smith was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian award – by President Barack Obama, although Smith was unable to attend the ceremony in Washington.

“America lost not just a coaching legend but a gentleman and a citizen,” Obama said Sunday in a statement. “When he retired, Dean Smith had won more games than any other college basketball coach in history. He went to 11 Final Fours, won two national titles, and reared a generation of players who went on to even better things elsewhere, including a young man named Michael Jordan – and all of us from Chicago are thankful for that.

“But more importantly, Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court – that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jump shot alone ever could.”

Despite all his success, and there was much success, Smith was more than a coach.

He took boys and molded them into basketball players, took basketball players and molded them into men.

He was their coach at UNC but also a mentor. He was a father figure. He was a friend. He was the one they could they call on, rely on, confide in throughout their lives, in good times and bad.

Smith had suffered in recent years from what his family said was a neurocognitive disorder that affected his memory. It was a degenerative condition, and it saddened all who knew him, knew of Smith’s legendary recall, his ability to remember names and discuss moments and details long forgotten by others.

Competitive fire

Adored by North Carolina fans, Smith never seemed comfortable with that adoration. He could be a modest man, speaking softly, his eyes always reading you, deflecting praise.

At courtside, during basketball games, however, Smith’s competitive fire always burned brightly, if just below the surface. He was determined to beat you, and so often did.

In 1961, UNC needed a coach who could change the course and improve the image of a once-glowing basketball program that had darkened under the specter of a point-shaving scandal and NCAA investigation.

Smith, a little-known 30-year-old Tar Heels assistant – chosen amid howls of protest from fans wanting a high-profile replacement for Frank McGuire – came to the rescue.

“It took about five minutes for me to hire him,” then-Chancellor William Aycock once said. Aycock, who was impressed with Smith’s character and teaching skills, added, “I wasn’t very popular for a while. I’ve never seen anything work out any better.”

Smith established “The System” and built a dynasty during the next 36 years. He guided UNC to two national championships, 11 Final Fours, won 879 games, and graduated more than 96 percent of his players. He guided the 1976 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.

On March 15, 1997, Smith broke Rupp’s record for victories with the Tar Heels’ 73-56 NCAA tournament win against Colorado in Winston-Salem. He would coach only three more games, with UNC losing to Arizona in the 1997 Final Four, before retiring.

Smith announced his retirement on Oct. 9, 1997, just days before the start of what would have been his 37th season as head coach. The announcement shook the sports world and beyond, even drawing a comment from then-President Bill Clinton. Longtime assistant Bill Guthridge was promoted to head coach.

It was Smith’s players, however, who most appreciated who he was and what he did.

“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than coach Smith,” Michael Jordan said in a statement. “He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.”

A trying start

Dr. James Naismith invented basketball, but few left a greater imprint on the game than Smith, whose innovations and ideas were copied by coaches from recreation leagues to the NBA.

His program was hailed as the model, and the success of his teams helped keep the ACC in the forefront of college basketball. It also compelled other conference schools to get better.

Smith’s record cast him as a bigger-than-life figure, but he was more than a coach who mastered X’s and O’s and orchestrated shrewd game strategy.

Smith was a faithful Baptist with a keen interest in theology, and an avid Democrat who took strong stands on social issues, never considering whether they were popular. For example, he unabashedly supported integration during the turbulent civil rights movement.

“He saw everybody as a person of value,’’ said the late John Lotz, who was a UNC assistant and close friend.

Smith’s first few years as head coach were trying. School officials had de-emphasized basketball because of the gambling outbreak at several universities – including N.C. State. There were recruiting restrictions and a reduced schedule, making it difficult to attract elite players.

When the team returned to campus after one lopsided loss, there was a dummy of Smith hanging in effigy. It was a devastating blow and also ironic for a coach whose picture one day would hang in the Hall of Fame.

