Respect, discipline among lessons from Dean's office
Posted November 19, 2013
Updated November 20, 2013
Two and a half years have passed since we last saw Dean Smith in public. He was honored at the 2011 Naismith Awards in Raleigh, along with Mike Krzyzewski and the late Kay Yow. Smith’s family has said the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach suffers from a neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory. But from my position on the stage that June night, I saw a glimpse or two of one of the man’s most legendary personality traits.
After an introduction from one of his first great players, Charles Scott, Smith entered the hall to a standing ovation. Never comfortable in the spotlight, Smith seemed to welcome the greeting. Then he smiled, sat down and used both hands to make his point – urging the crowd to take their seats.
Moments later, when Roy Williams began to speak about Smith's influence on him, Smith quickly made a circular motion with his index finger, as if to say “wrap it up.”
Dean Smith grew up a Kansan and a Baptist, and perhaps there is something in his background that has kept him humble throughout a career that saw him amass 879 wins, 27 NCAA Tournament appearances in 36 years and two national titles. Smith has always been loathe to take credit for his accomplishments or even willingly allow himself to become the focal point of any discussion.
More than once I set up interviews with the coach to discuss his program. More than once he stopped me after a couple of questions. “Bob," he's say, "I thought we weren’t going to talk about me.”
I explained to him that one couldn’t really talk about the Carolina basketball program without including at least a little about the coach and his philosophy. He would then agree to finish the interview, but let me know in his way (fidgeting, looking at his watch, etc.) that he would MUCH RATHER talk about the players.
Although he will not make a public appearance Wednesday, Smith's contributions – to basketball and beyond – will be on display as President Barack Obama presents him with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours," the president said in naming the 2013 honorees. "This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude."
To mark the occasion, let's take a look at some of the lessons "The Dean" of college basketball has taught.
Dean Smith was all about respect. You NEVER heard him criticize a player in public. If Carolina lost, or played poorly in victory, Smith would say, “We weren’t prepared to play, and that’s my fault. I’m the head coach.”
How many coaches are secure enough to give players all the credit for victories, and take the blame themselves for defeats? That’s what Dean Smith did throughout his career.
Smith’s belief in respect went far beyond the basketball court. If he walked into a team banquet or a Rams’ Club fundraiser, he would treat everyone the same. He was just as cordial to the custodian as he was to the CEO.
Without question, Smith played a part in changing Chapel Hill during the sixties, helping desegregate a restaurant and supporting Howard Lee, the town’s first African-American mayor. As a member of Chapel Hill’s Binkley Baptist Church, Smith was given another mission. When Smith was appointed to the church council, the Rev. Robert Seymour told Smith his first “church duty” was to recruit an African-American basketball player for UNC. A few years later, Scott matriculated to Chapel Hill, which served to inspire the young David Thompson, who in turn inspired the young Michael Jordan and other outstanding African-American athletes in North Carolina.
In Chapel Hill, with what he accomplished on and off the basketball court, Dean Smith became larger than life.
Yet we never saw any evidence that he got caught up with the notion. I vividly remember seeing Dean Smith doing his own Christmas shopping one December in the 1970s. And he pointedly tried to answer every letter and return every phone call he received. He never could of course, and he fretted about it. When I interviewed the coach upon his retirement in 1997, he told me he intended to use the free time to play more golf, but he was really trying to get caught up on his correspondence.
Dean Smith’s UNC teams played with flair. They ran, they pressed, they dunked. But his entire system was predicated on discipline. Players were expected to be responsible on defense and look for good shots on offense, whether running the passing game, the T-game or the secondary break.
Mike O’Koren told me recently of a game where he took a jumper off the secondary break in back-to-back possessions. O’Koren was a career 57 percent shooter, and both shots went in.
But Coach Smith called a timeout.
“Why did you take those shots, Mike?”
“Coach, I was feeling it,” O’Koren replied.
“Well, feel the bench for a few minutes,” Smith told him.
Smith’s emphasis on punctuality was legendary. I remember once as a member of the media, being invited to fly to a game on the team charter. I boarded the plane a full seven minutes before departure. Smith looked at his watch and said “You’re cutting it close!”
