North Carolina

Morris: Behind the scene stories of covering Dean Smith

UNC coach Dean Smith points to one of his players after making an assist during a 1988 ACC Tournament game in Greensboro, NC.
UNC coach Dean Smith points to one of his players after making an assist during a 1988 ACC Tournament game in Greensboro, NC. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Before he was the South Carolina men’s basketball coach from 1981 to 1986, Bill Foster had the great misfortune of plying his trade at Duke, just a few miles down U.S. 15-501 from Dean Smith at North Carolina.

Foster led Duke for six seasons, including an appearance in the 1978 national championship game against title winner Kentucky. Yet Foster grew increasingly frustrated at working every season not only to build his team but also in competing against Smith and UNC.

Foster often joked: “I thought it was Naismith who invented this game, not Dean Smith.”

He drew laughter each time he said it in front of a different audience. Beneath the sarcasm was revealed a kernel of truth. James Naismith is widely regarded as the inventor of basketball. Smith, who died Saturday at age 83, simply reinvented it.

I was never afforded a comfort level in 11 years as a reporter covering Smith’steams during the 1980s. That is because Smith swatted away most story angles, no doubt believing they might reveal too much about him and his program.

So, to really dig in and appreciate Smith’s mastery, one had to gather more than a decade of notes. Then, the bigger picture emerged of just how Smith was a visionary and innovator.

The funny thing is that the one invention he is most credited with, was not his at all. John McLendon, then the coach at N.C. Central in Durham, came up with the idea of putting one player in each corner and having the middle man dribble around. Smith emulated it as his “Four Corners” offense. For the record, he never took credit for it..

There were plenty other Smith innovations that have had a lasting impact, the most noteworthy of which were the finger pointing from a scorer to his teammate who threw the pass as a way of recognizing the assist, and the huddles at the free-throw line during breaks in action to call the next offensive or defensive series.

Smith also instituted the fist signal as a way of a player telling the coaching staff he was tired and needed a break. Trouble was, Smith forgot about it during his first game as head coach in 1961. When future coach Larry Brown threw up the signal, Smith kept shaking his fist back at him as if to say, “Way to go. Way to go.”

Another time, a reporter asked Smith why burly 6-foot-11, 300-pound center Jeff Crompton never jumped at tip-off. Smith smiled and said, “Because we’re afraid Jeff will give us the tired signal when he comes back down.”

Bench decorum mattered. When a player was removed from a game, he was required to sit next to the assistant coach nearest to Smith. All other players were required to slide down one seat. Smith never scolded a player when he was removed, instead waiting until the action shifted to the other end of the court to offer discreet pointers.

All players on the bench were required to stand and applaud any player who was removed and remain standing until the substituted player was seated. With 10 seconds remaining, either on the shot clock or at the end of either half, the entire bench stood in unison as a signal to the players on the court of the time left.

You never saw UNC managers scurrying around with chairs or converting the court into a mini-convention area as happens in today’s games during a timeout. Players, coaches and managers formed a perfect circle, leaning to create a cocoon affect that kept all noise out for Smith to speak .

He was the first to place one of his players at the top of the key during a free throw with the hopes that a teammate could tap a missed shot that way. He started the business of fouling at the end of close games when his team was behind, and calling timeouts after a made basket by his team.

No stone, or basketball in his case, was left unturned. A manager was stationed on the baseline during pregame layup lines to chart every miss. Smith figured that Jack Nicklaus did not use the practice green before a tournament to work on trick shots, and neither would his team during layup drills. A missed layup by any player resulted in the entire team running laps the next day.

The same penalty applied for just about any offense, such as a missed class, with Smith believing that peer pressure was much greater than any he or one of his coaches could place on an athlete.

Early in his career, Smith talked to his teams at halftime about beginning the second half anew as if the score was 0-0 again. To further engrain that thought, the team changed into fresh jerseys.

Some of his innovations came and went, like the “Blue Team,” a group of five subs who would enter the game and play two or three minutes of ferocious defense while the starters rested. The run-and-jump defense was revolutionary, but better athletes and guards who could adeptly handle the ball rendered the defense extinct.

I always have believed that the current alternating possession arrow for jump balls should be called the “Dean Smith Rule.” Every tie-up turned into a circus with Smith making multiple substitutions and having players jockey for better position around the jump circle.

Smith’s practice whistle would call everyone to sprint to the center circle around him. He often would ask a specific player to recite the team’s “thought for the day.” Again, everyone ran if the memory was wrong.

Smith did not believe in individual recognition in what he believed was the ultimate team sport. Until the NCAA mandated otherwise, UNC’s statistics sheet listed players not by scoring average, but alphabetically.

He was the first coach I recall to hold Senior Day activities, a practice that included a starting assignment for every senior. His seniors ruled. They picked where the team would dine on the road, and got the choice of seats on every airplane or bus ride. After road games, team managers were responsible for having every player’s individual food order properly filled and waiting at the player’s seat upon arrival to the bus.

Numerous players over the years told me they never faced a game situation that they had not practiced. Think about that. Over a four-year career, they were never caught by surprise. Not once.

When my book “ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History” was released in 1988, my publisher had a golf outing and invited a few dignitaries to play, including Smith. Because I was the author, I was allowed to hit the customary opening tee shot.

As I approached the ball, Smith walked by and said, “Don’t pay any attention to that shed over there on the right.”

Sure enough, I sliced and it clanked right off that darned shed. I was too embarrassed to point to Smith for the assist.