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Caulton Tudor

It's clear now that Dean Smith retired too early

Posted August 13, 2013

Dean Smith

— For all of his wins and championships, the Olympic gold medal, tactical innovations, social impact and fertile coaching tree, Dean Smith’s unselfishness defined his career to an enormous, but often overlooked, extent.

That aspect of his character first surfaced in 1972, when the University of North Carolina basketball coach left Tar Heel fans bewildered by announcing that he wanted junior star forward Robert McAdoo to turn pro rather than return for the 1972-73 season.

The 1971-72 Tar Heels had finished 26-5 but were upset by Florida State (not an ACC member at the time) in the NCAA Final Four semifinals.

Had McAdoo returned, Smith’s team would have been much better positioned to deal with David Thompson’s stunning impact on NC State, the ACC and the nation.

“What’s best for the players’ future has to come first,” Smith said of the way he dealt with McAdoo, who became the second overall pick the in ’72 NBA draft.

But if Smith was selfless in his handling of McAdoo, it was nothing compared to Smith’s shocking retirement on Oct. 9, 1997.

That startling decision equated to the ultimate professional sacrifice. Smith wanted longtime assistant Bill Guthridge (age 60 at the time) to be a head coach and enjoy the competitive and financial rewards of the job.

It was an admirable, honorable action for Smith to take and Guthridge went on to win 80 games in three seasons. But obviously, the better head coach -- one of four or so best head coaches of all time in his sport -- and the decision to retire was seriously flawed by emotion.

At age 66 and in sound health, Smith easily could have coached another five or more seasons and done so with the same recruiting success that allowed him to turn over a team with Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Ed Cota and Shammond Williams to Guthridge.

That team reached the Final Four and almost reached the title game even though Jamison and Williams missed 22 field-goal attempts in a 65-59 semifinal loss to Utah.

Suggestion to Return Dismissed
When Guthridge retired after leading his third team to another Final Four, I interviewed Smith about the amazingly long and successful partnership the two coaches -- Smith a Kansas grad and Guthridge from Kansas State -- had enjoyed.

“Bill was a great coach, but he never got enough credit during most of those years. It’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is for assistant coaches,” Smith said.

“The people who knew him best weren’t surprised he went to two Final Fours in three seasons.”

Later during that conversation, I suggested to Smith that he still had a lot of quality coaching mileage left and that maybe he should consider returning for an encore. After waiting an uncharacteristically long time to respond, he smiled and thanked me.

“No, I couldn’t even consider that,” Smith said. “My time is in the past now and we have to move forward.”

But it really wasn’t and we both knew it.

When it was announced last week that Smith would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom award, I could not help but think back to that interview in 2000 while also thinking about what might have been.

Had Smith made the logical move and coached on until his 70th birthday -- the route likely to be taken by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (66) and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (68) -- he would have finished with at least 1,000 wins and possibly two more national titles.

And had Smith gone until age 71 or 72, as did Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, Carolina would have won another 50-60 games and the transition to Roy Williams might have happened seamlessly.

Smith is now 82 and with some health issues. He will certainly be remembered for what he did as opposed to what else he might have done. That said, it’s worth remembering that he told Williams just a few years ago that perhaps 66 was too early to retire, given his near flawless health at the time.

In retrospect, Smith’s premature exit was a mistake on all fronts. Guthridge was completely content in the role of a lifetime assistant and the Smith/Guthridge combo would have been weakened had Guthridge retired early.

But there’s also the fact that Dean did it his way, which was entirely predictable. As a coach, he was stubbornly competitive.

When he reached the decision to step down during that summer of 1997, no one could have changed his mind, even if given the opportunity to do so.

77 Comments

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  • usbc1951 Aug 15, 6:29 p.m.

    Dean Smith started the "carolina way". We now all know exactly what the "carolina way" is. The pro-carolina media's attempt to cover up the decades of cheating he initiated is pathetic. If writers want people to believe Dean coached a clean program, then they must also convince us that people like Lance Armstrong didn't cheat or Pete Rose didn't bet on baseball.

