The Dean Of College Basketball Calls It Quits Legacy Of Game’s Greatest Mentor Will Go On Despite His Absence From Unc Bench
Dean Smith, the coach whose basketball lineage traces from James Naismith and the first peach basket, formally ended an era Thursday.
His retirement after 36 years as coach at the University of North Carolina, and 879 victories that surpassed the total of every other college coach, inspired all manner of responses.
They came from President Clinton, who telephoned him. From Michael Jordan, whose jump shot as a freshman led Smith’s Tar Heels to the first of his two national championships, who called him “his second father.” And from students who wedged themselves against windows outside the athletic building that bears his name and where the announcement was made.
Smith, who played at the University of Kansas for Hall of Fame coach Phog Allen, who had played for Naismith, has forever changed the game of basketball through the players and coaches he has taught.
Last winter, Jordan joined the former Smith recruits James Worthy and Billy Cunningham among those selected as the 50 leading players in the history of the National Basketball Association. Thirty of Smith’s players have reached All-America status. Eight of the last nine United States Olympic teams have included at least one of his Tar Heels. Last season, no fewer than 15 of his former players appeared on NBA rosters.
As Smith announced his decision to retire Thursday afternoon, Larry Brown, one of his former players, stood quietly in a corner of the room. Brown, who directed Kansas to the 1988 national championship, now coaches the Philadelphia 76ers. But Smith’s role as an instructor for the game’s brightest minds does not stop with Brown. George Karl has taken the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA finals. Roy Williams of Kansas and Eddie Fogler of South Carolina, longtime assistants, have risen to the top of their profession.
Their mentor lifted a program troubled by National Collegiate Athletic Association rules violations in the early 1960s and transformed it into a national model of athletic and academic efficiency. The Tar Heels have won at least 20 games for 27 consecutive seasons. They have built winning percentages of .728 in Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season play and .716 in the intense conference tournament. Perhaps more importantly, 97.3 percent of the players to receive a letter under Smith have earned their degrees.
As the campus responded Thursday to the shock of Smith’s decision, the depth of his relationships became as clear as the coach’s lasting contributions: his support of desegregation efforts, his recruitment of African-American athletes, his strategic innovations that included the four-corners offense and the foul-line huddle.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Jordan said at the Chicago Bulls training facility in Deerfield, Ill. “At the time I was going into the university, I never really left home before. My father and mother instilled confidence in him to take Michael Jordan to another level away from the game of basketball, to make sure I got an education. He certainly did that and fulfilled that.”
Michael Hooker, the university chancellor, remembered his own freshman year, in 1965, spotting the young basketball coach in a hallway, having a conversation with two players. “I just stood and watched for probably 10 minutes,” Hooker said. “Dean has been my hero since then …
“I told him as we were coming down the stairs a few minutes ago, that I don’t think any person has done as much for a university, in the history of higher education, as Dean Smith has done for Carolina.”
Smith introduced his successor, 60-year-old Bill Guthridge, an assistant for the past 30 years who had wanted to end his career with Smith rather than take his place. Guthridge will be given a long-term contract that has yet to be determined. Without being asked, Smith denied the speculation from a frantic 24-hour period, that he was dissatisfied with the university administration or that there was a health problem.
“I enjoy basketball,” he said. “I enjoy coaching basketball. It’s the out-of-season things that I haven’t been able to handle very well.”
Smith looked out at the crowd in a lounge adjacent to the 21,572-seat campus arena that bears his name. He was surprised to find John Thompson, the Georgetown University coach, an opponent in 1982 when Jordan’s shot won a championship and an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team in 1976. The Olympic team was the only time, Smith said, that he adopted a win-at-all-cost outlook. Smith found it difficult to look at the current Tar Heels, nearly all of whom wore suits, ties and somber looks.
He said he had warned Guthridge in the past decade that if his batteries were not recharged as the season approached, he would resign. Smith remembered spending time recently with former assistants. He recalled marveling at Brown’s enthusiasm. “I said, ‘I used to be like that,”’ Smith said. “If I can’t give this team that enthusiasm, I said I would get out.
“And that’s honestly how I feel.”
Guthridge had watched the demands on Smith, which began to increase after the 1976 Olympic team won a gold medal, become suffocating after his 877th victory last March broke the record held by Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp. Requests that once numbered in the hundreds were now in the thousands. The prescription for Smith’s annual spring fatigue and uncertainty was once simple. “My goal every year,” Guthridge said, “was to get him out and play so much golf that he would come back in August and say, ‘I never want to play golf again.’ Then I knew we had him.”
Although Smith’s contract ran through 2001, the task of extending his career was becoming impossible. From a year ago to mid-May, Smith remembered, he had one free weekend to see grandchildren. The basketball business would not offer the more relaxed pace of semiretirement that Smith’s friends enjoyed.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Dean’s list Years at North Carolina: 36 Career record: 879-254 NCAA championships: 1982, 1993 Consecutive 20-win seasons: 27 Name dropping: Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Mitch Kupchak, Charlie Scott and Billy Cunningham are among the stars who have played under Smith at North Carolina.
This sidebar appeared with the story: Dean’s list Years at North Carolina: 36 Career record: 879-254 NCAA championships: 1982, 1993 Consecutive 20-win seasons: 27 Name dropping: Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Mitch Kupchak, Charlie Scott and Billy Cunningham are among the stars who have played under Smith at North Carolina.