The winningest basketball coach in college history, Dean Smith (born 1931) retired from the University of North Carolina in 1997 after 36 seasons. His teams won 879 games and had 27 consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories.
Under Dean Smith, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels made 11 appearances in the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I college basketball tournament. They won two NCAA titles, in 1982 and 1993. Smith holds many records, including 65 NCAA tournament wins, and 17 regular season titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Beyond his teams' achievements, Smith was known for his innovations, his recruiting prowess, and his loyalty to his players. Smith coached 30 All-Americans, including the man many consider the greatest basketball player who ever lived, Michael Jordan. Many others he coached went on to the National Basketball Association, including 21 first-round NBA draft picks. At least five of his former players became NBA coaches, including NBA Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham. Cunningham told Time that Smith "takes as much pride in the doctors and lawyers he coached as he does in the All-Stars." Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden once said, "Dean is the best teacher of basketball that I have observed." When Smith announced his retirement, Jordan commented, "He's a father figure to a lot of players and a lot of people."
The Future Coach
The only son of strict Baptist schoolteachers, Dean Edwards Smith was born February 28, 1931. He grew up in Emporia, Kansas, watching his father coach. Alfred Smith's high school Spartans won the 1934 state championship with the help of the first black player in Kansas high school tournament history. Smith was an intensely competitive yet sensitive child. In high school he played quarterback in football, catcher in baseball, and point guard in basket-ball-the positions that demand the greatest intelligence and understanding of each sport.
Despite his desire to succeed, Smith didn't have the talent to make it as a player. He went to the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship. There he majored in math and physical education and was a reserve guard on the basketball team. The team won the 1952 national title, but Smith played little. His coach was Phog Allen, who had been taught by the inventor of the game of basketball, Alexander Naismith. Smith would sit next to Allen on the bench and soak up knowledge. "Everyone understood that he was going to be a coach, " said local sportswriter Rich Clarkson.
After graduation, Smith briefly served as an assistant coach at Kansas, then joined the U.S. Air Force in Germany. From 1955 to 1958, Smith was an assistant basketball coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Succeeding A Legend
Smith came to North Carolina as assistant basketball coach in 1958. In 1961, he succeeded the legendary coach Frank McGuire. McGuire had led the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1957, but his aggressive recruiting had put the program in violation of NCAA rules. Smith would polish UNC's image to a fine sheen. In all his seasons, his program never was charged with a single violation.
Smith's only losing season was his first, but it took a while for him to be accepted. In his first five seasons, Smith twice was hung in effigy on campus. "When I was here, Dean Smith was the biggest joke around, " said Art Heyman, a player with nearby Duke University. "Everybody wanted him fired."
A liberal politically, Smith joined in protests on campus against segregation. In 1964, he accompanied a local black pastor and a black theology student to a segregated Chapel Hills restaurant Smith and his players often visited. The visit integrated the restaurant. In 1966, Smith recruited the first black player in the ACC, Charlie Scott. "Coach Smith was always there for me, " Scott told Sports Illustrated. "On one occasion, as we walked off the court following a game at South Carolina, one of their fans called me a 'big, black baboon.' Two assistants had to hold Coach Smith back from going after the guy. It was the first time I had ever seen Coach Smith visibly upset."
Smith combined his outspoken support for liberal causes, including nuclear disarmament and abolition of the death penalty, with a devout Christian faith. He served as director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from 1965 to 1970. He ordered his players to go to the church of their choice every Sunday and return with a brochure to prove they had gone.
The Smith Mystique
After his teams won three straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships beginning in 1967, a mystique started to develop around Smith and his "system" of coaching. At the Air Force Academy, he and head coach Bob Spear had started to develop an offensive delay game. It eventually became a stall strategy known as the "Four Corners." The Four Corners involved stationing a player in each corner of the offensive half-court and passing the ball constantly around the perimeter. The shot clock came to college basketball largely because of the Four Corners.
Smith's teams were known for their passing and for their scrambling trap defenses. He also invented the now-common practice of players huddling at the foul line before a foul shot. And more than any other coach, Smith was responsible for the highly evolved platoon substitution that now characterizes the final minutes of most close games, as coaches shuttle offensive and defensive specialists in and out. "On the sidelines Smith was always several moves ahead of everyone else, " wrote Alexander Wolff of Sports Illustrated.
Starting in 1967, Smith was six times named Coach of the Year in the ACC. His coaching and recruiting turned North Carolina's program into a juggernaut. But to Smith, winning was not the first priority. "My first goal was to keep my job, " he told Wolff. "Then I wanted to win. It was when I got more mature that I said, What's most important is that we play well."
Smith was known for his presence of mind in tense late-game situations. Mitch Kupchak, his center from 1972 to 1976, recalled a game against Duke in which UNC was behind eight points with 17 seconds left. "His calm throughout was amazing, " Kupchak told Sports Illustrated. "The way he walked us through those 17 seconds, it was as if he said, 'Don't think about this. Just do as I say and we'll win.' There he was in the huddle, looking up at us with a kind of smile." The Tar Heels tied the game and won it in overtime.
