It’s time to Break It Down!
In the world of college hoops, a hand full of names, by their mere mention hearkens a groundswell of mental pictures and vivid recollections for the casual fan and the game’s connoisseur alike. Dean Edward Smith is one among that small elite cohort. There are others to be sure. Coach Wooden, Coach Rupp, Coach Krzyzewski, and increasingly, Coach Calipari are on a short list. But this post is about Coach Smith, the man who conceived and executed what came to be known as The Carolina Way.
This past Saturday night, former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith died after a lengthy illness. He was 83 years old. Coach Smith had been beset by neurological complications resulting from knee replacement surgery in 2007. As a result, eventually Coach Smith, who always preferred to maintain a low profile, became increasingly unavailable to media, and nearly invisible to the public. He did not travel to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit, where the Tar Heels won their 5th National Title in basketball.
In the summer of 2010 Smith’s family released a statement that described their patriarch as having a progressive memory disorder. Earlier in the same year, during a February observance of the 100th-anniversary season of Tar Heel Basketball, more than 70 of Coach Smith’s former players gathered at the basketball arena that bears his name. They came to pay tribute, to say thanks, and on some level to say good-bye. They assembled to honor the man who coached them through their college careers, and who followed their growth and development thereafter, whether it be as an NBA player, or as a physician, or as a school teacher, or in whatever capacity in which they may have landed in their post collegiate careers.
In the game of basketball, Dean Smith was a savant. In the game of life, he was a life coach and mentor that many of his players consulted in making decisions big and small. It was a role he relished. He understood that the acclaim that came his way accrued as a result of the success of his hoops pupils on the court and in the classroom, as well as in the lives they lived once they left Chapel Hill. It is especially important to include the classroom accomplishments as an integral part of Coach Smith’s tutelage.
His legacy, of course, covers an array of athletic superlatives, including having coached All-Americans such as Phil Ford, James Worthy, and Michael Jordan, having won 879 games (the most in college basketball history at the time of his retirement at age 66, after 36 years), having won two National Titles, having never finished lower than 3rd in the ACC, the sport’s benchmark conference during his last 33 years, having coached in 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments (1975–97), and having his teams advance to 13 straight Regional Semifinals, otherwise known as the Sweet 16 (1981-93). More important, he did this without a hint of NCAA impropriety, and with a sterling academic record by his teams.
In fact, while he won 77% of the games he coached, 96% of his lettermen earned their degree. Those closest to him insist he was far more upset about the 4% of student athletes who didn’t graduate, than the 23% of games he lost. As a basketball guru, he introduced a number of coaching innovations, including player huddles at the free-throw line, scorers pointing to the passer to acknowledge the assist, and the vaunted Four Corners, which was a key factor leading to the introduction of the shot clock and 3-point shot in the college game.
But Coach Smith understood that life was about more than basketball. He was instrumental in integrating the town of Chapel Hill, and recruited the first African American scholarship athlete, Charles Scott, to play basketball at the University of North Carolina. Scott’s arrival at North Carolina changed the calculus of ACC Basketball. It would never again be the same, and that was a good thing. Charles became the first of an influx of talented African Americans to play ACC Basketball. He was not the first black player in the conference; he was however, the first black star.
Coach Smith was known to be not only a Democrat, but as a staunch Liberal. More notably, he distinguished himself as a man committed to doing the right thing for the right reason.
A lot of basketball greats lauded Coach Smith this week. Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and a host of others have weighed in. Each of them spoke about Coach Smith’s many attributes. Volumes have been written about the man, his talents and his accomplishments. Let’s be clear, Coach Smith was a man, not an angel, and certainly not the second coming. But let’s be equally clear, he was a great coach…and a better man. ESPN Classic will air more than 24 hours of programming to honor the legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith starting on this evening at 7 p.m. ET. I urge you to find some time today or tomorrow to check it out. You are almost certain to learn something you did not know about Coach Smith.
Thus, I conclude my “Ode to the Dean of Carolina Hoops!” I’m done; holla back!
PS. GO HEELS!
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