Scott Fowler

North Carolina’s Dean Smith: A professor cloaked in robes of a coach

Editor’s note: This excerpt from “Dean Smith: More Than a Coach,” comes from the book’s introduction by Observer columnist Scott Fowler.

In 1984, when I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina trying to get a job as a sportswriter at The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, I came across an odd question on the application.

“Do you want to meet God?” it asked.

Sure, I thought.

“His office,” the application continued, “is in Carmichael Auditorium.”

The reference, of course, was to UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. By then Smith was a legend, having already guided the Tar Heels to seven Final Fours and one national championship, in 1982.

By the mid-1980s, Smith was 20 years removed from the time UNC students had hanged him in effigy on campus after a loss. Smith would joke later that he knew the crude figure was modeled on him because of its big nose, and that he was glad the students had “settled for hanging a dummy” instead of the real thing.

Smith had gone on to build and lead a program that was the envy of college basketball, but he always deflected credit for it. One of his former players, a center named David Chadwick who became a well-known minister in Charlotte, once asked if he could get Smith’s blessing to write a book about the coach’s leadership principles. Smith reluctantly agreed, with one caveat: “Don’t deify me.”

... Dean Edwards Smith was an innovative, caring, socially conscious professor cloaked in the robes of a basketball coach. He did what he thought was right, no matter the consequences.

Smith died at age 83 on Feb. 7, 2015, surrounded by his wife, Linnea, and his five children and beloved by an extended family of North Carolina players, fans and supporters that stretched around the world.

The coach was buried five days later at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on the UNC campus he so loved.

‘Everybody was equal’

Frank McGuire, the man a 30-year-old Smith replaced as head coach in 1961, had far more charisma and flash than Smith (and also played more loosely with the NCAA rules). As Billy Cunningham, Smith’s first superstar player, once told me: “When McGuire walked into a room, you could sense it. He just had this presence. It’s a gift that some people have, and Dean didn’t have it. He’s not that way. But Dean also made you feel like a person, not just a basketball player. He cared about you long after you left school, and that was whether you were the 12th man or the star.”

Cunningham was one of the players who got off the team bus and angrily yanked down Smith’s effigy in 1965. Later, Cunningham would become an NBA basketball coach, and he once visited one of Smith’s basketball practices in the fall of 1981. Dazzled by the skills of a particular freshman, Cunningham predicted to Smith after the practice that the player – then known as Mike Jordan –would be the best player to ever wear a North Carolina uniform.

“Dean got mad at me,” Cunningham recalled. “I tried to calm him down, saying, ‘Coach, it isn’t brain surgery. Look at him.’ Dean didn’t like that, though. To him, everybody was equal.”

Smith would famously not allow Jordan to appear on the 1981 Sports Illustrated basketball cover with the team’s other four starters, ostensibly because he wasn’t sure whether Jordan would be the fifth starter or not.

Jordan loved Smith and has frequently referred to the coach as his second father. But he didn’t love him that day of the magazine snub.

“That burned me up,” Jordan would say in 2009 at his hall of fame induction speech. But it was also a wise psychological move by Smith that fanned the flame of Jordan’s competitive drive.

Smith was a master strategist. He enjoyed practices the most – that’s where his teaching side came out – and he practiced every late-game situation so often that his players were never surprised by something that happened on-court.

He never cursed. Phil Ford and some of his players laughingly say they sometimes wished Smith did, however, because Smith had other ways of making you feel even worse when you made an error. Smith could “throw chairs with his eyes,” as former player Mitch Kupchak once said.

The coach did not run the Tar Heels like a democracy. It was more of a benevolent dictatorship, with Smith firmly in power. He had always liked to be in control, dating back to when he played three high school sports growing up in Kansas. He was a quarterback, a point guard and a catcher.

By no coincidence, he called plays or pitches in all three sports.

Fowler:; Twitter: @scott_fowler

Book signing Tuesday at Observer

Meet several of the contributing writers behind the commemorative book, “Dean Smith: More Than a Coach,” at a special event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Charlotte Observer, 600 S. Tryon St.

The 128-page book from The Charlotte Observer chronicles the life of the legendary coach on and off the court with historical articles and photos from the Observer archives, as well as a poignant foreword by Phil Ford. Included among the stories: Coverage of Smith’s national championships by Bob Quincy and Ron Green as their columns appeared in 1982 and 1993.

Tuesday, you'll be able to buy the book and get it signed by Scott Fowler, Ron Green and Ron Green Jr. The book is $14.95 plus tax. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund.

You can also order the book at