Smith was named the nation's top coach in 1977 and 1979. But he didn't win his first national title until 1982, in his seventh trip to the Final Four. It came against Georgetown, when a Hoya player threw the ball to James Worthy of the Tar Heels by mistake. Jordan, then a freshman, got the game-winning jump shot after the team got a pep talk on the sidelines from Smith. Down by a point, Smith told his players: "We're in great shape. I'd rather be in our shoes than theirs….We are going to determine who wins this game." Smith's second title came in 1993, and it was also due to an opponent's blunder, when Chris Webber of Michigan called a time-out when his team had none left. In contrast, the Tar Heels "played with prepossessing calm, " noted Sports Illustrated.
Legacy of Loyalty
Smith was intensely loyal to his players, visiting them in the hospital and keeping in touch with them after they graduated. Former Charlotte, North Carolina, mayor Richard Vinroot, who played under Smith, said Smith wrote to him weekly after Vinroot graduated and was serving in Vietnam. After Worthy turned pro and was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, Smith called and told him, "We're all human. I know you're a great man. Just deal with it as a man."
"I can't think of a time I've ever heard him blame or degrade one of his players, and in return, his kids are fiercely loyal to him, " Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski told Sports Illustrated. "That kind of loyalty doesn't just happen. Things done on a day-to-day basis develop that kind of relationship."
Smith was such a straight arrow that he always wore a tie even in practice. He forbade his players to have facial hair. He and his wife Linnea campaigned to ban alcohol advertising at college sports events. "It's hypocritical for a college conference to have student-athletes tell young people they should say no to drugs when we say yes to beer ads, " Smith told Wolff.
Smith always made academics paramount. His players had a 97 percent graduation rate. To the end of his career, he remained firmly opposed to freshman eligibility for high-profile collegiate sports. If freshmen were ineligible, he told Wolff, "colleges would attract young men who are serious about school as well as athletics, because those who want to go pro after one season wouldn't have the patience to wait around." Yet Smith also advocated paying NCAA players, and he encouraged many of his stars to leave college early to turn professional.
Although he was one of the best paid collegiate coaches, Smith criticized coaches' salaries as exorbitant. He insisted that money donated by shoe-company sponsors to the basketball program be spread evenly to all sports programs, men's and women's, at the university. He was also intensely private. Only over his protests was North Carolina's new basketball arena named the Dean E. Smith Center in 1983. He "was the one guy who didn't buy into the myth that had been created around him, " said sportswriter S.L. Price.
Smith's players had to talk him out of retiring near the end of the 1996-97 season. Smith didn't want to break University of Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp's record of 876 coaching wins. After he won the game, he congratulated his assistants.
Some critics said Smith should have won more than two titles. "I don't believe that 'winning the big one' says all there is to say about you, " Smith told Wolff. "You win big ones to get to the Final Four, or even just to get into the tournament." Smith retired at the start of the 1997-98 season. At 66, he said he could no longer bring the necessary energy to his job. Smith was succeeded by Bill Guthridge, his assistant for 31 years.
"He had a style that no one's ever going to copy, " said Krzyzewski. "To be that smart, that psychologically aware, that good with X's and O's-with that system, and to always take the high road-that just isn't going to happen again."
Porter, David L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, Greenwood Press, 1989.
Sporting News, October 20, 1997.
Sports Illustrated, March 24, 1997; October 20, 1997; December 22, 1997.
Time, October 20, 1997.
U.S. News & World Report, October 27, 1997.
Smith, Dean Edwards
SMITH, Dean Edwards
(b. 28 February 1931 in Emporia, Kansas), Hall of Fame basketball coach who guided the University of North Carolina (UNC) to 2 national championships and 879 wins in 36 years, breaking the collegiate record for coaching victories.
Smith was born to schoolteachers Alfred and Vesta Edwards Smith. His father, who was also a coach, challenged high school athletic administrators in Kansas by allowing a black student to join the basketball team. When Smith was sixteen, his family moved to Topeka, Kansas, where he played baseball, basketball, and football at Topeka High School. Upon graduation in 1949, Smith accepted an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he joined the Air Force ROTC and played basketball for legendary coach Phog Allen's national championship team in 1952 and runner-up team in 1953. However, Smith saw little court time, and aspired to follow in his parents' footsteps. "Teaching and coaching was all I ever thought about as a profession because it struck me that in addition to being very good people, my parents were also deeply happy ones," Smith would later write in A Coach's Life.
After graduating from Kansas in 1953, Smith served as an assistant coach at the school and played semiprofessional basketball until his U.S. Air Force orders came through in April 1954. Later that year Smith married Ann Cleavinger and was assigned to Germany, where he was a player and coach for Air Force basketball teams. That led to Smith becoming an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1956. After two years there Smith left for a job as an assistant to coach Frank McGuire at UNC.
No one knew that this would be the beginning of a storied career at Chapel Hill. The early years were tough. As McGuire's only assistant, Smith's duties were numerous, and in 1960 the NCAA investigated UNC basketball for "excessive recruiting expenditures," leading to a one-year probation in 1961. McGuire left to become head coach of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) Philadelphia Warriors, and Smith was hired as his replacement.
