Before the era of saturation coverage of sports, before the era of the college basketball coach as preening schmo, before the era of one and done, before the era of 18-year-olds thinking they could run with the Bulls (and the Lakers, and the Celtics, and the Pistons, and the Spurs)... and well into those eras as well...
There was The Dean.
Dean Edwards Smith was born on February 28, 1931 in Emporia, Kansas. His father, Alfred, coached the town's high school to the 1934 boys basketball State Championship. He did so with the first black player to play in Kansas' State Tournament. It was foreshadowing of what the son would go on to do.
At Topeka High School, Dean was the catcher on the baseball team, the quarterback on the football team, and All-State what we would now call the point guard on the basketball team -- in each case, traditionally, the position on the field requiring the quickest thinking.
He went to the University of Kansas -- not on an athletic scholarship, but an academic one, and he majored in mathematics. The coach was Forrest "Phog" Allen. Allen, for whom the Kansas fieldhouse is named, was a charter inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He had played at Kansas himself, when the head coach was Dr. James Naismith -- literally, the inventor of the sport. Allen became known as the Father of Basketball Coaching.
In 1952, led by Clyde Lovellette and B.H. Born, Kansas went 28-3, won the Big Seven Conference (precursor to the Big Eight/Big Twelve), and won the National Championship by defeating New York's St. John's in the Final. Smith played just 27 seconds of the Final, and only averaged 1.3 points per game for the season, but shot 45 percent from the field. The next year, with Lovellette having graduated and gone to the NBA, Smith, Born, and the rest of the returning Jayhawks reached the Final again, but lost to Indiana -- another bit of foreshadowing for Smith.
He wasn't good enough to make the NBA, so he stayed at Kansas as a graduate assistant. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and coached at the Academy in Colorado Springs. In 1958, Frank McGuire, the opposing head coach in the 1952 NCAA Final, hired him as his assistant at the University of North Carolina. A year earlier, McGuire had led Carolina to defeat Kansas, led by Wilt Chamberlain, in a triple-overtime Final, and completed an undefeated season.
In 1961, for reasons that had nothing to do with Smith, Carolina was put on probation, and McGuire resigned. Smith was named head coach. North Carolina cut back on its regular-season schedule for 1961-62, and played only 17 games. With a team featuring future coaching legends Larry Brown and Billy Cuningham, Smith went 8-9. It would be his only losing season. Still, he was not exactly, to borrow Dick Cheney's phrase, welcomed as a liberator. In 1965, following a loss to Wake Forest, he was hanged in effigy on campus. He won 9 of his last 11 games.
In 1966, he offered a scholarship to Charlie Scott, who had starred at New York's Stuyvesant High School. This made Scott the first black scholarship athlete at UNC, and the first black basketball player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. This was just 2 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- a year in which Smith joined a local pastor and a black theology student at UNC to integrate a restaurant in Chapel Hill. Scott would win a Gold Medal with the 1968 U.S. Olympic basketball team, before playing 2 years in the ABA and 8 in the NBA, winning a Championship with the 1976 Boston Celtics, and then became a businessman in North Carolina. Looks like Smith chose the right man to break that particular color barrier. He also helped Howard Lee, a Carolina graduate student, buy a house in a previously all-white neighborhood.
In 1967, with Scott still a freshman and ineligible for varsity play under the rules of the time, Smith won his 1st regular-season ACC title, won his 1st ACC Tournament title, and made his 1st trip to the Final Four. In 1968 and again in 1969, Scott led Smith's Tar Heels into the Final Four again. But they didn't win the National Championship. The closest they came was in 1968, losing the Final to John Wooden's UCLA powerhouse led by Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). He won the NIT in 1971, and reached another Final Four in 1972, with his star player being Bob McAdoo.
In 1976, he was named head coach of the U.S. Olympic team in Montreal. Four years earlier, in Munich, the U.S. team had been robbed of the Gold Medal by a Soviet-friendly judge. So it was no longer a sure thing for the Americans, as it had been at the Olympics from 1936 to 1968. But he did have one of his own North Carolina greates, Phil Ford. He had 2 of the players who had just helped Bobby Knight coach Indiana to what remains that last undefeated college basketball season, and to become the 1st man ever to play on and coach a National Champion: Quinn Buckner and Scott May. (Knight was the 6th man on the 1960 Champions, the Ohio State team of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.) He had future Knick star and executive Ernie Grunfeld. He had Mitch Kupchak, who would win NBA titles with the Washington Bullets and Los Angeles Lakers, and is now the Laker GM. And he had future NBA stars Adrian Dantley and Walter Davis. They won the Gold Medal.