  • Sauras69 Aug 15, 5:13 p.m.

    If Dean Smith could have had his mental capacities 3-4 years ago, he would have stepped into the scandal involving the AA Studies, football situation, and made some srong recommendations. We will never know this. He would have definitely said some things. PJ Hairston nor any like him would have ever played for the Dean.

  • heelsforever Aug 14, 11:27 p.m.

    ...could have won 2 more chamionships.......

    Huh? 36 years and struggled to win 2, but Tudor says... View More

    — Posted by quadrathlete

    If you were really a Heels fan you would know that God told Webber to call that timeout because he couldn't let Chris get away with the most blatant non-called travel in the history of the game.

  • Leave it to Beaver Reruns Aug 14, 1:42 p.m.

    In retrospect, Smith’s premature exit was a mistake on all fronts.

    Wow calling someone's retirement who left on top of his game and was financially stable for life is now a mistake?

    Hey Tudor, maybe you should have taken a page out of Dean's book and called it quits, too.

    You are right about one thing, Dean did it his way because he OWED NO ONE NOTHING!
    Guthridge deserved his moment in the spotlight because he paid his dues and Dean said he did. The few bad years that happened while waiting for Huck to arrive happens everywhere. It will most certainly happen with my Blue Devils when K hangs it up, even if they get a huge name. Transitions are tough. Guth's wasn't because it really wasn't a transition.

  • Leave it to Beaver Reruns Aug 14, 1:33 p.m.

    At least he didn't stay on too long and suffer the fate of Bobby Bowden.

    — Posted by 4tarheels

    Would have never happened

  • carrboroyouth Aug 14, 12:56 p.m.

    Retirement is a very personal decision that only an individual can decide for themselves with... View More

    — Posted by Tunaboy

    Very well said. Coach Smith decided it was time to go, and we have to respect that as much as we miss him coaching.

  • ttaylor58 Aug 14, 12:20 p.m.

    ...could have won 2 more chamionships.......

    Huh? 36 years and struggled to win 2, but Tudor says... View More

    — Posted by quadrathlete

    sure you are a heels fan...Weber traveled before the time out so whats your point. Too bad Brown was so confused at the "D" he was facing that he panicked into a TO.

  • quadrathlete Aug 14, 12:07 p.m.

    ...could have won 2 more chamionships.......

    Huh? 36 years and struggled to win 2, but Tudor says he could have won 2 more in the last 5.....

    He won those 2 despite himself...(The time out call by Webber gave him one and the throw away to Worthy gave him the other)...and Im a heels fan

  • Tunaboy Aug 14, 10:42 a.m.

    Retirement is a very personal decision that only an individual can decide for themselves with possible input from others. To judge such a personal decision after it's been made serves no logical purpose. I'm glad Dean got to enjoy life away from basketball before his health problems manifested themselves. Dean will always be the standard by which all other coaches will be measured.

  • Gunnstigator Aug 14, 10:20 a.m.

    Tudor is a putz. Dean Smith gave to the game, and gave some more. He reached the point that he... View More

    — Posted by jacl

    Some of us mellow with age in regard to how we feel about rivals. I too used to have very bad... View More

    — Posted by heelsforever

    I used to "hate" rival coaches and teams as well, heels. I used to pull against Duke even when they were playing a team other than Carolina, or a team outside the ACC. Someone asked me one time why I would pull against a team whose players worked hard and stayed out of trouble. I realized he was right, and then when K coached Team USA, there was no way I could "hate" him. I do hate when Carolina loses to Duke, but to really "hate" a coach or player just because they don't wear the jersey of the team you pull for?

    Coaches like Dean and K made/make the ACC and college basketball better, and we're fortunate that the ACC has had and still has the best to coach the game.

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