Dean Smith, R.I.P.

Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach, died Saturday at 83 years of age. Smith was a coaching oddity, much more than a sweat-suit clad whistle-blower. A fierce intellect, Smith was well-read and poised. He possessed balance, a trait that seemed to flow into his players and teams.

I promise I am not the sort of person who makes everything about himself. Dean Smith’s death is not about me at all–it is about the loss of a great man. But, you need to know something about me to understand the magnitude of Dean Smith’s influence on the game of basketball.

I grew up in Indiana, territory that was hostile to Smith’s Tar Heels. I was a lifelong fan of Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. Knight and Smith were rivals for coaching supremacy in the era between John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. The men were seemingly opposites, though there was tremendous respect between them. Knight was fiery and Smith was irenic. Knight read military history and Smith favored theology and philosophy. The two met in the 1981 NCAA national championship game, with Knight’s Hoosiers pulling out a hard-fought victory. As a very young man, I admired Knight’s forthrightness and bravado, but as an adult, I think Smith seems to have lived the more admirable life. Smith was a gentle spirit, a man who shunned the spotlight. He understood that he had the privilege of coaching a game. Win, which he did plenty of, or lose, which he did remarkably little of, he seemed at peace with himself and his team. Though Knight is prodigiously gifted, and a towering figure and a basketball genius, he never seemed at peace.

After playing basketball in college, attending seminary, and heading to graduate school, I found myself with an opportunity to coach varsity girls. The girls were a delight, but I think it is safe to say I inherited willing young ladies who knew little about basketball. They were so raw that we had to practice how to check-in to a game without getting a technical foul. While this is a challenge for any coach, it was especially complicated for me.

I grew up in a particular way of playing basketball. I was schooled in disciplined offense that focused on ball movement, cutting, and high percentage shots. Defensively, we always preferred man-to-man–hard-nosed, aggressive, and active. This style depended heavily on thoughtful players who were instinctive, skilled with the ball, and pugnacious. Basically, I was looking at a group of girls who were not perfectly suited to playing my style. What to do?

Bobby Knight and Dean Smith rode to the rescue. I ordered tapes of Knight teaching man-to-man defense and the motion offense and I went to the University of Georgia’s library and checked out Dean Smith’s book Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense. Smith’s work was a seminar in how to think like a coach. I knew basketball. I was weaned on it. But I did not know how to take what I knew and quickly translate it into a coaching approach with a group of girls that varied in skill and knowledge.

Smith’s essential philosophy was that teams and players should be taught a wide variety of offensive and defensive approaches to maximize flexibility. This allows the coach to make immediate adjustments as the team confronts various foes. Using Smith’s thinking, the coach can tailor practices, game plans, and styles to the players’ strengths as opposed to fitting players into a coaching system that does not suit them. Smith did not teach a system. He taught basketball. With Smith’s book in hand, I was able to teach the girls how to play and attack on both ends of the floor, as well as how to transition from one to the other. Granted, we frequently did it poorly, but the girls learned and they improved dramatically. Though no one watching from the stands would have known it, Dean Smith played an integral part in how the Prince Avenue Christian Lady Wolverines played and in how I coached.

And, to put it all in perspective, I am a nobody, especially in the world of basketball. I am not Larry Brown or George Karl or Roy Williams or Phil Ford or Michael Jordan or Brad Dougherty or James Worthy or any of the other dozens of men who coached with Dean Smith or the hundreds who played for him. Smith’s reach was so far and sweeping that it touched a corn-fed Indiana boy who was plunked down in Georgia to coach a team full of eager girls. And I am not alone.

9 thoughts on “Dean Smith, R.I.P.”

  1. This is kind of how I feel about John Calipari, who in my eyes is the best NBA preparer in college basketball. I love how he has made his program all about his players, not necessarily concerned about wining championships but rather having his kids getting drafted. He talks about breaking a cycle of poverty among his players by getting to them somewhere that will make them successful, and I applaud that greatly. The cool thing is that they win a ton of games with potential NBA stars and is able to motivate the players enough to share the ball and sacrifice everything for the team. It’s the idea of doing your part for the best interest of the team, but you will still receive recognition for your efforts. No wonder why he consistently has a top five recruiting class, as any kid would love to play for a guy who has an incredible track record of getting his players NBA ready. Maybe one day I’ll be talking about him when he passes on.

  2. I loved the Four Corners, not because it led to big scoring but because it was just different and interesting, the product of a fertile mind. Innovation is sometimes the spice of life, basketball life included. The beloved fast break was invented by Cam Henderson, who coached at my Alma Mater Marshall University (College then). Who would have thought? Coaches like Dean Smith are harder to find. Dare I speculate that perhaps the difficulty of dealing with a new kind of young man (in prolonged adolescence) make it very difficult to coach the way the great ones did. I suppose I just made a cultural statement. Smith was a great one–like Iba, Rupp, Wooden, Carnesecca, and others.

  3. I knew it was something about that girl’s team that made me smile. I loved watching the Dean Smith teams. Never better ACC basketball! My dad would have enjoyed this article from start to finish (as I did).

  4. Mark one of your best posts. It showed humility and your gift to improvise by learning and teaching. Great article.

  5. One thing I seem to recall was his telling Michael Jordan to forgo his senior year (which would likely have led to Smith winning another championship) to go pro. This was back when very few were allowed to go pro early. Smith realized that Jordan had already won a championship, would be the #1 player taken, and that coming back for his senior year would not do much to improve Michael while it could result in an injury that would result in losing the $$$ that the NBA would be paying him. He was more concerned about what was best for his players than his own coaching career.

  6. As someone who has played basketball from a young age, I really appreciated this article! I know how much my life has been impacted by the coaches that I have had, and it was great to see how your life has been as well. I’m sure that the girls you coached learned a lot about basketball and probably even more about life.

  7. I have had a lot of bad coaches in my life and the one or two great coaches I had really impacted my life in a positive way. It’s great to see that we can still appreciate how fantastic coaches can shape and mold lives.

  8. There has to be an appreciation for Coach’s who truly love the game and teach the game how it should be played. I love Coach Smith’s philosophy on molding the players and fitting the system around the players, instead of trying to fit the players in a system. Systems don’t win basketball games, but good coaching and good players do. He will be missed.

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