Luke DeCock

DeCock: The disciples of the Gospel of Dean

Former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, right, talks with Larry Brown in 2010.
Former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, right, talks with Larry Brown in 2010. 2010 AP file photo

King Rice was digging through a pile of old boxes this summer when he found a VHS tape, “Dean Smith’s Point Zone Defense.” The former North Carolina guard figured, why not?

Rice, the head coach at Monmouth, had the tape transferred to DVD and started watching it with his staff, which includes two other former Tar Heels, Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese.

“We put it in, and, oh my gosh,” Rice said. “The coaches and I sat there and watched it together, and we all laughed just hearing his voice. It was funny how quickly he’d get your attention, get you to do the right things.”

After all these years, the old coach’s teachings still hold true; Rice’s team switched to Smith’s point zone this season. It’s only one in a long list of lessons Rice learned playing for Smith that he uses today, even though he admits his players have only a vague idea of who Smith is. Rice still has the practice plan from his first North Carolina practice as a freshman, he approaches recruits the same way Smith approached him and his family, and he has tried to create the same atmosphere around his own team that Smith created around his.

“We have a lot of the same rules that they do,” Rice said. “All the stuff around our program is based on what I learned from coach Smith, every part of it. I’m just not as good at implementing things as coach Smith.”

It’s no coincidence Rice’s staff includes Phelps and Reese. That’s definitely the way Smith would have wanted it. He once spent remarkable amounts of time calling his former players and coaches and watching their games on television, staying up late at night to watch West Coast NBA games.

He pushed his protégés to take care of one another, to hire and draft each other, to think of their Carolina family first. Since his illness removed him from the equation, it has become their responsibility to pass along everything they learned.

They are the basketball priests of the Gospel of Dean, disciples who form a coaching tree that has many limbs, strong roots that tap the very genesis of the game of basketball at Kansas in James Naismith and Phog Allen, and continues to bear fruit today.

The two strongest branches of that tree, Larry Brown and Roy Williams, both won NCAA titles and both honored Smith’s heritage by coaching at Kansas, but both always thought of Chapel Hill as home in large part because of their loyalty to Smith.

“Whatever I know about this game, even though I’ve probably been exposed to more great coaches than anybody – (Frank) McGuire, Smith, Pete Newell, (John) McLendon, Alex Hannum, Mr. (Moe) Iba – I value everything I learned from them, but you know I’m a product of coach Smith,” said Brown, now the head coach at Southern Methodist.

“I don’t want to sound hokey, but one of the reasons I got back into coaching was I wanted to share all the things I’d been taught with young coaches and college players.”

Over the course of their long, successful careers, they have been exposed to many different styles, innovations and ideas, not to mention their own personal and unique style. Yet both operate from a foundation that is, at its heart, orthodox Smith.

Offensive schemes and defensive tactics may have changed – although not all of them, as Rice can attest – but the way Smith taught them to teach and to nurture has not.

Brown no longer wears a jacket and tie to work every day. Williams has his regular exercise routine, while Smith’s consisted of walking just far enough so he could smoke a cigarette unmolested. Just about everything else, from their practice plans to their recruiting style, comes from the man himself.

“Pertaining to basketball, you can pick a really high number, 70 percent, whatever,” Williams said. “I still work on the practice plan every morning. I write it out, and I go back and change it, I know he used to do that. I still write notes down of things to get done the next day. On the court, we still do some of the same drills I did 36 years ago when I was an assistant.”

Off the court, Smith impressed upon them the importance of looking out for each other, and never hesitated to offer specific guidance when necessary. He stood up for Rice after he was arrested as a North Carolina player – and Rice tells his players to learn from his mistakes, because he’s not as powerful as Smith was. Over the years, Smith called Brown and told him to hire Phil Ford and Pat Sullivan and Dave Hanners when they were unemployed and insisted Brown’s Denver Nuggets draft Tommy LaGarde in 1977. (He did.)

Williams’ most recent hire was former North Carolina guard Hubert Davis; Brown’s staff includes another former Smith player, George Lynch. Last year, Rice and his Carolina-laden staff traveled to Dallas to spend a few days with Brown and his staff, all operating from the same common ground, all disciples of the Gospel of Dean.

“At 2:30 today, I’m going to practice,” Brown said. “And in our locker room and on our practice plans, it says, “Work hard, work together, play smart, have fun.’ I always used to ask (Smith), ‘Would you mind if I put down that it would be nice if we also defended and rebounded?’ He always said, ‘Yes.’ That’s every day, every practice. Every time I talk about it, I smile because I think of him.”

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