Things got even tougher. Smith's first Tar Heel squad finished with eight wins and nine losses in the 1961–1962 season, and by early 1965 his teams had still not reached a postseason tournament. Those who had enjoyed McGuire's winning ways—including the 1957 national championship—were growing restless. Following a loss at Wake Forest on 6 January 1965, UNC students hanged Smith in effigy as the team returned to campus. At that point Tar Heels star forward Billy Cunningham challenged the crowd, and confiscated the replica of his coach in an emotional display of loyalty. In retrospect, many view this as the turning point of Smith's career.
UNC started winning more often at roughly the same time that Smith began to employ an offensive strategy he called the "four corners," a stalling tactic that frustrated opponents during the era when college basketball had no shot clock. In 1967 North Carolina advanced to the first of eleven "Final Fours" under Smith. The Tar Heels lost to the University of Dayton in the national semifinals, but advanced to the finals in 1968 with the help of Charlie Scott, the first African American to play at UNC. The team fell to UCLA, but after Smith led UNC back to the Final Four in 1969 and 1972, and added a National Invitation Tournament championship in 1971, his career was budding.
Smith coached the United States to Olympic basketball gold in 1976, aided by four of his own Tar Heel players. He guided UNC back to the national championship game in 1977 and 1981, but losses to Marquette and Indiana had supporters restless again. In six trips to the Final Four, Smith's teams had gone home empty. But on 29 March 1982, Smith broke through. A team featuring James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a freshman named Michael Jordan defeated Georgetown University 63–62 in the title contest. After the game, a humble Smith said, "I don't think I'm a better coach now because we've won." However, a vindicated Smith also noted, "A great writer from Charlotte, North Carolina, once said that it was our system that kept us from winning the national championship. It's the most ridiculous comment ever made and I always wanted to say that."
The "system" included such innovations as the "four corners" offense and the "run and jump" defense, as well as players raising a fist to signify they needed a break, or pointing to a teammate to acknowledge an assist. On 5 April 1993 this system earned Smith another national championship, as UNC beat the University of Michigan 77–71 in the final. Coincidentally, a late-game mistake by the opponent played a role in both national titles. A bad pass by Georgetown's Fred Brown aided the Tar Heels in 1982, and a time-out called by Michigan's Chris Webber when his team had none remaining resulted in a crucial technical foul in 1993. "OK, call us lucky, but also call us national champions," said Smith after Webber's gaffe.
Under Smith, the Tar Heels developed a knack for erasing late deficits with amazing scoring spurts. On 2 March 1974 UNC scored eight points in the last seventeen seconds against Duke University to force overtime and eventually win, 96–92. On 10 February 1983 North Carolina out-scored the University of Virginia 11–0 during the final 4:12 to cap a 64–63 victory. And on 27 January 1993 the Tar Heels went on a 28–4 run in the last 9 minutes to beat Florida State University 82–77.
Smith retired from coaching on 9 October 1997, but not before what may have been his best coaching job the previous winter. After a rocky 12–6 start, UNC reeled off sixteen straight wins to capture Smith's thirteenth Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title, and advance to the last of his eleven Final Fours. The Tar Heels lost to the University of Arizona in the national semifinals, but Smith finished the season with 879 career wins, breaking former University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's previous record of 876, after years of saying he would never coach long enough to do it.
Along with the record 879 wins, Smith's 36-year résumé included 30 seasons of 20 or more wins, 27 NCAA tournament appearances, and 17 ACC regular-season titles. He was named ACC Coach of the Year 8 times, and over 96 percent of his varsity athletes graduated. In 1983 Smith was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1986 UNC's new on-campus basketball arena was named the Dean E. Smith Center in his honor.
Dozens of Smith's players went on to NBA careers, including Cunningham, Scott, Worthy, Perkins, Jordan, Bobby Jones, Bob McAdoo, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, and Vince Carter. Cunningham, Larry Brown, and George Karl also became outstanding NBA coaches, and Buzz Peterson and Matt Doherty succeeded as college coaches; the latter taking over at UNC in 2000. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden called Smith "a better teacher of basketball than anyone else."
No one has higher praise for Smith than his former players. Jordan has said, "He's like a second father to me," both before and after his own father was murdered in 1993. Doherty has called UNC basketball alumni "a family like no other family," and many have admitted to taking Smith's personal advice on a regular basis. "Sometimes he'll give you an opinion and you'll go another way, but 90 percent of the time you'll do what he says," claimed Peterson just days before accepting the head coaching job at the University of Tennessee in 2001.
Smith and his first wife divorced in 1973, and Smith married Linnea Weblemoe in May 1976. He has five children: three from his first marriage and two from his second. Smith has spoken out on several social issues, but is most noted for his support of integration during his early years in Chapel Hill.
Smith chronicled his career in a book entitled A Coach's Life (1999), and he is also the author of Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense (1982). More information about Smith's career can be found in Art Chansky, The Dean's List (1996). Further quotes and details are from North Carolina National Championship 1982 (1982), and the UNC Sports Information office.