Bob Holliday

Smith's innovations define current college basketball

Posted November 20, 2013

Dean Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Wednesday more for what he did away from the basketball court than what he accomplished on it. He will always be defined by his influence on race relations, compassion for his fellow man and his unique role as teacher and life mentor for hundreds of basketball players at the University of North Carolina. At the same time, he did have a pretty significant impact on the game itself.

President Barack Obama noted in his remarks Wednesday that Smith was the coach who popularized the idea of players pointing to their teammates to thank them for the pass that led to a basket. No question, that simple gesture best brought together Dean Smith’s values as a human being and his team-oriented philosophy as a coach.

The President also observed that Smith was the first coach to use multiple defenses in a game. Time constraints and the presence of 15 other outstanding Medal of Freedom recipients prevented the President from saying more about Smith’s role as a basketball innovator. However there are no such constraints here!

First off, during the dark days when college basketball outlawed the dunk, 1967-76, Smith was among the leading proponents of bringing it back. His reasoning: players liked it.

Smith is remembered for using the "Four Corners" offense. He actually developed at least two different versions of the Four Corners.

“4c” was an offense Carolina used when Smith wanted to spread the defense and then aggressively attack the basket. This was a scoring offense.

“4” was the base delay game, although the Tar Heels also scored from this “original version” of the Four Corners, especially when Phil Ford was at the helm.

Smith used 4 and 4c frequently in the second halves of games, but his objective was frequently misunderstood. More often than not he was trying to pull the opposing team out of a zone defense, or bring an opposing big man, a Mike Gminski or a Ralph Sampson, away from the basket. Smith normally didn’t go to the Four Corners to put the game in the deep freezer until there were just a few minutes left.

Because of Smith’s use of the delay game, it was widely assumed that he would be against having a shot clock in college basketball.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Smith did believe the old rules helped bring about parity in college basketball. But while he believed college basketball would see fewer upsets with a shot clock, he welcomed the impact a faster game would have on the North Carolina basketball program. His one stipulation for college basketball adopting a shot clock was that there be a three-point shot component. He felt quite sure that without a three-point rule, a shot clock would make the zone defense all-powerful. History has proven him correct.

There were those who thought Dean Smith would no longer be a big winner with a shot clock preventing him from using the Four Corners. But he did continue to use the offense occasionally, especially during the first years after rule changes from 1986 to 1994. At that point, the NCAA employed a 45-second clock (It's since been reduced to 35 seconds) along with the three-point shot. Moreover, as Smith predicted, the move to speed up the game helped Carolina. The Tar Heel records in the first three years with the new rules: 32-4, 27-7 and 29-8. The new rules were in effect for four Dean Smith trips to the Final Four and one national championship.

Many folks marvel at the amazing comebacks during the Dean Smith era. While practice, mental preparation and game strategy played a part in those comebacks, I want to focus on several Dean Smith basketball innovations that also helped ensure his teams would be in virtually every game.

Taking charges: Smith was among the first coaches to teach his players to draw charging fouls. George Karl and Steve Previs became exceptional defenders in this regard. When Carolina’s big men also began drawing charges, Smith’s run-and-jump defense became a pretty powerful weapon.

Diving for loose balls: I watched college basketball throughout the 1960s, but I don’t think I ever saw multiple players dive for loose balls until Dean Smith’s teams of the early 1970s began acquiring floor burns on a nightly basis. You might expect guards to “get down and dirty” but when 6’10" Mitch Kupchak also began to dive for loose balls, that really got people’s attention.

Standing and cheering teammates: If you ever sat behind the Carolina bench at a game, you became quite aware that Tar Heel players were taught to stand and applaud their teammates after every score and when they came out of a game. This along with “pointing to thank the passer” helped build a team chemistry that would be needed in the late stages of tight games.

Tired signal: Dean Smith wanted players to give maximum effort. Players who needed a break were encouraged to hold up one fist – that was the tired signal. When a player gave Smith the tired signal, he would put in a substitute, and, most importantly, the player would decide when he was ready to go back in the game.

Players grew to trust and use this system to keep them fresh.

There is a corollary here: when Dean Smith substituted because it was apparent to him that a player was tired, the coach decided when to put the player back into the game. Players learned to give the tired signal to gain a little more control over their playing time.

Tip outs: Carolina played several years in the early 70s without a dominant big man. To compete with bigger teams on the boards, Tar Heel forwards and even guards were taught to use one hand to tip or bat the ball to a teammate if they couldn’t gain complete control of a rebound. This was usually done in the offensive end to prolong a possession, but could occasionally be used at the defensive end as well.

Huddle before free throws: Tar Heel players were taught to huddle before free throws. This gave players the effect of a 5- to 10-second meeting without using a time out. There were no coaches in the huddle setting up offenses or defenses of course, but signals could be relayed from the bench to the point guard or team leader. Above all, these huddles ensured all players would be on the same page.

The timeout after made baskets: It is difficult to overstate the impact of this innovation. In the 60s, teams called time out on a dead ball, or after the opposing team scored, in order to set up their offense. Somewhere in 1970 or 1971 (and I’m still trying to determine when) Dean Smith began calling timeout after made baskets, in order to set up his defense.