Remaining steadfast and quietly persevering, Smith made the needed breakthrough in recruiting in 1965, landing 6-foot-11 Rusty Clark from Fayetteville. Later, he signed eventual two-time ACC Player of the Year Larry Miller in a head-to-head battle with Duke’s Vic Bubas, and the Carolina basketball program never lacked top talent after that.

The ‘tired’ signal

While a plethora of stars can sometimes create conflict, Smith instilled the team concept. His mandate always was play hard, play together and play smart, which he stressed in one of his several books. Individualism was taboo, unselfishness a Tar Heels trademark.

All-Americans such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Phil Ford, players who could have won scoring titles, embraced Smith’s team-above-self philosophy.

His system was complex. The offense was balanced with a premium on percentage shots, one reason his teams hit 50 percent or better 32 of the 36 years. It also featured the famed Four Corners delay game and multiple, changing defenses including the run-and-jump and scramble that were designed to disrupt opponents’ rhythm – and often did.

Smith also created the “tired” signal, having a player raise his hand when fatigued. If that happened, the player got a breather but could go back in the game whenever he chose.

Practices, closed sessions with a classroom atmosphere, were organized, detailed and timed to the second. Water breaks were brief. No loitering. No loafing. No nonsense.

While demanding precision, Smith never used profanity – “that’s something I can control,” he always said. But he would occasionally elevate his twangy, Midwestern voice to the highest decibel to stress a point.

“I yelled at players,” he confessed. “In practice, not in public.”

Preparation was paramount to him, and no teams were better schooled on how to cope with every game situation than his.

“He was the most organized coach I ever played against,” Bobby Cremins, who faced Smith as a player at South Carolina and later as a coach at Georgia Tech, once said. “He had a great system and had it down pat. You had to be really prepared to play North Carolina.”

Smith the innovator also was Smith the motivator. But he didn’t give rah-rah pep talks. He typically explained what they needed to do to win and the significance of the moment.

Once at Maryland, however, he did promise to sing “Amen” – the Terps’ late-game theme song – if the Tar Heels beat Lefty Driesell’s team. North Carolina won and Smith fulfilled his vocal promise, but according to reports, he would not have won the “American Idol” title.

“He was not much as a singer,” recalled guard Ged Doughton.

Intense rivalries

North Carolina’s success during Smith’s tenure fueled intense rivalries, especially with N.C. State in the electric era of coach Norm Sloan, a fiery, tenacious competitor.

Before one meeting, Smith – accompanied by Lotz – confronted Sloan in the basement of Reynolds Coliseum about comments the Wolfpack coach had made before a game regarding officiating. Sloan snapped back with “Your locker room’s down there” and pointed Smith in the opposite direction.

Everybody wanted to beat Smith, and several took him on head-on and temporarily wrested the power from his Tar Heels.

Sloan’s teams led by superstar David Thompson defeated UNC nine times in a row and won a national title in 1974. Krzyzewski later became an icon at Duke and won two of his four national crowns in 1991 and ’92. N.C. State’s Jim Valvano ruled in 1983, beating North Carolina in the ACC tournament and going on to win an NCAA crown in fairy tale fashion.

When current Texas coach Rick Barnes was at Clemson, he challenged Smith verbally at midcourt during an ACC tournament game and upset the Tar Heels that night.

“Dean did a great job of not getting personal, but he had some of those coaches he was really glad to beat. He really did a great job keeping his cool,” Guthridge once said.

Smith endured, managing the stress with equanimity.

After all the challenges, he came back to reign in the ACC again before retiring at age 66.

Though producing a perennial power, Smith’s failure to win a national title in his first six trips to the Final Four provoked frustration among UNC loyalists. When North Carolina lost to Marquette in the 1977 NCAA final, Smith drew strident criticism for slowing the game’s pace after UNC had rallied to tie Al McGuire’s Warriors.

In 1982, his seventh Final Four appearance, the Tar Heels won the elusive NCAA title with a 63-62 victory against Georgetown that was sealed by Jordan’s memorable, swishing jumper from the left wing.

