The winningest basketball coach in college history, Dean Smith (born 1931) retired from the University of North Carolina in 1997 after 36 seasons. His teams won 879 games and had 27 consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories.
Under Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels made 11 appearances in the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I college basketball tournament. They won two NCAA titles, in 1982 and 1993. Smith holds many records, including 65 NCAA tournament wins, and 17 regular season titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Beyond his teams' achievements, Smith was known for his innovations, his recruiting prowess, and his loyalty to his players. Smith coached 30 All-Americans, including the man many consider the greatest basketball player who ever lived, Michael Jordan. Many others he coached went on to the National Basketball Association, including 21 first-round NBA draft picks. At least five of his former players became NBA coaches, including NBA Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham. Cunningham told Time that Smith "takes as much pride in the doctors and lawyers he coached as he does in the All-Stars." Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once said, "Dean is the best teacher of basketball that I have observed." When Smith announced his retirement, Jordan commented, "He's a father figure to a lot of players and a lot of people."
The Future Coach
The only son of strict Baptist schoolteachers, Dean Edwards Smith was born February 28, 1931. He grew up in Emporia, Kansas, watching his father coach. Alfred Smith's high school Spartans won the 1934 state championship with the help of the first black player in Kansas high school tournament history. Smith was an intensely competitive yet sensitive child. In high school he played quarterback in football, catcher in baseball, and point guard in basket-ball-the positions that demand the greatest intelligence and understanding of each sport.
Despite his desire to succeed, Smith didn't have the talent to make it as a player. He went to the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship. There he majored in math and physical education and was a reserve guard on the basketball team. The team won the 1952 national title, but Smith played little. His coach was Phog Allen, who had been taught by the inventor of the game of basketball, Alexander Naismith. Smith would sit next to Allen on the bench and soak up knowledge. "Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach, " said local sportswriter Rich Clarkson.
After graduation, Smith briefly served as an assistant coach at Kansas, then joined the U.S. Air Force in Germany. From 1955 to 1958, Smith was an assistant basketball coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Succeeding A Legend
Smith came to North Carolina as assistant basketball coach in 1958. In 1961, he succeeded the legendary coach Frank McGuire. McGuire had led the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1957, but his aggressive recruiting had put the program in violation of NCAA rules. Smith would polish UNC's image to a fine sheen. In all his seasons, his program never was charged with a single violation.
Smith's only losing season was his first, but it took a while for him to be accepted. In his first five seasons, Smith twice was hung in effigy on campus. "When I was here, Dean Smith was the biggest joke around, " said Art Heyman, a player with nearby Duke University. "Everybody wanted him fired."
A liberal politically, Smith joined in protests on campus against segregation. In 1964, he accompanied a local black pastor and a black theology student to a segregated Chapel Hills restaurant Smith and his players often visited. The visit integrated the restaurant. In 1966, Smith recruited the first black player in the ACC, Charlie Scott. "Coach Smith was always there for me, " Scott told Sports Illustrated. "On one occasion, as we walked off the court following a game at South Carolina, one of their fans called me a 'big, black baboon.' Two assistants had to hold Coach Smith back from going after the guy. It was the first time I had ever seen Coach Smith visibly upset."
Smith combined his outspoken support for liberal causes, including nuclear disarmament and abolition of the death penalty, with a devout Christian faith. He served as director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from 1965 to 1970. He ordered his players to go to the church of their choice every Sunday and return with a brochure to prove they had gone.
The Smith Mystique
After his teams won three straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships beginning in 1967, a mystique started to develop around Smith and his "system" of coaching. At the Air Force Academy, he and head coach Bob Spear had started to develop an offensive delay game. It eventually became a stall strategy known as the "Four Corners." The Four Corners involved stationing a player in each corner of the offensive half-court and passing the ball constantly around the perimeter. The shot clock came to college basketball largely because of the Four Corners.
Smith's teams were known for their passing and for their scrambling trap defenses. He also invented the now-common practice of players huddling at the foul line before a foul shot. And more than any other coach, Smith was responsible for the highly evolved platoon substitution that now characterizes the final minutes of most close games, as coaches shuttle offensive and defensive specialists in and out. "On the sidelines Smith was always several moves ahead of everyone else, " wrote Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated.
