It's clear now that Dean Smith retired too early
Posted August 13, 2013
Chapel Hill, N.C. — 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.