Dean Smith, 10 Years Later |
The legendary Tar Heel coach remains a fixture of Carolina basketball, a decade after retiring from his perch atop the game
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Alfred Hamilton/Hamilton's View
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins, UNC Athletic Comm., Getty Images
oach Dean Smith bequeathed his head coaching job to Bill Guthridge 10 years ago, looking forward to a slower pace, more quality time with family and friends and to work on his golf game. By all accounts, he’s not been disappointed.
But he never counted on how difficult it can be to just sit and watch a North Carolina basketball game, like the rest of us did throughout his incredible, 36-year career at the helm of North Carolina basketball.
Now he understands why many of us sweated bullets through his teams’ 879 wins and 254 losses, tossed half-eaten sandwiches and empty cans at television screens, stormed out into backyards in search of some “fresh air” and would have sent Lenny Wirtz to the gallows had that option ever been available.
Smith, a healthy 76, admits, “When I was coaching, I never understood fans who said they were nervous during games, but now I understand. When you’re coaching, you face one decision after another. You never really have a chance to be nervous.”
Coach Smith does not attend any Carolina game he can watch on television. On the rare occasion a home game is not televised, he will be tucked away somewhere in the Smith Center where he can concentrate. He takes careful notes throughout every game just as he has done since the winter of 1997, his first season away from the bench.
He almost always watches televised games alone and apparently engages in a running commentary with the screen.
Now, the hundreds of thousands of Carolina fans who truly prefer watching games alone can take heart with Dean Smith the next time the Heels are trading baskets down the stretch with Duke. Lots of us are in the same lonely boat.
Just as he had planned for many years, Smith has spent his version of retirement in a routine that looks a lot like that of an active basketball coach. He comes in to his tiny office on most days, on the Smith Center’s main floor maybe 150 feet from center court.
Few people work in giant public arenas named for them. He said, “I never even think about it, although it’s certainly a big honor. I tried to fight it as best I could at the time.”
He does, however, take serious interest in honoring former players and coaches in the arena, specifically with the mock jerseys and banners hanging high in the overhead. He said, “I do want to get something for Frank [McGuire] up there.”
Smith and two longtime administrative assistants, Linda Woods and Ruth Kirkendall, constantly work to shorten the ever-growing stack of mail, including letters from fans, acquaintances and invitations from organizations seeking an appearance or talk by Smith.
His assistants also schedule his relatively infrequent trips and public appearances, juggle the paraphernalia (including a gaggle of basketballs) awaiting a Smith signature, deal with visitors and administer his various church, charitable and university projects.
Perhaps most importantly from Smith’s point of view, they spend as much time as possible communicating with former players, student managers, coaches and their families.
“They always talk to Coach Smith at their proudest and saddest moments,” said Woods. “They share the most important events in their lives. And when one of their children is admitted to Carolina, that’s a really big deal.”
Once reputed to eventually answer every fan letter, Smith has almost thrown in the towel. Conversing with Hamilton’s View a few weeks ago in his cramped little office, he confessed, “We’re still trying to answer the mail we got after the retirement.”
No interview with Dean Smith will produce much conversation about his “greatest” wins, teams, players, titles, moments or any such superlatives. HV figures Smith decided long ago that there is not much to be gained from this sort of thing, and several possible downsides.
Nonetheless, the 1976 Olympic victory is a unique memory for the coach. He explained, “Coaching the Olympic team is the first time I talked directly about winning as our goal. We were there to do one thing, win the gold medal.”
The Smith Olympians, including Tommy LaGarde, Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak, returned the gold to the United States after the 1972 officiating debacle. Guthridge and John Thompson coached alongside Smith.
The team and coaching staff overcame widespread doubts that undergraduates could get the Olympic job done on their own without assistance from the NBA.
“I am sorry that the decision was later made to put professionals on the [Olympic] team,” Smith said. “Our guys were so thrilled to be there and it was really something to see them standing there as the anthem was played.”
Twelve years afterward, the Olympics still held unique stature in the Smith family, even after the momentous 1982 title year. Coach Smith’s late father Alfred told Carolina Court, “Seeing Dean win the gold medal in Montreal was probably the biggest thrill his mother and I have had in his career….There were some tears, I’ll tell you.”
