Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

Go to Main Article

Go to NCAA Tournament Section

Go to College Basketball Section

Go to Sports Section


Smith Is Dean of College Hoops

By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Writer
Saturday, March 15, 1997 2:34 pm EST

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- It's the middle of the night in Dean Smith's house, wife and daughters asleep, he in his den, watching the day's game, stopping and starting the videotape, taking notes on each play.

His North Carolina players and coaches don't see this, though they know he always works late, as if cramming for tests, long after they've gone to bed. The next day at his office he goes over the tape again for five hours with assistants, grading the players on every move, pass, shot.

Fans think he's laid back, so composed on the sideline in his hand-tailored suits and spit-polished shoes. They don't know how intensely competitive he really is, how much time he puts in, how he spends an hour each day handwriting a lesson plan for practice, some philosophical or motivational thought, an offensive and defensive emphasis, and a minute-by-minute regimen of drills.

Smith has saved all his practice plans, 36 years' worth. The last 10 years are in his walnut-paneled office, the rest in storage somewhere no one on his staff can find.

``I'm extremely organized in practice, but that's probably the only place,'' says Smith, who doesn't bother with a typewriter, much less a computer, to collect his ideas.

``He deals in piles, not files,'' says Linda Woods, his director of basketball operations, pointing to the mess on his desk and the cardboard boxes spilling over with books and papers near his black leather chair.

On the opposite end of the office is the paneled ``million-dollar wall'' with two built-in TVs, a screen that drops out of the ceiling, an overhead projector, a CD player, two VCRs, a satellite receiver and tape decks for VHS, Beta and professional 3/4-inch videotape.

When it comes to watching basketball, the 66-year-old Smith doesn't skimp on equipment or time.

``People talk about him being old,'' says Bill Guthridge, his top assistant for 30 years. ``He's still really a workaholic. He doesn't need much sleep.''

Guthridge puts in 12 hours a day, seven days a week, virtually year-round, and Smith does the same. ``He's a night person, I'm a morning person,'' Guthridge says. ``So we pretty well have the clock covered.''

Smith, who became the winningest college basketball coach in history Saturday, is part of a lineage that extends from the creation of the sport to its future. Dr. James Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the rails of 10-foot balconies in 1891. One of his disciples, Dr. Phog Allen, coached 48 years, winning 770 games and spawning the coaching careers of two of his players at Kansas -- Adolph Rupp, class of '23, and Dean Smith, class of '53.

At Kentucky, Rupp coached 42 years until 1972, won 876 games, and begat, in a sense, Pat Riley. At North Carolina, Smith took over as head coach in 1961, has 877 wins so far, including five of seven against Rupp, and begat coaches Larry Brown, Roy Williams, Eddie Fogler, and George Karl.

Smith tied Rupp when North Carolina beat Fairfield 82-74 in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C. On Saturday, as a crowd that included Karl and several other former North Carolina players, such as Sam Perkins and Bobby Jones, chanted ``Dean, Dean,'' Smith broke the record when the Tar Heels beat Colorado in the second round, 73-56. The Buffaloes had scored a first-round victory over Indiana and Bob Knight, who has 700 wins and is the only coach who has a chance to catch Smith in the next decade.

But Smith, who has a contract for four more seasons, isn't thinking about retiring.

Every summer, around the Labor Day weekend, Smith's basketball progeny return to the patriarch of Chapel Hill to play golf and talk hoops, bouncing ideas off each other and helping each other like the family members they feel they are. Once the season's under way, they talk to Smith every week or so, just as Michael Jordan and other former players do. Smith makes time for them all.

``The camaraderie that he has with his players goes a long way,'' Jordan says. ``He's taught a lot of us similar traits and we've accepted that and we've moved on as people and as players. That's something that we treasure more so than maybe our basketball experience -- the things that we learned away from the game.

``He's like a second father to me. When I first left school I was unsure, nervous, scared, going into a situation I wasn't really comfortable with, and I didn't know if I was ready for it,'' Jordan says. ``He calmed me down with a fatherly attitude, taking me under his wing and teaching me a lot of things about being an adult.''

In the past few years, since his father was murdered, Jordan's become even closer to Smith. ``I love him,'' Jordan says simply.