Starting in 1967, Smith was six times named Coach of the Year in the ACC. His coaching and recruiting turned North Carolina's program into a juggernaut. But to Smith, winning was not the first priority. "My first goal was to keep my job, " he told Wolff. "Then I wanted to win. It was when I got more mature that I said, What's most important is that we play well."
Smith was known for his presence of mind in tense late-game situations. Mitch Kupchak, his center from 1972 to 1976, recalled a game against Duke in which UNC was behind eight points with 17 seconds left. "His calm throughout was amazing, " Kupchak told Sports Illustrated. "The way he walked us through those 17 seconds, it was as if he said, 'Don't think about this. Just do as I say and we'll win.' There he was in the huddle, looking up at us with a kind of smile." The Tar Heels tied the game and won it in overtime.
Smith was named the nation's top coach in 1977 and 1979. But he didn't win his first national title until 1982, in his seventh trip to the Final Four. It came against Georgetown, when a Hoya player threw the ball to James Worthy of the Tar Heels by mistake. Jordan, then a freshman, got the game-winning jump shot after the team got a pep talk on the sidelines from Smith. Down by a point, Smith told his players: "We're in great shape. I'd rather be in our shoes than theirs….We are going to determine who wins this game." Smith's second title came in 1993, and it was also due to an opponent's blunder, when Chris Webber of Michigan called a time-out when his team had none left. In contrast, the Tar Heels "played with prepossessing calm, " noted Sports Illustrated.
Legacy of Loyalty
Smith was intensely loyal to his players, visiting them in the hospital and keeping in touch with them after they graduated. Former Charlotte, North Carolina, mayor Richard Vinroot, who played under Smith, said Smith wrote to him weekly after Vinroot graduated and was serving in Vietnam. After Worthy turned pro and was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, Smith called and told him, "We're all human. I know you're a great man. Just deal with it as a man."
"I can't think of a time I've ever heard him blame or degrade one of his players, and in return, his kids are fiercely loyal to him, " Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski told Sports Illustrated. "That kind of loyalty doesn't just happen. Things done on a day-to-day basis develop that kind of relationship."
Smith was such a straight arrow that he always wore a tie even in practice. He forbade his players to have facial hair. He and his wife Linnea campaigned to ban alcohol advertising at college sports events. "It's hypocritical for a college conference to have student-athletes tell young people they should say no to drugs when we say yes to beer ads, " Smith told Wolff.
Smith always made academics paramount. His players had a 97 percent graduation rate. To the end of his career, he remained firmly opposed to freshman eligibility for high-profile collegiate sports. If freshmen were ineligible, he told Wolff, "colleges would attract young men who are serious about school as well as athletics, because those who want to go pro after one season wouldn't have the patience to wait around." Yet Smith also advocated paying NCAA players, and he encouraged many of his stars to leave college early to turn professional.
Although he was one of the best paid collegiate coaches, Smith criticized coaches' salaries as exorbitant. He insisted that money donated by shoe-company sponsors to the basketball program be spread evenly to all sports programs, men's and women's, at the university. He was also intensely private. Only over his protests was North Carolina's new basketball arena named the Dean E. Smith Center in 1983. He "was the one guy who didn't buy into the myth that had been created around him, " said sportswriter S.L. Price.
Smith's players had to talk him out of retiring near the end of the 1996-97 season. Smith didn't want to break University of Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp's record of 876 coaching wins. After he won the game, he congratulated his assistants.
Some critics said Smith should have won more than two titles. "I don't believe that 'winning the big one' says all there is to say about you, " Smith told Wolff. "You win big ones to get to the Final Four, or even just to get into the tournament." Smith retired at the start of the 1997-98 season. At 66, he said he could no longer bring the necessary energy to his job. Smith was succeeded by Bill Guthridge, his assistant for 31 years.
"He had a style that no one's ever going to copy, " said Krzyzewski. "To be that smart, that psychologically aware, that good with X's and O's-with that system, and to always take the high road-that just isn't going to happen again."
Further Reading on Dean Smith
Porter, David L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1989.
Sporting News, October 20, 1997.
Sports Illustrated, March 24, 1997; October 20, 1997; December 22, 1997.
Time, October 20, 1997.
U.S. News & World Report, October 27, 1997.