Dean Smith is one of the rare figures and perhaps the only figure who directly connects the birth of basketball to its modern era.
Smith played at Kansas for Phog Allen, the “Father of Basketball Coaching” who played for the inventor of the game, James Naismith. Smith then coached Michael Jordan. From Naismith to Allen to Smith to Jordan, it would be hard to find a better connection from the infancy of basketball to the modern game.
Beyond the games, records and innovations, Smith was an integral part of bringing athletics into the future by integrating the ACC and taking the lead on social and race issues.
Smith died Saturday, leaving a legacy that was celebrated throughout the sports world. Smith was 83.
Smith was legendary not only for his basketball record or his role in championing civil rights, but also his way of remembering the names of every player he coached, from the Hall of Famers to the walk-ons.
“He made sure that we knew our teachers by their first names, not just the last names,” Tar Heels All-American Vince Carter told Athlon Sports in 2005. He’d come and ask you, ‘so, what’s your teacher’s first name?’ He’d have a coach who was assigned to be at the front door of every one of our classes, every player.”
The mantras started in practice.
Wrote Eric Montross, an All-American who played for Smith from 1990-94, in “Game Day: North Carolina Basketball:”
“The emphasis was on transforming young athletes into mature educated adults of good character, both on and off the court. In my experience, this perspective was emphasized by the unique way that Coach Smith began practices. Instead of beginning in a typical fashion with layup lines or fast-break drills, every Dean Smith practice started with a thought for the day, an impressive mix of life lessons and messages pertinent to the game of basketball.
“One such quote, which I have kept with me now for 15 years, reads: ‘When trying to move a mountain, you must first begin by removing small stones.’ Often the freshmen would be called upon to recite these lines, and if the player did not know the quote, the entire team would be sent to the end of the line to run sprints — that is, the entire team minus the player who made the mistake.”
By the Numbers
• Dean Smith won 879 career games, breaking Adolph Rupp’s career wins record of 876 in 1997. Smith now ranks sixth on the NCAA’s all-time wins list behind Mike Krzyzewski (1,003), Herb Magee (1,000), Jim Boeheim (963), Don Meyer (923) and Bob Knight (902).
• Only eight coaches have spent more games on the bench than Smith’s 1,133. On that list are Jim Phelan, Krzyzewski, Knight, Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Lou Henson, Rollie Massimino and Lefty Driesell.
• Only three coaches in Division I history have more 20-win seasons: Boeheim (36), Krzyzewski (31) and Smith (30). Smith’s streak of 27 consecutive 20-win seasons is a Division I record by a long shot. The next longest streak belongs to Arizona’s Lute Olson at 20.
• Smith also set the record for ACC wins with 422, a mark that wasn’t broken until this season when Krzyzewski did it on Feb. 4.
• This is a startling number, but perhaps understandable considering the standard Smith set at North Carolina. The legendary Tar Heels coach was only named national coach of the year three times in 1977, 1979 and 1993. The latter may be the most interesting. Smith won the Basketball Times and Naismith coach of the year awards. The other awards were swept by one of his proteges, Vanderbilt’s Eddie Fogler.
• By now, it’s too easy to forget the college part of college athletics, the University of North Carolina included. Even more important than Smith’s on-court records — and there are many — is that 97 percent of his players graduated. Even those that went to the pros returned to UNC to get their degrees.
Smith’s legacy cannot be removed from his stance on social issues. Smith was among the key figures in integrating the ACC and college sports. Willie Cooper was the first black player for the Tar Heels’ freshman team in 1964. Charles Scott was North Carolina's first black scholarship player in 1966 and one of the early African-Americans to play on scholarship a major Southern school. Scott helped the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1968 and 1969.
What stuck with Scott was that Smith always called him “Charles” rather than Charlie. Scott’s son, Shannon, is a starting guard for Ohio State this season.
Beyond Scott, Smith was outspoken on a variety of issues, including opposition to the death penalty, criticism for the Vietnam War and abolition to nuclear weapons. Such vocal and controversial stances are all but gone from college athletics today.
In 2013, though he wasn’t able to receive the award in person, Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national honor for a civilian. The list of other sports figures honored in such a way is staggering: Hank Arron, Muhammad Ali, Bear Bryant, Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio, Billie Jean King, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Pat Summitt and John Wooden, for starters.
In many ways, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was the perfect culmination for his career. When he started at North Carolina, John F. Kennedy was the president. Nine presidencies later, Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom. Smith reached his first Final Four when Lyndon Johnson was in office, won his first national championship with Ronald Reagan in office and reached his last Final Four with Bill Clinton in the White House.
Smith retired in 1997 after reaching his 11th Final Four. Only John Wooden (12) reached more. Smith’s 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1975-97 remains a record for coaches. His successors, Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty, added four more to extend UNC’s streak to 27. Guthridge reached the Final Four twice in three seasons.
Smith completed his career one of only four coaches to win an NCAA championship, an NIT championship and an Olympic gold medal, joining Adolph Rubb, Pete Newell and Bob Knight. The 1976 gold is notable in particular after the United States lost to the Soviet Union in 1972.
Beyond a coaching tree that includes Hall of Famers Roy Williams and Larry Brown, Smith coached six players who went to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame themselves: Billy Cunningham (1962-65), Bob McAdoo (1971-72, James Worthy (1970-82) and Michael Jordan (1981-84).