When the coach blew his whistle to start practice, everyone sprinted to mid-court, understanding this was the beginning of one or two very intense hours of instruction. One day my courtside interview with Phil Ford ran long. Coach Smith blew his whistle to start practice. Ford not only didn’t finish his sentence, he didn’t finish the word he had just spoken. He sprinted to mid-court with his teammates.
Dean Smith was a teacher first and foremost, and the practice floor was his classroom. Every session was broken into a series of precisely timed drills, team offense and defense instruction and review, and game situations. The managers who ran the stop watches tell me there was no down time. Anyone late to practice had to run. Anyone who messed up a drill had to run. In fact, often everyone had to run, which certainly helped strengthen team dynamics. Much of practice was competitive, and often the losing team in drills and scrimmages had to run.
Teacher and competitor
Players and assistants have often spoken of Smith’s love of teaching. He was also a fierce competitor.
Those two traits came together for me one day on the golf course. Playing together in a charity event, along with writer/broadcaster Lee Pace, we came to a par three at the Chapel Hill Country Club. Smith stepped off the distance. “136 and a half,” he said. I’ve never played with anyone using that kind of precision. Later, he lined me up for a tricky putt, which I missed to the right. He smiled, “Pushed it, didn’t you?” Yes, Coach, I did.
Travel builds team togetherness
UNC, in the early seventies, became perhaps the first school to schedule games in players’ hometowns when Dean Smith scheduled a game in Pittsburgh to give Dennis Wuycik, Steve Previs and George Karl a chance to play in front of family and friends. That was the beginning of a tradition that continues today.
And it was just the beginning of the travel in the Dean Smith basketball program.
Smith scheduled games against top teams, he scheduled games in big cities and above all he scheduled games in great arenas like Madison Square Garden. He also made it a goal to play tournaments in either Alaska, Hawaii or Europe at least once every four years. The Tar Heels traveled first class, which served as a reward for players’ hard work and served to open their eyes to life’s possibilities after graduation. These trips also helped players bond. Smith took great pride in the fact that players from different cultures and backgrounds would become best friends at Carolina and later go on to participate in each other’s weddings.
Bobby Jones told me once that Coach Smith could be a little intimidating, not only at practice, but also during his player meetings. This was particularly true of academics. “He would have your class schedule in front of him,” Jones said, “and he would know your grades. If you weren’t performing well enough in class, he would let you know.”
More than 96 percent of Dean Smith’s players received their college degrees. Many became quite successful in later life, as doctors, lawyers, ministers, sales reps, even CEOs. The late John Lotz explained the players’ post-graduate career success this way: “They really don’t want to let him down.”
Smith was quite aware that the player-coach relationship bore a certain adversarial quality, with the coach having to set and enforce rules. “But,” he told me in 1997, “after players graduated we became friends.”
Truly one of the hallmarks of the Dean Smith system is the way players and coach functioned as a family once the players became alumni. Players would call on Smith for mentoring advice or to attend important functions. And of course, those players who lost parents or loved ones – Jimmy Black, Scott Williams, Ranzino Smith, Michael Jordan – found Smith to be a bulwark of support.
Lessons in loss
The five players who started for Carolina in the 1976-77 season, were as talented as any in the Dean Smith era, with the exception of the Jordan-Worthy-Perkins group. Phil Ford, John Kuester, Walter Davis, Mike O’Koren and Tom LaGarde obliterated a strong Oregon team by 20 points in the Far West Classic, in a viciously efficient offensive performance. Two months later in February, this was a probably national championship team.
Then the injuries began.
Let’s let Dean Smith tell the story, as he told it to me in 1997: “I know we were up 27 against Maryland, when I substituted. That was Tommy LaGarde’s last game ( before a knee injury). Then Walter Davis broke his finger, then Phil Ford hyperextended his elbow. Rich Yonaker, was the 14th man when we played at Portland in December. But he started the national championship game at center.”
That game came against Marquette, coached by Smith’s close friend, Al McGuire. The Tar Heels, despite all the injuries, overcame a double-digit lead to tie the game in the second half.
There came a sequence where Smith tried to pull Marquette out of its zone. The Carolina coach elected to wage this chess match with McGuire while O’Koren, his most versatile inside player, was catching his breath on the bench. Smith considered, but rejected, the idea of calling timeout to get O’Koren back into the game. After several minutes of a high stakes cat-and-mouse game, Bruce Buckley decided to attack the basket, against Marquette’s great defenders Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead. Buckley’s shot was blocked, and North Carolina went on to lose 67-59.