Near the end of one of his most challenging and surprisingly successful seasons with a team that has only one senior starter, Smith has bags under his narrow blue eyes and three deep furrows etched into his brow. He is weary yet wired as he goes for a third NCAA title after capturing his 13th ACC tournament championship.

The Karl Maldenesque nose, the thin lips, the strong chin and the paunch create a figure of a man who's grown comfortably into the true dean among coaches.

He still has that much-imitated nasal voice, flat as the plains of his native Kansas, and that whiny way of poor-mouthing his success, deflecting credit, and passing out praise to opponents that some critics claim reeks of insincerity, if not phoniness.

Yet, to those who know him well, there isn't a phony bone in his body. No one has ever heard him curse. He'll get angry, but no one has ever seen him throw a tantrum or a chair. He's animated during games, constantly popping up and pacing, shouting to his players, needling officials just within the bounds of propriety.

And more than merely teaching X's and O's, which he does with the best who ever coached, Smith imparts a sense of integrity and style to his players.

They travel first class on commercial flights or on planes chartered from NBA teams. They dine in the best restaurants, stay in the best hotels and dress neatly, as he does, in jackets and ties. They can afford to do all that since the basketball program took in $7.2 million last year and cost just $2.8 million to run.

``I got to worrying that we're telling them the wrong things about always staying in the best hotels or eating the biggest steak,'' Smith says. ``I asked the players, `Are we giving you the wrong message about materialism?'''

Smith says he's always been embarrassed by how much he makes -- $162,750 in salary this year. When North Carolina signed a $4.7 million, four-year deal with Nike in 1993, it covered 24 of the school's teams, though the athletic director said ``this easily could have been a contract just for coach Smith.''

Smith received $500,000 up front from Nike. But instead of grabbing as much money as he could and vaulting himself into the headier financial company of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Georgetown's John Thompson and Kentucky's Rick Pitino, Smith did something unusual. He gave away half his $300,000 annual Nike salary, distributing it among his assistants and office staff. He also earmarked $45,000 a year of his salary to a special fund to help former players finish their degrees.

Smith likes to engage his players with ideas, making them memorize quotes like this one from first-century philosopher Epictetus: ``Make the best of what is in your power: Take the rest as it happens.''

Smith wrote that on the practice plan at the Final Four in 1993, and North Carolina went on to win the championship.

``Thoughts for the day, offensive boards, defensive balance, hands up on defense. Yeah, I still remember that,'' Jordan says, smiling. ``No cursing. You've got to run the steps if you cursed. I had to run the steps a couple of times.''

For many years now, his assistants have done most of the recruiting and evaluating of high school prospects. Smith closes the deals.

``My first impression of coach Smith was honesty,'' says Phil Ford, the greatest guard Smith ever had to run the four-corners offense.

Ford, a North Carolina native, was highly recruited in the region, with coaches promising him starting spots and plenty of playing time. Smith didn't promise Ford anything. Instead, he told him he might have to play on the junior varsity.

``That kind of set me back,'' Ford says. ``But my mom really liked that because she said, `Phil Jr., if he's not out here promising you that you will start, that means that if you go there and work hard and do the best that you can do, then he won't be out promising your job to another high school player.' And if you think about it, that made a lot of sense.''

Ford went on to become a three-time All-America, John Wooden Award winner as a senior, and NBA Rookie of the Year in 1978. But his pro career ended after seven years, in part because of a broken orbital bone of his left eye in his third year that caused permanent double vision, and the alcoholism that ensued. That's when he discovered the full extent of Smith's loyalty.

``He saved my life,'' Ford said. ``It was like, `Hey, I'm here for you.' It's going to be me and you. You and I will solve this problem together.''

Smith made calls to rehab centers and got Ford started toward recovery. That was just over 10 years ago. A couple of years later, his life back on track, Ford joined Smith as an assistant coach.

If Smith has any flaws, it is perhaps taking loyalty to the extreme, protecting his players and worrying about them more than himself.

He got into a nasty ruckus last year with Clemson coach Rick Barnes, who was angry at Smith for talking to Tiger players during a couple of games, accusing them of dirty play that risked injury to his Tar Heels. That spat lingered until both coaches were called into a meeting to settle the issue before the ACC commissioner.

