‘Really Second To None’

Dean Smith remembered for much more than winning basketball games

By Steve Phillips for theACC.com

GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – The memories and the stories live on, and those recounted in the past six days haven’t focused all that much on the games Dean Smith won, the nets he cut down or the championship trophies he hoisted.

Smith, who passed away last Saturday evening at the age of 83, is remembered for the life lessons he taught and the examples he set outside the game.

No one is overlooking his nearly 900 coaching wins, his two NCAA titles and his 13 Atlantic Coast Conference championships in 36 seasons at North Carolina. His 1976 Olympic gold medal, the All-Americans he coached and the dozens of UNC players who went on to play professionally add to the permanent record.

Those anchor his legacy and stand as tangible proof of his coaching genius. But those speaking of Smith and celebrating his life recall so much more.

“Sometimes the word legend is used with too little thought.  In this instance, it almost seems inadequate,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford, who worked with Smith at UNC for 21 years.

Veteran Winston-Salem Journal sportswriter Dan Collins, who began his career with the The Chapel Hill Newspaper, recalled the wee hours of a December morning in 1976, after he had traveled with North Carolina’s team on a road trip to Virginia Tech. After stepping off the bus in Chapel Hill, he made his way to his automobile and discovered it did not want to start. 

After several minutes and repeated efforts in the sub-freezing temperatures, his engine finally turned over. One other driver had waited in the parking lot, lights on, engine running, until he was sure the young writer was good to go. 

It was Dean Smith.

Other long-time journalists recounted Smith’s cross-country flight to Los Angeles in the fall of 1987 to comfort sophomore player Scott Williams following the tragic deaths of his parents. Former Tar Heel great James Worthy remembered undergoing surgery for a broken leg that ended his rookie season with the Lakers in April of 1983 – and awakening from the operation to find Smith at his side.

“Coach Smith was a coach, mentor and friend,” said Antawn Jamison, the 1998 ACC Player of the Year who averaged 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds over 17 NBA seasons. “He had a huge impact on my career but had an even bigger impact on my life. I can vouch for all of the things that everyone else has said about him impacting their lives for the best. 

“He was more like a father to me than a coach. In fact, it feels like I’m losing a father. I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for Coach Smith.”

Smith’s players – from the stars such as Jamison to walk-ons who never played more than a minute in any given game – returned his loyalty and devotion two-fold.

“The thing that Dean did the best is that he made men of the boys that came to him,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following his team’s win over Florida State last Monday night.  “And all those men revere him. They don’t love him, they revere him. That’s his biggest accomplishment. And he has done that better than anybody.”

Even players that were recruited by Smith but opted for schools other than North Carolina recall how he built lasting relationships, often maintaining close ties with them and their families.

“I got a chance to know him growing up here,” said Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning, a Greensboro, North Carolina, native who selected Kansas – Smith’s alma mater – over the Tar Heels and led the Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA title. “Every time I saw Coach Smith after that, there was always a warm concern and care, asking me questions about things that were going on with me and my life. He was someone I had the utmost respect for and held in the highest regard.”

Smith’s ability to reach and stay in touch with friends and colleagues – particularly in the pre-Internet era – continues to amaze Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga.

“My high school coach, Jack Curran, was very good friends with Dean Smith,” Larrañaga said. “He told me stories about Dean Smith, and they were just unbelievable. One of the stories he told me was about Dean’s ability to stay in touch with so many people, that he wrote Christmas cards to everyone he knew. I was like, ‘Well, that’s impossible. The guy’s got to know thousands and thousands of people.’ 

“At Christmas time, Coach Curran showed me the Christmas cards from Dean Smith and sure enough, they had a handwritten note on them.”

Manning played at Kansas for Larry Brown, who joins current UNC Hall of Famer Roy Williams and other former Smith players and/or assistants in penning his own successful chapter as a head coach.

“Coach Brown referenced Coach Smith quite a bit in his message to his own teams,” Manning said. “Coach Smith had a huge impact on Coach Brown, and Coach Brown definitely shared that with us.”

One message stood out, according to Manning.

“The simple quote of, ‘Play hard, play smart, play together, play unselfishly’ – those were things  Coach Smith taught that were echoed by Coach Brown to us, and they were things that we wanted to accomplish when we stepped out there on the court.”

This week is also an apt time to remember – though no one has forgotten – Smith’s leadership role in helping to break down segregation, not only in college basketball, but also in restaurants, churches and other public places. 

“He was someone who made a difference both on and off the court,” Manning said.

Photographs and autographed memorabilia abound as testaments to Smith’s graciousness to college basketball fans. One fan, writing this week to his local newspaper, recounted the story of attending a dinner at which Smith spoke shortly following the 1982 NCAA Championship. The letter-writer was taken aback a bit when six friends asked him to carry along their most recent copies of Sports Illustrated for Smith to sign. But the Tar Heel coach cheerfully obliged.

“He was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people,” Roy Williams said. “His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most.”

Smith owned 879 wins upon his retirement from the game in 1997 and stood as the winningest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s history. 

“He personified excellence day-in and day-out, year-in and year-out,” Swofford said. “The remarkable number of wins is well chronicled, but most importantly those wins came while teaching and living the right values.  He won, his players graduated and he played by the rules. He was first and foremost a teacher, and his players were always the most important part of his agenda.” 

Three others have since eclipsed Smith’s win total among NCAA Division I men’s coaches. That includes Duke’s Krzyzewski, who now ranks first with 1,004. But as Coach K remembered Smith earlier this week, he didn’t talk of records or arithmetic.

“I’m proud to be able to say that I was his friend,” said Krzyzewski, who wore a Carolina Blue tie to Thursday’s private memorial service for Smith in Chapel Hill. “And I love him, and I love what he built and how he did it. It’s second to none. It’s really second to none. That’s why I don’t like to compare wins, championships and all that. No one could do it any better than him.”

Note: The University of North Carolina will celebrate the life of Coach Dean Smith during a public memorial service at 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 22, in the Dean E. Smith Center. More details will be announced at a later date. The public, fans and all who cared about Coach Smith are invited to attend this event. The family has said that in lieu of flowers, individuals should feel free to make a memorial contribution to one of the following organizations:

  • The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, based in Chapel Hill. The organization lives out Smith’s values of caring for the poor and those in need. For more information, contact The IFC.
  • The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund will support talented undergraduate students who need significant financial assistance to attend Carolina. It will also provide financial support to graduate students in education and social work — two fields close to Smith’s heart. For more information on the fund, contact UNC Development.
  • Individuals may also give to the charity of their choice to honor Coach Smith and the values he exemplified.