Then after what probably would be considered the most difficult defeat of his 36 years in coaching, Dean Smith went looking for Mike O’Koren’s older brother. “Ron,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
Ron O’Koren was incredulous. “Coach,” he said, “don’t say you’re sorry. You’ve just given me the greatest year of my life.”
During our interview after his retirement, Coach Smith confessed to me that he got terribly nervous watching North Carolina basketball games as a fan. But it looked to me like when he was coaching, the man was ice. Player after coach after player has told me of Smith’s attitude toward pressure. “He relishes it,” one former player said.
There was the game against Virginia where the Heels were down two with five seconds left. “Isn’t this great?” Smith said. “This is what college basketball’s all about.”
He once wrapped up a timeout in a tight game at College Park with this thought: “All the pressure’s on them,” Smith told his team.
Sometimes he would attempt to distract his players. “There are two billion people in China that don’t even know we’re playing,” Smith is reported to have said once. And those in the huddle during the famous eight-point comeback against Duke with 17 seconds left, say the coach was almost smiling when talking about what he wanted to the players to do.
Jimmy Black interprets the Smith philosophy this way: “Pressure comes when you’re not prepared. If you’re prepared, there is no pressure.”
We saw this in the UNC-Georgetown game of 1982. Black had gone out on a limb promising the Tar Heels would win.
“Everyone’s saying he can’t win the big one,” Black told reporters of Smith. “We’re going to show that he can.”
The opponent, Georgetown, was coached by another of Smith’s close friends, John Thompson. Smith had gotten to know Thompson when UNC was recruiting Donald Washington. Thompson was Washington’s guardian. Smith and Thompson found they shared much in common, and Smith chose Thompson as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic effort in Montreal in 1976.
Fast forward to the national championship of 1982.
Carolina called a timeout with about 30 seconds left, trailing by one. In setting up his final possession, Smith knew his rival’s philosophy. John Thompson was NOT going to let the Tar Heels get the ball inside to James Worthy, the game’s dominant player, or even Sam Perkins. Smith anticipated the Tar Heels would be passing the ball on the perimeter, against a zone or sagging man to man defense. As the huddle broke up, he said the famous words to his freshman guard, ”Michael, knock it in.”
Despite the bedlam in the New Orleans Superdome that night, team manager David Daly insists there was complete calm in the UNC huddle. “It was like everybody just said, 'OK, let’s go out and do what we prepared to do,'” Daly recalls.
Once again, we remember Smith most for the human compassion he showed after the game. For some 20-30 seconds after the final horn sounded, his only mission seemed to be locating and comforting John Thompson. Having just lost a championship game five years previously, Smith could certainly empathize with what his friend was going through.
We all remember the iconic image of Jimmy Black, suddenly overcome with emotion, putting his hand over his face and sinking to the floor. Soon after, his coach would find Black to share some private moments. Smith would tell the media later that night that he didn’t feel he was any better a coach for having (finally) won the NCAA Championship. But the quest of Black, Worthy, Jordan, et al to “win the big one for Coach Dean” was something that resonated with Smith always.
A few final lessons
“I never compare players,” Coach Smith used to tell me. Once I pressed him a bit, and I’ll never forget his response: "Which of your children would you choose?”
We could also talk about the time Homer Rice resigned as athletic director, and then-Chancellor Ferebee Taylor spoke with Smith about the possibility of being coach and AD. Smith immediately nixed the idea. “It wouldn’t be fair to the university,” he said. Coach-ADs are rare today given the complexities of college athletics. But in the 1970s and 80s, it was common for one man to fill both roles. I don’t remember any coach turning down a chance to wield two such high-powered jobs to be”fair to the university.”
The late Chancellor Michael Hooker said at the press conference where Smith announced his retirement, “Perhaps no one in the history of American higher education has done more for his university than Dean Smith has done for Carolina.”
It’s really hard to top that statement. But Dean Smith would not want any story about him to end with a comment about him.
He would want to end by talking about the players:
“I owe every player,” he told me in our interview in 1997. “I asked them to do things that were difficult, things they didn’t want do. I am so lucky to have coached the players we had.”