A COACH'S LIFE
My Forty Years in College Basketball
By Dean Smith
Random House. 350 pp. $25
Dean Smith, the most successful coach in the relatively brief history of college basketball and perhaps the most revered as well, has told his own story, or at least those parts of it he cares to tell. Smith is a diplomatic, guarded man, so it should not come as a surprise that he puts a polite gloss on his rivalries with other coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- most notably Lefty Driesell of Maryland, Terry Holland (who "did an excellent job coaching his players") of Virginia and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke -- or that he dances lightly over the many troubling questions that big-time college basketball raises.
For a consideration of those matters, as well as for an unblinking (but deeply admiring) portrait of Smith, one must turn not to A Coach's Life but to David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps, a thorough, perceptive examination of the life and career of Smith's most celebrated pupil and protege, Michael Jordan. To say this is not to denigrate Smith's book but to make plain that, like most autobiographies by eminences who are not by nature or experience given to public self-examination, A Coach's Life is closer to a state paper than a memoir.
At this point a caveat is in order. Smith's 36-year reign as head coach of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began in the fall of 1961, a few months after my graduation from that institution. He and I have never met, but I followed him and his teams for much of those three and a half decades with the zeal of a loyal and devoted alumnus. In later years, as the college game became ever more commercialized, as it became the cart pulling the academic horse, my enthusiasm faded and my skepticism rose; I wrote many book reviews and columns critical of big-time sports, and when Smith seemed to me to have acted in questionable ways I felt it necessary to say as much, though it pained me to do so.
But both the alumnus and the skeptic in me are quick to add that Smith, who retired two years ago, was a good man in an environment where that can be a hard thing to be. As is so often the case, everything can be traced to the beginning, which for him was in Kansas, as the child of loving, happy, principled parents, both of whom were teachers. His father coached as well as taught: "His values were pretty simple; I learned from him that you didn't need a whole lot of rules, just a few important ones that you were willing to stick to no matter what." He also learned "that the only way to win consistently in basketball is to play as a team, a view that suffused my upbringing and my own philosophy of the game."
Smith went to the University of Kansas, where he played on the varsity basketball team and sat at the feet of its famous coach, Phog Allen, and his assistant, Dick Harp, both of whom influenced him strongly. He learned quickly and well, but even as he absorbed the knowledge of others he was in no way reluctant to place his own stamp upon it. He must have made a powerful impression, for it was a mere eight years after his graduation that he became head coach at UNC.
The job was a plum, but a much smaller one than it is now. Though the school had won a national championship in 1957, its basketball program came under suspicion in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The president of the UNC system, William Friday, and the chancellor at UNC, William Aycock, acted sternly, placing the UNC team under stringent sanctions. These steps were necessary and probably established the foundation of probity upon which Smith built so successfully for so many years, but they put him at a competitive disadvantage, to the extent that when his team went through a bad patch in 1964, he was hung in effigy in front of Woollen Gymnasium.
"The incident," as Smith says, "has become part of Carolina lore," though he also says, "I didn't dwell on the episode or worry too much about my job." He could relax because he had the unwavering support of Aycock, "a decisive leader who wasn't afraid to make tough decisions." Aycock is little-known outside North Carolina, but perhaps the heartfelt tribute Smith pays to him will in some measure change that. It was my privilege to come to know Aycock a bit during my Carolina years, to work with (and occasionally at cross purposes to) him in various ways; my respect for and gratitude to him are every bit as deep as Smith's, and nothing about this book pleases me so much as the recognition it affords him.
Just about everything else in Smith's story is common knowledge, not just among Carolina alums or college basketball fans. The man who was hung in effigy in time became the man whose teams won more intercollegiate games than anyone else's, including two games that iced national championships. The players who came under his tutelage included Billy Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Miller, Charlie Scott, James Worthy, Robert McAdoo and of course Jordan. These, and many others, had brilliant professional as well as college careers, not merely because of their innate gifts but also because of the skills and discipline that Smith, the teachers' son, taught them. Smith is too modest to take credit for this, so one must turn to Halberstam for a detailed account of how Smith's emphasis on the team over the individual shaped every young man who played for him.
It is characteristic of Smith that the only appendix in this book contains not a record of his teams' championships and honors but a list of every player and team manager during his tenure, along with a description of their post-graduate careers. Among them are far more professional men, teachers and public servants than pro players; the record is impressive testimony not merely to Smith's inspiration but also to the power of team sport to shape the lives of its participants for the better. Small wonder that Smith says, "at Carolina we gained a clear and vital understanding of the place of collegiate athletics on a campus," or that he writes:
"It was important to demonstrate that academics was always our first priority. The coaches in our program had a great relationship with the faculty. We built up a trust over the years because the faculty knew that we recruited with the aim of making sure our players could do the work at the university. I could tell how supportive the faculty was of our team based on the number of tickets they bought at the faculty rate. For several years there has been a waiting list in order for faculty to buy tickets."
Smith can be forgiven for seeing the university and the faculty through the blinders of his own achievements and celebrity, but the truth is a lot more complicated than that. Yes, there are teachers who root for the Tar Heels as noisily and mindlessly as any undergraduate, but there are others who resent it that, in Smith's proud description, "the basketball program was truly `the front porch' of the university," who feel that being Basketball Central is a mixed blessing at best, who think Smith was pampered and isolated from campus life in ways that not even the most respected and famous professor could hope to be. There was resentment as well as applause when Smith allowed the huge new basketball playpen to be named in his honor, and the deal Smith struck with Nike -- "Nike gives the Carolina athletic program a considerable amount of money and equipment, in exchange for which our 28 men's and women's teams wear Nike shoes and apparel" -- is not universally viewed as benignly as Smith himself views it.
Smith is entitled to be proud of his record, but he declines the opportunity to look in depth and candor at the game he served so well for so long. He touches only briefly on recruiting, to all intents and purposes he does not mention "boosters" and their influence at all, and the view he takes of big-time college sport is -- when one considers the abuses routinely committed in its interest -- astonishingly naive and self-serving. So far as I have been able to tell he is a fine and decent man, and heaven knows he was a great coach, but in his autobiography, as in the coach's seat, he keeps all his cards close to his vest.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.