In 1977, with Ford, Smith got Carolina back to the Final Four, but lost the Final to Marquette, the Milwaukee school coached by the retiring Al McGuire, who then became the premier color commentator for the sport until Dick Vitale (then coaching the Detroit Pistons) arrived. (Although he coached Al and his brother Dick, both future Knicks, at St. John's, Frank was not related to them.)
In 1981, Smith got Carolina back to the Final Four, but again lost the Final, to Knight's Indiana, a replay of the 1953 Final where Indiana beat his Kansas team. But in 1982, it all came together. Despite Georgetown having a team of strong underclassmen such as Patrick Ewing, Smith's Tar Heels beat John Thompson's Hoyas, in a 63-62 thriller at the Superdome in New Orleans.
The Dean had his title, finishing the season 32-2. He joined Knight as men who'd both played on and coached a National Champion. So far, they're still the only 2 to have done it.
The big star on the '82 Heels was "Big Game" James Worthy, and Sam Perkins was also a big star, although the winning shot was hit by a freshman from Wilmington (though born in Brooklyn).
His name was Michael Jordan. By the 1983-84 season, his junior year, Jordan was a big reason why people were picking Carolina as the preseason favorite to win the National Championship. Having future broadcasting star Kenny Smith was another. It didn't happen: Carolina got upset in the Sweet Sixteen, and Georgetown won the National Championship, making Thompson the 1st black head coach to win the title, getting Patrick Ewing his only domestic championship, and redeeming Fred Brown for his '82 gaffe.
Jordan's NBA stardom gave rise to the joke that Dean Smith was the only man who could hold Michael Jordan to under 20 points. But in the sport that rewards individual achievement over any other -- with only 5 men on the court at the time, no individual game can be more easily taken over by a single player, not even a baseball pitcher or a football quarterback -- Smith emphasized team play. He encouraged his players to huddle at the free throw line before foul shots, and told his players to point to the teammate who passed them the ball when they scored, acknowledging the assist for the entire arena to see.
Smith instituted "Senior Day": Starting all the seniors, regardless of how much they had played, in the last home game of the season. One year, he had 6 seniors. He started them all on the court, knowing that having too many men on the court would draw him a technical foul. He wanted to keep his word to his seniors. He won the game anyway.
Smith wrote Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense. It is the best-selling technical book ever written about basketball. That's right: Literally, Dean Smith wrote the book on coaching basketball.
He didn't invent "the Four Corners Offense" -- that was done by John McClendon, the 1st black head coach in Division I basketball, although also a Kansas graduate -- but he brought it to a wide audience. Wikipedia describes it this way:
Four players stand in the corners of the offensive half-court while the fifth dribbles the ball in the middle. Most of the time the point guard stays in the middle, but the middle would periodically switch, temporarily, with one of the corner players. It was a strategy that was used in college basketball before the shot clock was instituted.
The team running the offense typically would seek to score, but only on extremely safe shots. The players in the corners might try to make cuts, or the point guard could drive the lane.
Even if the team wanted to hold the ball until the end of the game, some such strategy was necessary since the rules did not (and still do not) let a player hold the ball for than five seconds while closely guarded. So some mechanism to facilitate safe passes would be needed, which the four corners provided. There were other slowdown strategies, but the four corners was the most well known.
It was most frequently used to retain a lead by holding on to the ball until the clock ran out. The trailing team would be forced to spread their defense in hopes of getting a steal, which often allowed easy drives to the basket. Sometimes it was used throughout the game to reduce the number of possessions in hopes of getting an upset against a stronger team.
Because Smith had used it so well with Phil Ford running it on the floor, it became known as the Ford Corners offense. But when Smith won the 1982 ACC Tournament Final over a Virginia team led by Ralph Sampson by a score of only 47-45, on national TV, college basketball fans finally began to drop the idea that the shot clock, a 24-second one having been used in the NBA since 1954, didn't allow enough time to work with the ball to get a good shot.
