To his players, the first sign – the only sign, really – that something was different in the fall of 1997 was this: Dean Smith, then still the North Carolina coach, had his players go through some regimented individual workouts on the court before preseason practice started.
They had never done that exactly that way before. Not long after when he met his team, formally, for the final time, Smith said he’d wanted to try something different, to see if maybe changing a familiar preseason routine might energize him.
“What he had said to us was he was trying to see if he could get his batteries charged up,” said Brad Frederick, then a walk-on and now UNC director of basketball operations. “And so that was really the only indication that anyone could have had.”
That was hardly any indication at all that Smith might retire. He kept it a secret, mostly – and publicly – right up until the end, until the day he announced he had coached his final college basketball game.
Then, when he made that decision, the man who invented the concept of pointing to the passer – giving the assist man his due after a made basket – gave perhaps his greatest assist of all. Smith turned over his program to his longtime assistant coach and one of his closest friends, Bill Guthridge.
Lost a little bit in all the stories about Smith since his death on Saturday night at the age of 83 – and there have been a great number of incredible stories about his civil rights advocacy and social conscience, and his basketball mind – is what he did for Guthridge, his longtime right hand.
For 30 years, from 1967 through 1997, Guthridge was Smith’s top assistant coach. Three decades of bus rides and plane rides and recruiting trips. Three decades of running practices together, drawing up plays together and winning and losing together.
Guthridge could have left. There was no shortage of chances.
Once he was in line for the head job at Arkansas. Once he thought he was headed to Penn State to become head coach.
“But (I) decided not to,” Guthridge said in a 2012 interview. “And then I decided I was not going to ever go anyplace else.”
So at UNC he remained, ever faithfully by Smith’s side, Smith by his. Go back and look at any picture of the UNC bench from the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s, and there are Smith and Guthridge, sitting together, always. Until Smith decided to leave the bench in 1997.
Smith’s retirement at 66 on Oct. 9, 1997, stunned his players. It stunned everyone.
He had gone through the summer without hinting at it and then, with the start of a new season just weeks away, it happened. Though perhaps that was all by design.
“Nobody’s ever told me this,” Frederick said. “So I don’t know for sure. But by making that decision a week before practice started, he guaranteed that coach Guthridge, who had served him so loyally and stayed with him and turned down head coaching jobs – that coach Guthridge had the opportunity to be the head coach.”
The timing of Smith’s retirement assured – not that there would have been much doubt, anyway – that Guthridge would take over. The talent Smith left behind increased the odds that Guthridge would be successful.
That was important to Smith, UNC coach Roy Williams said Sunday. Sometimes in those days, Smith and Williams talked about the day when he would walk away. Smith always said when the job began to feel like a job – when he didn’t quite have that same passion for it – he’d leave.
There was more to it, though. Smith felt an obligation to his successor. Since he wanted Guthridge to succeed him, he felt an obligation, mostly, to Guthridge.
“He had told me when he left, he wanted (to be sure) the team that he left was really good,” Williams said. “He wanted to make sure he wouldn’t blame himself for not leaving something there, that anyone who took the spot could be successful.”
Williams said he kept hoping Smith would change his mind about retiring so young – relatively young, at least.
“But that was coach Smith,” Williams said.
That was coach Smith, retiring in a way to ensure that his longtime assistant would take over, and then leaving him a roster that included Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Shammond Williams, the latter a senior guard who averaged nearly 17 points in Guthridge’s first season.
Coaches are sometimes known for sticking around too long, past the point when they’re able to leave completely on their own terms. Smith, though, felt a change within after the 1996-97 season.
The thought of sticking around just to win some more games, maybe make another Final Four, wasn’t enough. It might have been for another coach more driven by such record-chasing.
“That’s another thing that’s kind of amazing about it,” Frederick said. “You look at that team that came back and it was stacked and loaded. And imagine how hard it would be for most people to walk away from that.”
Smith did. He walked away and handed his program to Guthridge, so long the assistant and then, finally, the man in charge. After Guthridge served him for three decades, the final assist in their professional relationship – the one on the court – came from Smith.