By Andrew Kahn
Most coaches are not like Dean Smith. Keep that in mind. Too often, particularly at the college level, they’re referred to as “leaders of young men,” praised for their impact off the field of play, when in reality they are good at winning games and not much more. Commentary that should be reserved for an elite few is reduced to platitudes. The outpouring of love for Dean Smith, though, who died at 83 on Saturday, is genuine and deserved. He was about winning games—879 of them at North Carolina from 1961 to 1997—but he was about so much more.
In 1958, when he was merely an assistant at Carolina, he helped desegregate a restaurant in Chapel Hill by dining there with a black member of his church. He recruited the school’s first black scholarship athlete, helping usher in a new era in the ACC. Michael Jordan had this to say in a statement following Smith’s death: “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach—he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”
On the basketball court, Smith was just as progressive. His Tar Heel teams mastered the four corners offense to stall with a lead, but when a shot clock was implemented in 1985, his teams picked up the pace and, later, took advantage of the three-point shot. Smith charted tempo-free stats like points per possession long before anyone knew about analytics. Little things like players acknowledging teammates’ assists and huddling before free throws were popularized by Smith. He started five seniors on Senior Day, another common practice today (on the rare chance a team has five seniors).
Like Smith, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon went to high school in Topeka, Kansas, and attended the University of Kansas. His mentors include Roy Williams and Larry Brown, two prominent members of Smith’s coaching tree. Turgeon says he and other coaches have borrowed so much from Smith, from weekly academic meetings with assistant coaches to a “Thought for the Day” to scripted practices. “He was way ahead of the game,” Turgeon says.
The results speak for themselves. Smith retired with the most wins in college basketball history at the time, reached the Final Four 11 times, and won two national championships, both of which provided iconic moments. In 1983, Jordan, a freshman, hit a jumper to give the Heels a one-point lead with 17 seconds left. On the next possession, Georgetown’s Fred Brown mistakenly passed the ball directly to Carolina’s James Worthy. In 1993, UNC beat Michigan partly because Chris Webber called a timeout Michigan didn’t have. That Smith’s two titles were aided by such unusual blunders is merely a coincidence that, if anything, shows how his attention to detail put his players in a position to capitalize on mistakes.
Smith’s impact will be felt for generations. He truly cared about his players, as evidenced by the waves of gratitude exemplified by Jordan, because he truly cared about people. Even reporters who interviewed Smith only a few times have noted Smith’s recollection of small details. It was not uncommon for him to ask about a child or hobby you’d only mentioned once in passing. His beautiful memory made his dementia diagnosis all the more sobering.
But Dean Smith will not be forgotten, and coaches at all levels would be hard pressed to find a better role model.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.