Dean Smith Shaped by His Time
I didn’t know Dean Smith. I came to Carolina long after he had retired and his health began to decline. The impressions I have of him come mainly from others’ accounts, pictures and videos. But it is easy to see the impact he left on the basketball program, the university and the NCAA. Four corners offense, the shot clock, the only coach that could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points a game and, of course, the Dean Dome. These are just a few of the lasting images that come to mind when we think of Coach Smith.
We also associate Dean Smith with what was at the time an unprecedented passion for civil rights “” something he championed by recruiting Charles Scott as the University of North Carolina’s first black scholarship athlete and integrating the Pines restaurant in Chapel Hill. He has also spoken out against the death penalty and supported a number of politicians over the years. It is unusual for a coach to be so passionate about causes off the court, but it was even more so at that time. In that sense, Smith is a pioneer. But mainly he is a pioneer because he led by example in front of his players. He put education first, ensuring that his players got their degree. Even Jordan, despite leaving after his junior year, returned to earn his degree. More than 96 percent of his letterman graduated, and that statistic means a heck of a lot more to me than 879 wins or two national championships.
Perhaps Jordan’s statement on Smith’s passing exemplifies his personality the best. “He was more than a coach “” he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” he said. Although some basketball players today talk about coaches being father figures, it’s usually a ploy to get the media to refrain from making negative statements. It is no exaggeration to call Dean Smith a father figure because he lived by what he preached. Simple gestures like pointing to the player who made a pass or not cursing when he was upset will probably never be seen again. They go to the heart of a person’s character “” and Smi th was someone who had plenty of it. Even the fact that he was uncomfortable with being in the spotlight illustrates his strong belief that athletics should be secondary to everything else.
You’ve heard all of these things before and probably more eloquently from people that knew the man. But I think the key dynamic with Dean Smith is the fact that he coached during a very different and transformative period. The ACC had fewer teams and the chief powerhouses were the in-state rivals. There was less pressure on the basketball program to succeed and bring in dollars for the university. The NCAA had not yet been corrupted by TV contracts, and the stakes were lower when it came to recruiting. Smith took advantage of a key opportunity to mold the program into one that no one else wanted to go up against.
This is not to take anything away from Smith’s accomplishments. They are beyond staggering. But I shudder to think how he would handle the one and done era if he were alive and coaching today. He did in fact run up against some of these pressures during the final few years of his career, and the Wainstein Report showed that 54 players enrolled in AFAM courses during his career. Although this doesn’t make him guilty and does not necessarily mean they were all paper courses, it is an indication that he was exposed to the fringes of a modern era of corruption. The trend of future NBA stars leaving early for the draft poked its head through the roof with the departure of then-sophomores Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse in 1995.
As a result of the university’s current scandal, I often clam up when I hear the phrase “Carolina Way.” It seems to be meaningless now. But it used to mean something, back when Smith was leading by example. Back when there was a way to win in sports while remembering that you’re no more or less human than the other 99 percent of the population. Perhaps it is fitting that Smith retired when he did because I don’t think that he would have wanted to be part of a system that he tried so hard to shape the right way for so many years. Now he’s gone, and we may never see another like him. !