While that victory filled the only remaining void in Smith’s resume, he told Roy Williams – then a Tar Heels assistant coach – that he wasn’t any better of a coach after winning the title than he had been hours before the championship game.

Eleven years later, in 1993, there would be another national crown featuring Donald Williams, George Lynch, Derrick Phelps and Eric Montross.

Winning close ones

In the final moments of close games, Smith’s teams most often found a way to protect the lead or come back and win.

As an opposing coach once noted, the “last two minutes against North Carolina seemed like an eternity,” with Smith calling timeouts and making moves like a chess champion.

One of the more memorable moments came in March 1974 when the Tar Heels wiped out an eight-point deficit against Duke in the final 17 seconds and won in overtime.

Winning the close ones wasn’t magic. It was the result of meticulous planning, special-situation practice, players who could make plays, and the infusion of confidence Smith ingrained in them.

“I remember in every timeout, he told us who to cover, where to cover, and everything he said happened the way he said it would,” former Tar Heels All-America and NBA all-star Bobby Jones once said.

Guard Phil Ford drew on Smith’s poise under pressure.

“It would be a really tight game, and you’d run over to the bench and he’d be cool and calm,” Ford once said. “He calmed me down.”

More than all the victories, more than all the titles and coach-of-the-year plaques, Smith valued his players most and made all of them feel important.

Star or sub, he treated them fairly, established a lasting rapport, and developed what became known as the “Carolina Family.”

Always available

While they were playing, before each practice, he gave them a “thought for the day,” which might be a passage from the Bible or a quotation relating to pertinent life issues.

Throughout the years, he remained in contact with them, writing them notes at Christmas and sending media guides. When they called or sought his advice, he was always available for a friendly visit or to offer counsel.

Smith’s profound interest in his players’ well-being hit home to Doughton on a bus ride back to Chapel Hill from Raleigh on Black Sunday, the afternoon a heavily favored UNC team lost to Penn in a first-round NCAA regional game.

“It was my last game, and I was sitting in the back of the bus,” Doughton later recalled. “I saw coach Smith walking toward me. He said: ‘Ged, call the office tomorrow. Let’s sit down and talk about the rest of your life.’

“He was as competitive as anybody I ever met and obviously disappointed. I was not one of the better players, yet he took time to be thinking about me.”

Smith also was famous for his elephantine memory. His ability to remember people’s names is legendary.

He had vivid recall of what was written in the newspapers, and at news conferences he wasn’t shy about pointing out certain comments in print.

He had a winsome way with the media, though. In the era before newspapers paid their own expenses, Smith invited area writers to travel on the team charter when seats were available.

However, there was a pecking order, a plane plan. Players always boarded first, and reporters got on last.

Smith also treated the media covering his Tar Heels at the 1971 National Invitation Tournament in New York to dinner at Mama Leone’s.

His commitment to building a championship program strained his marriage, however. He divorced his first wife, Ann Cleavinger, in 1973. They had three children. In 1976 he married Linnea Weblemoe, and they had two children.

In recent years, Smith had been too infirm to be interviewed about the academic scandal involving fake classes that is now gripping the university. A university-commissioned report by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein found the scandal began during Smith’s final years as a coach.

Wainstein’s report said Debby Crowder, an academic department administrative manager, began offering to athletes independent studies that had no faculty involvement in 1993. Crowder, an avid UNC basketball fan, was responding to pressure from the athletes’ tutoring program to make independent studies less rigorous.

No evidence surfaced showing Smith knew about the scheme. Crowder did not begin converting classes advertised as lecture-style into no-shows until 1999, two years after Smith retired, the Wainstein report found.

A coach’s son

Dean Edwards Smith was born Feb. 28, 1931, in Emporia, Kan., the son of a teacher and high school coach.

He grew up with sister Joanne Ewing in a religious, academic and athletic environment that helped shape his beliefs and commitment to excellence.