So, the next season, 1982-83, the ACC and a few other leagues were allowed by the NCAA to experiment with it. For 1984-85, it was made mandatory. The 3-point shot was also introduced. The NBA had introduced it in 1979 -- the ABA, at its founding in 1967, and an earlier failed league, the ABL, in 1961. With increasing offense, wider TV coverage, and expanding the NCAA tournament to 64 teams, thus creating "March Madness," college basketball had grown up, and was entering the modern era.
("March Madness" had been an unofficial name for the high school State Tournament in Illinois since 1939. Illinois native Brent Musberger, then the lead man on CBS's NCAA Tournament broadcasts, began using the expression for the NCAA Tournament in the early 1980s.)
Wooden, Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, and a few other great coaches achieved their greatness in the old era, the one defined as being before the 3-point shot, before the collegiate shot clock, before the expansion of TV coverage and the NCAA Tournament. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Rick Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, and a few others achieved theirs in the new era.
If you want to make a case for Smith, or for Knight, as the greatest college basketball coach ever, start here: They won National Championships, reached multiple Final Fours, and produced great players, in both eras, both before and after the big changes. And neither got involved in unfair recruiting practices. The difference? Smith was never a loose cannon like Knight. Nevertheless, they had immense respect for each other.
Dean was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, a year after his 1st National Championship. But he was just getting warmed up.
He had coached the Tar Heels at Woolen Gymnasium, a 6,000-seat building that had housed Frank McGuire's 1957 National Champions. In 1965, they moved into Carmichael Arena, which, having 10,180 seats at its peak, was also too small. (Now at 8,010, it still hosts the UNC women's team.)
It wasn't hard to get donors to pony up money for a new arena for Smith's team -- but only if it was named after him. That's right: The building was named after him not only while he was still alive, but still coaching. He told the school to not do that, but relented when he was told that fundraising efforts might otherwise fail. On January 18, 1986, the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center opened on UNC's main campus in Chapel Hill. At the time, Carolina was ranked Number 1. The opponent? Carolina's nearby arch-rival, Durham-based Duke, then ranked Number 2. The game, won by Carolina, was a classic, described in Curry Kirkpatrick's title for his article on the game for Sports Illustrated as a "Dingdong Duel in Dean's Dome." (But it was Duke, not UNC, that reached the Final Four that season, Krzyzewski's 1st visit. They lost the Final to Louisville.)
Just as the original Yankee Stadium became "The House That Ruth Built," the Dean Smith Center is never actually called that, instead called "The Dean Dome." It seats 21,750, making it the largest on-campus basketball-specific arena in the country. (The University of Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, formerly topping 24,000, now has slightly less, 21,678. Syracuse University's Carrier Dome has 35,446 seats in its basketball configuration, but also hosts football.)
Both Carolina and Duke made the Final Four in 1991, raising the possibility of them facing each other in an epic Final. In order to do that, Duke would have had to beat the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who had crushed them in the previous year's Final, and Carolina would have had to beat, of all teams, Smith's alma mater, Kansas. Duke held up their part of the bargain, pulling the stunning upset over UNLV. Carolina didn't hold up theirs, and Duke won their 1st National Championship, under Coach K or anyone else. They made it back-to-back titles the next season, beating the University of Michigan. (At the time, Duke was considered fresh and exciting. But, like the Atlanta Braves of the same time, and the New England Patriots of the following decade, the general public began see the darker side of the team, and to have had enough of them, and get sick of them.)
In 1993, Michigan reached the Final again, led by their (illegally-recruited, as it turned out) Fab Five: Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. But Smith's Carolina, led by Eric Montross and Donald Williams, stood in the way. Again, the Tar Heels won the National Championship. Again, they won it at the Superdome. Again, they won it over a more-hyped team. And, again, they won it in part due to a last-minute gaffe: Webber, heavily covered, unable to pass, called a timeout, forgetting Michigan was out of them. But, again, as in 1982 with Fred Brown's mistaken pass to Worthy, it should be pointed out that Carolina was winning at the time, and there's no certainty that the team with the ball would have gotten off a shot, let alone have that shot go in for the win. The Heels finished 34-4, not Smith's best team by winning percentage, but the most wins he would ever have in a single season.
Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace came to Carolina the next year, and it seemed as though the winning would never stop. Another Final Four was reached in 1995, but they lost in the Semifinal. In the course of the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Smith surpassed Rupp as college basketball's all-time winningest coach, with a team led by Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, and reached another Final Four.
He then retired after 36 years as head coach at North Carolina, and was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. While this was one of several cases of SI giving that award as a "lifetime achievement award," Smith did reach the Final Four, so it was partly justified. (Another such award went to Don Shula when he became the NFL's all-time winningest coach, in 1993, when Smith won the National Championship. That was the year Smith should have gotten it. Shula should have gotten it in 1973, when he took the Miami Dolphins to back-to-back Super Bowls, but they gave it to Jackie Stewart, an auto racer. Stewart was great at what he did, and remains a great personality. But while auto racing is a competition, it is not a sport.)
Smith won 879 games, a record that would be surpassed by Knight, whose record would be surpassed by Krzyzewski. Pat Summitt, the longtime women's coach at Tennessee, holds the record for college basketball coaching wins regardless of gender. Smith's overall record was 879-254, for a winning percentage of .776, in the Top 10 all-time.
All in all, he won the ACC's regular-season Championship 17 times, won its Tournament 13 times, and reached the Final Four 11 times (currently tied for 2nd with Krzyzewski, with Wooden having done it 12 times). This despite coaching in the same league, at the same time, as former mentor Frank McGuire at South Carolina (then an ACC team); Duke's Vic Bubas, Bill Foster and Mike Krzyzewski; North Carolina State's Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano; Wake Forest's Bones McKinney, Jack McCloskey, and Dave Odom; Virginia's Terry Holland; and Maryland's Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams.
Smith, Rupp, Knight and former University of California coach Pete Newell are the only men to have coached an NCAA Champion, an NIT Champion, and an Olympic Gold Medal winner.
Smith didn't just coach great players, he coached great coaches. Larry Brown, currently the only man to coach an NCAA Champion (1988 Kansas) and an NBA Champion (2004 Detroit Pistons), and, last I checked, the man with more basketball coaching wins in history, regardless, of level or gender. Doug Moe, an ABA teammate of Brown and a longtime assistant of his, who got the Denver Nuggets to their best-ever finish, the 1985 NBA Western Conference Finals, and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1988. Billy Cunningham, a rookie player on the Philadelphia 76ers' 1st NBA title in 1967, and the coach of their 2nd in 1983. Eddie Fogler, winner of Southeastern Conference Championships at Vanderbilt and South Carolina. George Karl, who took the Seattle SuperSonics to the 1996 NBA Finals. Bill Guthridge, who took over for Smith at UNC, and reached a Final Four. And Roy Williams, who took Kansas to 4 Final Fours and has now equaled Smith's achievement of 2 National Championships at North Carolina, in 2005 and 2009.
Not once was improper coaching or recruiting practices ever alleged at North Carolina while Dean Smith was he head coach.
Perhaps the greatest Dean Smith stat is this: 96.6 percent of his players graduated. And UNC-Chapel Hill is not an easy school.
Dean Smith was also courageous enough to be a Democrat at a time when the natural conservatism of white Southerners pushed the State of North Carolina into the Republican Party. He opposed racism, the death penalty and the Iraq War, supported the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s and gay rights in the 1990s and 2000s, and raised money for charities that a conservative wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. He continued his public activities until it became clear that he was being overcome by dementia.
A little over a year ago, in his last public appearance, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, for whom he'd campaigned in 2008. Then-Senator Obama delivered a speech on the Chapel Hill campus, wearing a tie that was Carolina Blue. He won the State in a very close vote. In 2012, with Smith unable to campaign for him, he lost it in a very close vote. It was 1 of only 2 States that Obama won in 2008 that he didn't win in 2012. (The other was Indiana, also a basketball-mad State.)
Dean Smith died 2 days ago, at the age of 83. His wife, his 4 daughters and his son were by his side. He had been married and divorced once before.
John Wooden, himself a serious candidate for this title, called him the greatest teacher basketball has ever had.
And Smith's most famous player? Upon his own election to the Basketball Hall of Fame, His Airness said, "There's no way you guys would have got a chance to see Michael Jordan play without Dean Smith."
Those of you who think Jordan is the greatest player ever, that alone is enough reason to thank Dean Smith.