Alfred Smith’s son probably influenced the modern game as much as any basketball coach in history. Dean Smith’s technical contributions are a matter of record and best explained by experts.
That said, the purist has been forced to watch what was once a game of finesse and technique turn into a physical confrontation, often won by teams which can figure out how much mayhem they can get away with.
Smith’s discomfort with physical play is not new. HV surmises it likely started when hand-checking came into vogue maybe 20 years or so ago, first taught by a few coaches for tactical advantage and then unaccountably ignored by officials.
He says now, “They (officials) still aren’t calling anything, especially away from the ball…They might make a few calls early in the season but it will be back to the same by January and February.”
The legendary coach continues his campaign to lengthen the college 3-point shot and he’s optimistic this will happen soon. His major bone of contention is not the relative simplicity of the shot; his big issue is the 3-pointer’s impact on fundamental skills.
He explained, “We used to rate our players’ freedom to take the shot with the colors green, yellow for caution and red. Then, we began to notice that players were working too hard on the shot in the offseason, trying to move from yellow to green.”
The last decade has allowed Smith to spend a lot of time doing what he likes best, other than enjoying his five children (four Carolina grads and one now in UNC’s medical school) and six grandchildren.
That’s talking with, advising and spending time with former players, managers, staffers and even a few select fans he would consider part of the Carolina “family.”
Hardly a day goes by that Smith doesn’t hear from a player via one form or another. He visibly lights up when recounting the latest message from one of his 274 lettermen.
There’s a real sense of a godfather at work here, although he would resist the comparison.
On this day, he was recounting an e-mail message from Kupchak, the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. The message contained a reporter’s glowing review for the work being done by James Worthy as a television analyst.
“James is doing great,” Smith said, “and Mitch was nice to send me the message” as he returned the e-mail copy to the pile on his desk. Once, Smith wrote that his desktop would look like a corpse if covered by a sheet. No change there.
His retirement has had its very public moments, including a stint as a Final Four analyst for CBS in 1998, an overnight stay in the Clinton White House after a state dinner, increasingly frequent awards ceremonies and an occasional political endorsement.
In the main, however, he remains low on the horizon. One reason is his near-visceral dislike for public speaking, a potentially huge source of income for a man of Smith’s fame and stature.
“No more speeches for me,” he promised. “I never did like it and I have enough money. Who needs to do something you don’t enjoy doing?”
He did, of course, co-author two books, in his “retirement” years, notably A Coach’s Life in 1999 and The Carolina Way in 2004.
Written with the assistance of longtime associate John Kilgo, the former volume reads very much in Smith’s “voice” and is as close to a roadmap of what makes him tick as fans are ever likely to find.
Then, there are the visitors, a surprising number of the walk-in variety. Some are strangers, often with a youngster in tow. Almost without fail, Woods and Kirkendall are able to find the time for their boss to see them, to sign the ball or jersey they’ve brought and even pose for a photo.
Again, these are days full of duties of a coach, but a coach officially without his own team. It appears to HV that he gave up the part that he loves the most but still has many of the collateral duties he was trying to get away from.
Dean Smith played golf for the first time with a fraternity brother in his senior year at the University of Kansas. A few years later, he found himself coaching golf at the Air Force Academy in addition to his basketball assistant’s duties.
He thus began a torrid love affair with a game capable of fascinating, and occasionally outfoxing, one of the great sports tacticians of our time.
When he was first being shown around Chapel Hill by Coach McGuire in the spring of 1958, Smith visited Finley Golf Course and met a UNC varsity golfer named Bob Galloway.
Galloway recalls, “Believe it or not, old Finley was considered pretty special back then because few universities had their own course. Coach McGuire was showing it off.”
Galloway, a fine golfer who later became a PGA member, has often played with Smith, caddied for him in celebrity events and helped with the coach’s game.
It wasn’t long after Smith’s arrival in Chapel Hill that Coach McGuire and his wife Pat went over to Raleigh’s Carolina Country Club to watch Arnold Palmer play an exhibition match. The occasion gave Dean Smith a golf story he tells with relish.
He recalled that Palmer, to the everlasting delight of the large gallery, knocked his second shot in for double eagle on the downhill par-5 opening hole. Smith now gleefully recounts, “Pat turned to Frank and said, ‘Why’s everyone so excited? After all, he’s a professional.’”
