There is an anecdote in The Carolina Way, the leadership book that seems obligatory for any successful coach, in which former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith shares his team's routine when riding commercial airlines. The seniors were given the first-class seats. The tallest remaining players filled up any leftover seats upfront. ("Cramped airline seats can be very uncomfortable for a seven footer," he explained.) Finally, he wrote, "coaches and managers were seated at the back of the plane."
It's a small detail, one of the thousands sure to be shared as the accolades and eulogies come out about Smith's extraordinary life and career. His legendary status — iconic basketball innovator, principled civil rights advocate, teacher of boys, maker of men — has been extolled in a flood of remembrances since his death Sunday at the age of 83. But he was also a leader of teams, a coach who put his players first and made sure they did the same for each other, not least of all in an environment where egos so often lead to the reverse.
In the airline anecdote, we see a coach who not only prioritized his players' needs above his own, but who created one of the many "rituals" he wrote were essential for building great teams. Many of these are famous today. For instance, he started the tradition known as "thank the passer" or "point to the passer," in which scorers publicly point to the guy who threw them the ball to give them credit.
In The Carolina Way, Smith writes that he and UCLA's legendary coach John Wooden talked about the idea of thanking the passer as far back as the 1960s, and Wooden suggested they say "thank you" or wink at the other player. "That was a good idea, but I wanted a stronger, more visible signal of thanks. I preferred a gesture that the fans could see. The media too." Pointing at the player who made the pass, Smith wrote, showed "appreciation for an unselfish act that helps the team."
At UNC, where Smith coached for 36 years (from 1960 to 1997), he also started the tradition of players standing whenever a player came back to the bench. Players weren't required to stand and applaud when a teammate scored, but they had better stand when one of them came off the court. "In basketball, a team game, no one is more important than a player's teammates," Smith wrote. "No one is more deserving of his respect."
This was particularly notable because Smith was a coach whose philosophy wasn't to pull players for mistakes, but for a lack of effort or selfish play. The players who came off the court were often those who hadn't been pulling their weight. Still, Smith knew that feeling appreciated was a great motivator for better performance, and he would save admonishments for later. "The fans in the building and those on television wouldn't know it," he wrote in the same book. "It's better for the team and the player than to berate him as he comes off the court."
These were only a few of the ways Smith used rituals to emphasize teams over individuals. He wouldn't allow the official game statistics in UNC's locker room, choosing instead to highlight a "coaches' honor roll" that focused on unselfish acts. In the media guide published each season, the bios and photos of players, led by the seniors, were put before those of school administrators and coaches. He was credited with creating the "tired signal," a way for players to raise their hand and say they were fatigued and needed a break, without worrying that a substitute's better playing would keep them from going back in the game. (They could go back in when they chose.)
Smith exhibited that team-first philosophy in his own actions, too. When he became the most winning coach in college basketball in 1997 (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight have since beat his record), his players didn't pour Gatorade on his head, since they expected he wouldn't want to be celebrated. After all, he'd earlier threatened to quit just one game shy of the record "to flout what he regards as society's unhealthy obsession with who is No. 1," Sports Illustrated wrote in 1997, when it named him Sportsman of the Year.
Smith had also said he wanted UNC's famous Dean Dome to be named after his players. That may sound like leadership hokum, but backed up by Smith's actions, it rings true. A UNC student journalist — who wrote a critical column in the early 1980s calling that same arena an extravagance — recounted to Sports Illustrated Smith's response to his column. Smith called him to his office and wanted to know "whether there was something I could teach him that he didn't know," he told S.I. "He was a man who didn't think he had all the answers. I left Chapel Hill with an understanding that here was the one guy who didn't buy into the myth that had been created around him."
And that, ironically, is one of the many reasons Dean Smith became such a revered and towering figure, not only in North Carolina but in all of sports. He didn't make it about him. And he didn't let his players make it about themselves. He put the team first, and in doing so, played his part in creating a legend.