About 5-10 and 160 pounds, Smith played guard in basketball, catcher in baseball and quarterback in football at Topeka High.

After a stellar high school career, he went to Kansas on an academic scholarship and played freshman football and baseball. In basketball, he earned three letters and was a reserve on the Jayhawks’ 1952 national title team.

Smith knew the game and liked the X’s and O’s, as might be expected of a coach’s son.

After graduating with a degree in math, he served as an assistant coach at his alma mater, then joined the Air Force and played and coached basketball in Germany.

Later he spent three years on the basketball staff at the Air Force Academy, and also coached baseball and golf for one year. Golf would be a lifelong passion.

UNC’s Frank McGuire hired him as an assistant in 1958 and three years later, when McGuire left amid an NCAA storm, Smith was named head coach.

That McGuire – who could have picked from dozens of standout assistants at that time – hired Smith was a ringing endorsement of his coaching ability, Aycock said then. McGuire relied on his assistants for much of the X&O facets of the game.

Aycock said he also was convinced Smith would teach players lessons for life as well as how to win basketball games.

Strong convictions

Raised in a Christian home with devout parents, Smith had a strong faith and was a long-time, active member of Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

Smith read extensively about theology, believed all people were created equal and valued each person with that attitude.

Two books – “Beyond Ourselves” and an interpretation of the New Testament his sister gave him – heightened his spiritual growth during that low moment when he was hung in effigy.

“His faith helped give him perspective,” Ewing said several years ago.

Smith had strong convictions and wasn’t afraid to take a stand publicly. For example, he supported the call for a nuclear freeze, signed a petition against the death penalty and worked hard for racial equality in Chapel Hill and throughout the state.

When All-America player Charlie Scott, an African American, made a recruiting visit to UNC, Smith took him to his predominantly white church on Sunday.

In retirement, Smith remained an activist, speaking out against the lottery and working with his wife, Linnea, on various community projects.

He also played golf and maintained an office in the basement of the arena bearing his name. When invited, he would watch Tar Heels teams practice and admitted that was when he missed coaching the most.

Bigger-than-life figure

For many years he shared his knowledge of the game with former players who became coaches and also produced several instructional tapes, on the point zone and scramble defense.

Even as players went on to their own successes, Smith remained a bigger-than-life figure.

Former guard Buzz Peterson likes to tell a story about visiting Jordan, his UNC roommate, when Jordan was the NBA’s megastar and winning championships for the Chicago Bulls. The two were in Jordan’s car, cruising around Chicago, talking about “coach Smith” and how they used to get upset about something as players and decide they would go in to see Smith – together, of course.

Once in front of “coach,” once under his gaze, the cockiness was gone, the grievances forgotten and they soon were back on their way, having apologized for taking up too much of his time.

So here they were, in Chicago, and Jordan was telling Peterson that times had changed, that he now was a huge basketball figure on his own and now in fact even called his old coach “Dean.”

Peterson said Jordan reached for his car phone, calling Chapel Hill. Smith’s administrative assistant, Linda Woods, answered as always and Jordan quickly made small talk and said he needed to speak to “Dean,” smiling at Peterson as he said it.

Soon, Smith was on the line. Peterson watched and listened. Jordan’s voice, so strong and decisive, all MJ, soon lowered to a near whisper, his tone almost apologetic as he told “coach” he hoped everything was OK in Chapel Hill and, well, he was sorry for taking up too much time and would hang up now.

Such was the reverence, the respect, for “coach Smith.”

Smith is survived by his wife, Linnea, and their daughters, Kristen and Kelly; and daughters Sharon and Sandy, and a son, Scott, from his marriage to his first wife, Ann; sister, Joan Ewing; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

“Sometimes the word ‘legend’ is used with too little thought. In this instance, it almost seems inadequate,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford, a former athletics director at UNC, said Sunday in a statement. “He was basketball royalty, and we have lost one of the greats in Dean Smith.”

A.J. Carr and Ron Green Jr. contributed.

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