Golf has been Smith’s great escape almost every year since the early ‘60s, although he never touched a club when he was coaching from October 15 until early April.
That’s when he typically headed down to Pinehurst for his annual set of lessons from the late Buck Adams at the Country Club of North Carolina.
Smith wrote in A Coach’s Life, “Buck was a superb teacher, and he always gave me great confidence. For years I had trouble with my chipping game and often would skull or “chili-dip” the short shots. He worked with me so much he even started to chili-dip himself once in a while.”
Smith’s golf game, according to Galloway, has been built around straight driving and very good putting, leading to a handicap as low as 7 in some summers.
For many years, Smith usually played with the late Simon Terrell, the late Dr. Earl Somers and Dr. Christopher Fordham. Notably, there was little talk of basketball among these best friends, according to Smith.
Galloway confirms that Smith’s golf Achilles heel is from 50 yards in. He said, “He tells me that he often gets nervous over these shots. I ask how he could be that nervous after the pressurized game situations he faced over the years and how he handled them.
“He says he was never nervous over something he could not control, like a player shooting a foul shot,” Galloway said, “but that he has no trouble getting nervous over something he alone can control, like a chip shot.”
While Smith’s backswing may have grown shorter, the chip shots not much easier and the back pain a bigger threat, don’t look for the coach to retire from golf.
Galloway said, “He’ll be playing golf until they put him in a box. He just loves it too much to ever stop.”
Smith’s official role at Carolina since he stepped down as head coach has been as a special advisor to the Department of Athletics. According to Director of Athletics Dick Baddour, the arrangement is a gentlemen’s agreement, nothing formal written down.
Baddour had been director of athletics only a few months when Smith decided in early October of 1997 to turn the hot seat over to Coach Guthridge. “During the discussion of his retirement with us,” Baddour recalled, “he said he’d like to be a consultant for UNC. We were honored that he wanted to be involved.
“I remember when the subject of pay for Coach Smith came up. He suggested we make it equal to the first salary he had at the University, I think maybe $7,500. That’s what we settled on,” Baddour recalled.
Baddour continued, “There’s only one Dean Smith. To have him remain involved in both the athletic program and major University events is a great thing for all of us. After all, he may well be the most recognized name in the history of UNC.”
Baddour, a junior at UNC 42 years ago, doesn’t recall when Smith was hanged in effigy by a few students after a painful road loss, a sad night by any measure.
Inevitably, the scene of Billy Cunningham yanking down the dummy on January 6, 1965 in front of Woollen Gymnasium is part of Dean Smith lore. At the time, his head coaching record was 41-33, 12 games into his fourth season.
Even now, reporters cannot resist citing the asinine prank as a prelude to one of the greatest records of triumph, leadership and contribution in any American sport. The effigy stunt is just too ironic to avoid, given Smith’s subsequent achievements.
Smith says today, “It would be silly to dwell on it and I never have. But in one way it showed how smart I was when sometimes it was really just the opposite.”
He pointed out that the loss that night (107-85 to Wake Forest) was Carolina’s seventh consecutive game away from Chapel Hill, as if he had hurt his own team with his scheduling decisions.
Three nights later, the Cunningham-led Tar Heels came up with a stirring 65-62 win at Duke, went 9-2 through the remainder of the regular season and tied for second place in the league.
A season later, the Smith Era juggernaut accelerated its 36-year victory march through college basketball, creating a legacy of sustained excellence that will stand out as long as the game is played.
Eight years ago, Smith closed A Coach’s Life with the following:
“I’m still not in the business of blueprinting my life. It’ll be interesting to see which path I follow after my work is done here at Carolina. I love golf, but I couldn’t play more than three times a week and be happy. I’ll have to do something but I’m not sure right now what it will be. No matter what the future holds, my past has been a dream come true. The men who played for me have enriched my life in more ways than I could ever describe. I’m fortunate to have been their coach. I will always be grateful to them.”
HV suspects that Dean Edwards Smith would write the very same words today.
The resume of Alfred Hamilton Jr. (email@example.com), a 1965 UNC graduate, includes Managing Editor of the Greensboro Record, major contributor to the 1982 championship book March To The Top, co-writer of the annual Carolina Court yearbook and columnist for the GoHeels.com website. He is now a General Partner in the marketing communications firm of Hoyt-Hamilton LLC in Raleigh, N.C.