Smith's loyalty has been a cornerstone of his entire career. He has nothing bad to say about Frank McGuire, the dapper New Yorker who led the Tar Heels to an NCAA title in 1957, hired Smith as an assistant in 1959 and then left the university under the shadow of missing money and recruiting violations.

Smith rebuilt the scaled-down program and endured the early enmity of some hostile fans -- including student pranksters who hanged him in effigy after a loss to Wake Forest in 1964. Billy Cunningham, whom McGuire recruited, raced from the team bus when he saw that effigy and tore it down. Smith wore a pained expression but never spoke of the incident.

``Every time you ever talk to him he starts trying to deflect his success to his team, his players, his assistants, the janitors,'' says Roy Williams, a former assistant and now coach of No. 1 Kansas. ``This record is a situation where the attention has to be focused on him. ... I think every player that's ever played for him, and every coach that's ever coached with him, wants it for him at least 1,000 times more than the man wants it himself.''

For all Smith's victories and all his famed innovations -- the infuriatingly effective four-corners offense, the changing defenses, the foul-line huddle -- perhaps what's most impressive is the way he's turned out winning teams and successful graduates so consistently for so long.

On the wall above the couch in his office are photographs of every letterman who's played for Smith since his first season as head coach in 1961-62. The players in those early days, like Cunningham, had short haircuts. A decade later, the photographs show players, like Bob McAdoo and Phil Ford, with long sideburns and Afros. In the '80s, Michael Jordan was among those who brought back short hair, and then the shaved-head look of the '90s.

Over the years, Smith changed with the times, guided by a sense of doing what he felt was right, rather than what was fashionable or easy, a trait he inherited from his parents, teachers in Emporia, Kan.

Smith helped end segregation in Chapel Hill by accompanying a black theology student to a whites-only restaurant in 1959. Seven years later, Smith recruited Charlie Scott from New York and made him one of the first black athletes to earn a scholarship at a Southern university. It would be four more years before Rupp allowed a black player on one of his Kentucky teams.

Scott not only led North Carolina to its second and third straight Final Fours in 1968 and 1969, he paved the way for other black players in North Carolina and the rest of the South.

A lifelong liberal who opposed the Vietnam War, Smith has been courted several times to enter politics.

``Some time ago a friend wanted me to try to run for the Senate (against Jesse Helms), and I said, you know, I wouldn't mind it,'' Smith said. ``My wife said, `Wait, Dean, you hate cocktail parties and making speeches, why would you want to do that?' She was right.''

Smith fought a losing battle to keep his name off the Dean E. Smith Center -- dubbed the Dean Dome -- when it opened in 1986 after boosters raised $34 million in private funds to build it. And he's tried, as much as possible, to deflect attention from his own record.

There is no false modesty there.

``I think everyone who's ever played for him selfishly would like to say we all played for the winningest coach in the history of college basketball,'' says Fogler, a point guard for Smith in the late '60s, a longtime assistant afterward and now coach of South Carolina.

``But he truly thinks the record's going to distract from his team. ... Then you think, `Coach, that's a lot of wins over a lot of years, that's a pretty prominent record, and it hasn't been against easy competition, and I don't think there's been any NCAA violations, and you graduate about 99 percent of them, and I can't find anybody who speaks ill of you who ever played for you, that's pretty impressive,'' Fogler says.

No matter how impressive, Smith's happiness derives from seeing his players become NBA stars, coaches, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and honest, hardworking parents. He wears his Hall of Fame ring not out of personal pride, he says, but because it represents his players.

The wall of the kitchen near his office is covered with photographs of his players over the years, and their wives and children. There is a snapshot of Jordan's son, Marcus, as an infant wearing pajamas that say, ``All I do is eat, sleep and root for the Tar Heels.'' Displayed just as proudly is a photograph of Smith's '93 championship team, all five seniors in baby blue caps and gowns, graduating together on time.

``He has a basketball program, he doesn't have a team,'' Williams says. ``And when you have a program, you're concerned about the kids' entire lives, their entire existence ... and what they're going to do after they leave you and what kind of effect you can have on them as they mature.

``I think that's his greatest strength,'' he says. ``I've always felt that he's the best there is on the court, but he's even better off the court in what he gives to those people who come in contact with him.''

© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

Back to the top


Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help