Interviewing Dean Smith was an adventure and, quite often, a challenge. He gave no intellectual quarter. He was given to reshaping a question into a form he preferred, or to dismiss a query entirely, declaring: “Next question.”
The 36-year North Carolina coach routinely parried attempts to explore personal topics, having already requested that friends and associates avoid discussing him with the media. He invariably worked into a conversation that a questioner had attended a rival school, as if issuing a warning that he was alert to bias.
But if Smith felt comfortable with a visitor to his unkempt office, he might begin an interview not by entertaining questions but by talking politics or exploring the news of the day. An interview on the day of the 1984 presidential election had barely started before Smith exclaimed in his nasally twang: “I can’t believe Duke’s Chronicle (the student newspaper) came out for (Ronald) Reagan!”
Smith was periodically approached about running for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina as a Democrat. But the publicity-shy coach disdained the glad-handing involved in soliciting votes and raising money. Besides, he said, “I’d never get elected if people in North Carolina realized how liberal I am.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
He was probably right. Over the years Smith spoke in favor of a nuclear freeze and for gay rights. He opposed capital punishment. He joined a Chapel Hill street protest against the war in Vietnam. When President George H.W. Bush sent American troops into Iraq in 1991, Smith asked: “Why can’t the United States band together for some other good thing like (fighting) poverty? If you want to kill somebody, then everybody’s for it.”
Lessons from home
Smith’s worldview traced to the teachings of his church and to Vesta and Alfred Smith. Both parents were teachers, doubtless contributing to Smith’s lifelong advocacy for educators. “Our teachers at the public school level are the most underpaid for the importance of their job in America,” he said. “I’d like to see a teacher be (considered) a hero.”
Alfred Smith also coached high school football, basketball, and baseball. “He had the same athletes all the way through (school),” his son recalled. “I grew up with athletics and I certainly wanted to be a coach. I thought I would be a football coach.”
Smith’s father defied racial segregation in Kansas, embracing the inclusion of a black player on the Emporia High team he coached. Years later, Dean Edwards Smith was a vulnerable assistant at UNC under Frank McGuire when he accompanied both Robert Seymour, his minister at Chapel Hill’s progressive Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, and an African-American theological student to dine at a previously segregated local restaurant that often served the Tar Heels.
“Go through civil rights again?” Smith asked rhetorically decades later. “Yeah, I’ll be there.”
Soon after Smith became head coach in 1961, the 30-year-old became a pioneer in recruiting African-American players to a major university in the South. In 1964 he brought in Elm City’s unsung Willie Cooper. In 1966, a year after twice being hanged in effigy by students displeased with his coaching, Smith landed Laurinburg Institute’s Charles Scott, the first African-American star in the ACC.
“When I think of coach Smith, I don’t think of him within the parameters of a basketball court,” said Eric Montross, a former player (1991-94) and one of seven consensus Academic All-Americans under Smith. “His impact on humanity has been remarkable. And I don’t think it’s just desegregation. He lived it every day.”
Coaching roots grew in Kansas
Smith attended the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship. He was the Jayhawks’ fifth-string football quarterback and a second-string basketball guard. He played on squads that won the 1952 NCAA basketball title and finished as runner-up in 1953, his senior year.
Smith was helping to coach the Kansas freshmen by the time he was a junior. But Forrest “Phog” Allen, Smith’s Hall of Fame coach at Kansas, urged him to attend medical school. The math major insisted on following his father into coaching instead.
He took with him Allen’s penchant for drilling endlessly until a fundamental was mastered. McGuire insisted Smith scared him to death one night while sharing a room on a recruiting trip – his young assistant shouted, jumped from bed and, still asleep, assumed a defensive crouch learned at Kansas.
As a coach, Smith was known for a strictly calibrated approach to the game. He was also one of basketball’s most determined innovators. North Carolina protected leads by burning minutes in its exquisitely frustrating spread alignment, the “Four Corners.” UNC forced tempo with a scramble defense, made the secondary break an offensive staple, and fouled strategically to catch up in the late going.
Smith played mind games with opponents and constantly looked for an edge within the rules. Who else would stall away an entire period at Duke in February 1979, trailing 7-0 at halftime, in a vain attempt to force Bill Foster’s Blue Devils out of a zone? Smith and Virginia’s Terry Holland similarly faced down late in the 1982 ACC tournament title game, their mutual stall precipitating the advent of an experimental shot clock and 3-pointer.
The next season, with the bonus shot in effect, North Carolina led the ACC in 3-point percentage.
He prepared ... for everything
Smith, an early devotee of statistical analysis, prepared teams for every eventuality. Players said they never encountered a game situation they hadn’t seen during their meticulously planned practices. The same exactitude held sway off the court. Once Smith sent assistant coach Bill Guthridge to the ACC office in Greensboro to watch a coin flip to determine seeding in the upcoming ACC tournament.
Tar Heels were expected to comport themselves as gentlemen at all times; the entire team, minus the offender, ran laps if a player drew a technical foul. Smith believed circumscribed freedoms best served his young charges. “I think the real free person in society is one that’s disciplined,” he liked to say. “It’s the one that can choose, that is the free one.”
Players, like ACC functionaries, understood they were closely observed. To discourage bad habits and elevate awareness, team managers kept track of individual performances even during summer pickup games on campus. Players were monitored not only to check their ball skills and shooting acumen, but to assure they stood and clapped for teammates while on the sidelines.
Smith’s level of control frequently struck outsiders as stifling. His seniority-based program was derided as a basketball IBM, a bloodless system that reduced players to interchangeable parts in a faceless machine. Just calling his philosophy a system made Smith bristle.
His UNC teams prospered by subordinating individual achievement for a greater good, emerging as the ACC’s standard from the late 1960s through the 80s. The league prospered as rivals tried to catch up.
Smith’s approach translated into 879 basketball victories, two NCAA championships (1982, 1993) and 13 ACC tournament titles.
Through it all scandal and rules violations never touched Smith’s program.
One goal: Helping players reach potential
Discipline extended well beyond the confines of the gym – North Carolina assistant coaches checked to make sure players were in class as scheduled.
Better than 96 percent of Smith’s more than 220 letter winners graduated. At the back of every North Carolina men’s basketball media guide was a list of Smith’s former players and team managers, with the year of graduation, degree subject and post-graduate employment.
“We won’t bring anybody in that we think won’t graduate,” he said. “If we ever have a guy that plays four years and doesn’t get his degree, we have used him entirely. But if he plays four years and gets a degree, he has earned something in return.”
Members of basketball’s extended family knew Smith was available to offer advice, personal support, or quiet financial assistance. Smith proudly insisted that, even when meeting with the chancellor, he would stop to take a call from a former player. He strongly advocated for athletes in ways still at issue decades later: a larger stipend to cover what’s now called the full cost of attendance, freshman ineligibility to acclimate to college and the right to turn pro early.
“I’m trying to help (players) reach their goals,” Smith said as his career neared its end. “I have no goals, except for them to reach theirs. And the only difference in goals (is that) maybe somebody wants to average 40 (points) a game. I don’t have that goal for them.
“But I’m talking about becoming a better player, doing well in school, getting their degree. Those are things that I hope (they want), and to enjoy the camaraderie of the team with a common goal.”
The enduring loyalty of his associates, if nothing else, proves he succeeded.