North Carolina

Whittenburg: Dean Smith built dynasty at UNC but is an even better person

NC State's Dereck Wittenburg cuts down the nets after the Wolfpack won the championship game at the 1983 ACC Tournament. State upset UNC in the semifinal game of the tournament.
NC State's Dereck Wittenburg cuts down the nets after the Wolfpack won the championship game at the 1983 ACC Tournament. State upset UNC in the semifinal game of the tournament. 1983 News & Observer file photo

It’s easy to measure Dean Smith’s success against N.C. State. The North Carolina coach won 60 games in 36 years.

There’s no number to quantify the respect Smith earned from some of the Wolfpack’s all-time greats in the process, and sometimes, in spite of the heat in the rivalry.

The way Smith treated his players, and how he helped integrate the ACC, is as big a part of his legacy as his won-loss record, N.C. State great Dereck Whittenburg said.

“He built a dynasty, that I think is somewhat under-appreciated, and he was a true coaching legend and pioneer,” Whittenburg said. “You put all that and the rivalry aside and you’re still talking about someone who is an even better person. He’s part of history in all respects.”

Smith won his first game against the Wolfpack during the 1961-62 season and his last, which was for the ACC title, in 1997. In all, Smith went 60-30 against the Wolfpack.

He got along better with some N.C. State coaches, notably Jim Valvano and Les Robinson, than others, infamously Norm Sloan. Smith went 26-14 against Sloan and 18-7 against Valvano, a pair of Wolfpack coaches with NCAA titles on their resumes.

Robinson only took one N.C. State team to the tournament in six seasons in the 1990s but had a 5-7 mark against Smith, the best winning percentage of any coach in ACC history against Smith. Robinson won his first game vs. Smith, 97-91 at Reynolds Coliseum in 1991, and his last, 78-75 in 1996 in Raleigh.

Robinson said the secret to his success against UNC was his familiarity. Robinson actually played against Smith’s second team in 1963, and then coached against him when Robinson was at The Citadel in the 1970s and then again at N.C. State.

Robinson used to practice 7-on-5 to prepare for Smith’s defensive pressure.

“We knew how to handle their double team,” Robinson said. “I mean, the practices were brutal, but we were ready for whichever defense Dean would use.”

During Robinson’s second season in 1991-92, N.C. State swept the Tar Heels. After the second win, 99-94 in Chapel Hill, Smith and Robinson shook hands and talked briefly at midcourt.

“He always had something to say, it was always calculated,” Robinson said. “He said, ‘Les, you ought to play us more often.’”

The day Jimmy V. got Dean

Whittenburg, who can rattle off details about a basketball game from 30 years ago like it was yesterday, was on the wrong end of one Smith’s best streaks against the Wolfpack, a seven-game stretch at the start of Valvano’s tenure from 1980 to the middle of the Wolfpack’s magical ’83 title run.

Valvano’s first win against Smith came during Whittenburg’s senior season in 1982-83. The Wolfpack beat UNC 70-63 in Reynolds Coliseum, but that’s not the game that stands out to Whittenburg, who is back at his alma mater this season for his third different stint as an assistant coach.

N.C State’s 91-84 overtime win in the semifinals of the 1983 ACC tournament, which the Wolfpack had to win to make the NCAA tournament, is the one Whittenburg featured in his documentary “Survive and Advance” for ESPN.

The Wolfpack nearly lost the game in regulation, on a 3-pointer by Sam Perkins and then trailed by six points, in overtime, to Smith’s powerful team, which had won the national title the year before.

“People don’t realize how big that win was,” Whittenburg said. “Jimmy’s genius was we started fouling. That was something Dean might do.

“That one day Jimmy out-coached Dean, there’s not too many times that ever happened to Dean.”

Admiration from afar

Tommy Burleson was on the winning end of Smith’s longest losing streak to the Wolfpack, nine games from the 1971-72 season until a breakthrough led by guard Phil Ford in 1974-75.

Burleson ranks his role in the Wolfpack’s 1974 national title as his top achievement in basketball. His 7-2 record in three years against Smith and UNC, is not far behind.

“It’s always good to put on ‘L’ on the Tar Heel side,” Burleson said.

Both Wolfpack legends are amazed by Smith’s longevity but also the way he treated his players.

“I really like coach Smith,” Burleson said. “He taught fundamentals and won a lot of games, but he also developed people.”

Whittenburg, who was an assistant to Valvano later in the 1980s, got to understand the friendship between Valvano and Smith. It only deepened his respect for Smith.

“He took care of his guys,” Whittenburg said. “That’s the ultimate sign of not just a coach but a person.”