"If you make every game a life and death thing you're going to have problems. You'll be dead a lot." -- Dean Smith

Like every other coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference North Carolina's Dean Smith faces a pressure level, which some say is unequaled in sports.

It has little to do with the quality of basketball played in the ACC. Whether the conference is first, second or 10th in quality in a given year it is the same. The reason: the interest level and the intensity of the rivalries.

"The more interest you have, the more pressure you have," Smith said. "Obviously you want people to be interested in your program. But sometimes you find yourself wishing there was just a little less interest and a little less pressure."

Somehow Smith has survived 19 years of the madness. He has survived being hung in effigy in Chapel Hill in 1965 and after a 22 point loss at Wake Forest. He has survived being THE target in the ACC for 14 years.

"It's easy for Dean," Maryland's Lefty Driesell shrugged. "He's always first or second. It's when you're sixth that it gets tough."

If life is easy for Smith he was doing a good job of hiding it Friday night. Moments before his team took the court to play Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals he stood under the stands off in a corner dragging on a cigarette like a football player sucks on oxygen on a humid day. Smith is a chain smoker to the point where his friends sometimes wonder how he makes it through a game without a nicotine fit.

"Occasionally you wonder why you do it at all," he said. "You spend a lot of time hearing people telling you how to do things. It's like with a newspaper man. You think you can write well and you don't want people telling you how to write. I think I can coach. Why should I let my life be dictated by what others think."

Smith will return to North Carolina for a 20th year next season. But two other ACC coaches, each of whom has had considerable success, have had enough. After 14 years at North Carolina State Norman Sloan is heading for Florida. After six years at Duke, Bill Foster will leave for South Carolina.

Both men are taking a step down professionally. They are leaving the nation's most prestigious league. They are leaving programs they have consistently put in the Top 20 during their careers.

Why?

"The pressure," Driesell said. "Look at Bill, just look at him. He looks tired, he looks almost sick. I understand it. It's this league that does it to you.

"You can have one of the Top 20 teams in the country in this league and finish sixth. That happened this year. So what happens? Everybody gets down on the guy for being sixth. They don't pay any attention to how good his team really is.

"Last year we were fourth in the league and everyone blew me out, said I did a lousy job. Well, we won 19 games last year playing freshmen and sophomore. I thought that was pretty good.

"But all I heard or read was that I messed up, that I should be fired. You get tired of reading that crap.It made me so mad I was ready to quit."

Driesell's name is still being linked with the vacancy at SMU because his good friend Russ Potts is the athletic director. He admits he has talked to Potts, but after hearing what he would be paid, told Potts he wasn't interested.

"Russ ain't got enough money to get me to leave Maryland," Driesell said. "Don't ask me how I take the pressure (11 years now) because I don't know how I do it. I guess it's just the Good Lord."

Money is not the reason Bill Foster is leaving Duke although he will be paid handsomely at South Carolina. Until two years ago, despite some frustrations, Foster was happy at Duke. For three years he struggled to build the program. Then, in his fourth year he hit the jackpot, winning the ACC championship and going to the national final without a senior starter.

Naturally, his team was picked first in the country the next season. When the Blue Devils went 22-8, an excellent season by almost any standards, Foster found himself a goat where a year before he had been the hero.

"Expectations can be so dangerous," Foster said. "The first year we went to the national final no one expected anything from us. We just went out, played and had fun.

"Then all of a sudden the next year everyone's shooting at us. We stopped playing to win. We were playing not to lose. The game stopped being fun for all of us."

As the pressure built, as his relationship with the press soured, Foster found himself become a recluse. He took to taking long aimless drives in his car, listening to country music, after each loss. He didn't like what he found himself becoming. When South Carolina began making overtures at the beginning of this season, he found himself listening.

"One thing I've learned in this business," he said, "your friends come and go, your enemies accumulate. Sometimes you change for the sake of change."

No one can accuse Norm Sloan of being a job-jumper. In his 14 years at State he has led the Wolfpack to the national title -- in 1974 -- won three ACC titles and consistently fielded a team which has gone to postseason tournaments.

But now, at 53, Sloan is returning to Florida where he coached from 1960-66. His reasons for leaving are different from Foster's. Money is a consideration. He has never had a written contract at State, Florida made him a substantial offer.

But it goes beyond that. "Maybe I need a different challenge," Sloan said. "I guess we all get tired of the rat-race of this conference sometimes. But I'm certainly not retiring by moving. I'll work as hard as ever. But it will be different."

Left unsaid is how it will be different. Foster answers it: "In most leagues, even the SEC, they worry about basketball from December through March, that's it. In this league if you go to the High's Store late at night for milk in July there's a story on it in the morning paper and an analysis in the afternoon."

Once, Foster reveled in that kind of attention, while he was still building his program. He was the darling of the press with his sharp, self-effacing wit. He had reached the pinnacle of college coaching -- the ACC. Lately, Foster and the press have made East and West Germany look like pen pals.

"When we were still building and we would lose a close game everyone would write that Foster did a great job keeping it close," Duke's sport information director, Tom Mickel, said. "Now if we lose a close game everyone writes that Foster blew it. I think that's what got to Terry Holland this year."

"The worst thing that every happened to Terry Holland was signing Ralph Sampson (the 7-foot-4 phenom) one Virginia reporter wrote recently. "All of a sudden he became the big kid on the block. He couldn't handle it."

Although Virginia Coach Holland swears this has not been his toughest year as a coach, most disagree. His team was 19-10 a year ago WITHOUT Sampson. This year with four starters back and Sampson, it is 19-10 -- losing seven of its last 10 games. Expectations again.

During the last week of the season after a newspaper story in which three players were critical of him and talked about the team's trouble, Holland barred reporters from speaking to the players.For 24 hours he himself refused to talk to reporters. When Athletic Director Gene Corrigan told him he had to talk to the press he agreed to -- but only after games.

"Why don't y'all get off Terry's back," Driesell said to reporters last week, defending his former player and assistant coach. "He won 19 games. What's so bad about that. In this league being good ain't enough. If you're not great they say you're a bum. That's why the coaches get so upset. Nothing they do is good enough for the fans or the writers."

The intensity of both the press and the fans in the league is certainly a major factor. They hover, not four months a year, but 12. And because Maryland and Georgia Tech, the two schools furthest from one another geographically, are only 600 miles appart, the rivalries are that much more intense.

"If you lose in this league," said one assistant coach, "You're going to hear about it, from other coaches, from fans, from the press. It never lets up."

And, it can be ugly. Last year during the final week of the regular season Foster's mother passed away. Three days later, his team lost at Clemson, 70-49. Several days after the loss he received a number of notes from irate Duke fans. One read: "Your mother and your team both died the same week."

They call the ACC the Cadillac conference of basketball. Sometimes a Cadillac isn't worth the heartache that comes with it.