I first became aware of this strategy at the 1972 Final Four when North Carolina staged a huge comeback against Florida State.

The Tar Heels had trailed by 23 when Bob McAdoo fouled out. They began a furious comeback to cut the Seminoles’ lead to five. Afterward, FSU’s Hugh Durham said that Dean Smith that night made the best use of timeouts he had ever seen in a college basketball game.

I saw Coach Durham a couple of years ago and asked him whether Smith had been calling timeouts after his team scored. He wasn’t sure, but definitely remembers that Smith used the timeout as a weapon in that comeback. I spent some time with former UNC coach Bill Guthridge this summer. He confirmed that Smith was calling timeouts after made baskets in that Florida State game and feels quite sure he began doing it a season or two before that.

I asked Guthridge if there was a rule change that brought this about. “No,” he said, “It was just something he did.”

If you’ve watched college basketball, you can see the power in this innovation. You’re down 10. You hit a three-point shot, and you call timeout. You set up your defense. Maybe you get a steal. You get a layup, and just like that, a 10-point lead is cut to five.

All the Smith innovations mentioned above came together when the Tar Heels trailed in the second half of a game. They would pick up the pressure defensively, trying to draw charges or create turnovers. They would dive after loose balls, often resulting in extra possessions. The guys on the bench kept supporting each other, and players were fresh because they had given the tired signal and taken some time on the bench to rest. Then came those infernal tip outs. Opposing teams would think they had stemmed the tide when Carolina missed a shot, but then some Tar Heel player would bat a contested rebound ball to a teammate and the UNC offense would go back to work. The comeback would continue. Frequently, the Tar Heels would have to foul during these comebacks. Players would calmly huddle before the free throws and plot their strategy. Carolina would get the ball back after the free throws, go down and score, and then call timeout after the made basket. The timeout would give them yet another opportunity to set the defense, and the cycle would continue.

We see many of these innovations commonly used in college basketball today, especially by Dean Smith’s protégé, Roy Williams.


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  • Lost and Loaded Nov 22, 2013

    There's a big difference between a player positioning himself to draw contact and take a charge and one who simply flops without contact (the Dook way).

    Dean pioneered the former and is famous for it, K pioneered the latter and is infamous for it.

  • heelsforever Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    I'll give State fans one thing though, at least the older ones, they've stuck by their team for 30 years with not a sigle year (well, maybe one) in which they had a team that had a chance to win it all. Not sure many Tar Heel or Duke fans would be able to handle that.

  • heelsforever Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    Exactly! Back then Kansas was very progressive compared to any state in the South.

  • Deanway Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    They are quite the embittered lot.

    Nothing to celebrate since 1983 will do that to some, we reckon. smh

  • millerbri66 Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    Typical of a pathetic, classless State fan

  • 4tarheels Nov 21, 2013

    Dean Smith was an innovator and a teacher. Those of us who had the privilege of watching this man ply his trade should feel blessed. I feel sorry for my kids who will never witness his accomplishments, of course, I missed out on Wooden, so I guess they will have their legend eventually.

  • Objective Scientist Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    ...but - when you're in NC, you're not in Kansas anymore! Last map I looked at had NC in the SOUTH, not the midwest.

  • masontom56 Nov 21, 2013

    Kansas had black players for years before Smith recruited Charlie Scott.

  • alphaman Nov 21, 2013

    View quoted thread

    K=4 national championships
    DES=2 national championships

    Winning is what matters....per you.

    Ouch. No other way to put it...just OUCH!LOL

  • Objective Scientist Nov 21, 2013

    Having had the opportunity and the pleasure of knowing Dean Smith and having been a UNC fan for decades... there is no doubt he was a truly GREAT basketball coach. However, as many point out, he is an even better "man"!

    I write to comment on one item in this article, that being " ...during the dark days when college basketball outlawed the dunk, 1967-76, Smith was among the leading proponents of bringing it back. His reasoning: players liked it." I like the "dunk", it can and does often add to the excitement of a game. However, having played the game as well as being a long-time fan of the game - IMO the dunk receives far more attention than it deserves. Most dunks are done by very tall players, often also very "athletic" players with hands the size of some baseball gloves that renders a dunk much the same as the proverbial "shooting fish in a barrel"! Which is more difficulty? A player who in near or at 7 feet tall dunking the ball, or a player of any size hitting a 3 from deep in the corner with one or more players having their hands in his face? I could describe several other type "shots" that I believe are more difficult, demanding shots to make than a dunk! A dunk with 2-3-4 players 'hanging all over you" during the dunk is indeed difficult... I concede that - however, on average, I believe many more shots are more difficult and requires less skill than a dunk. That said... the truly perplexing part of a dunk for me is that after even an uncontested dunk by a player who is 6'' 6" to 7' 2" tall - literally shooting those fish in a barrel with a shotgun - there is the need by many to land, stand... put the head back, scream/roar loudly and then "stare down" anyone within 10-15 feet with a defiant, angry look on their face - as if they had just done something exceptional, and/or as if they were "offended" that anyone dare to have gotten in their way! The "culture" of sport that promotes such behavior... is both interesting and perplexing!




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