Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dean Smith impacted hoops, people

He changed the game and earned respect from those he coached and faced

By Dana O'Neil |
February 8, 2015

Once, during a coaches meeting, Dean Smith made Lefty Driesell so angry that the old Maryland coach wrote Smith a letter telling him he'd never shake his hand again.
True to his word, the next time Maryland and North Carolina played, Driesell turned away the man he liked to call "a hook-nosed little sucker."
Yet years later, when Driesell's son, Chuck, came to him for advice about coaching, Driesell had just one tip.
"I told him, 'Don't model yourself after me; model yourself after Dean,'" Driesell recalled Sunday while driving home from Duke's game against Notre Dame. "Dean always said the right thing, did the right thing. He was a true gentleman."
[+] EnlargeDean Smith, Lefty Driesell
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEven old opponents like Lefty Driesell couldn't help but respect Dean Smith.
Time, and more the frailty of a rival, has a way of smoothing away past resentments, and so it was with Driesell and his animosity toward Smith. In the final years of Smith's life, Driesell called Smith's secretary almost weekly to check in.
On Sunday, when he learned that Smith had died at the age of 83, he said simply and quietly, "I'll miss Dean."
If Smith wasn't the last of his kind, he certainly was one of the last, a man from an era when coaches were less politically correct yet far more impactful.
They were real and honest, sometimes brazenly so, unshackled by the burdens of multimillion dollar contracts, unafraid to stand up for what they believed in. Smith believed in a lot, and his battles against social injustices earned him an even greater appreciation from people outside the sports world.
But within the confines of basketball, he was perhaps even more admired. It was not because of the successes, though there were plenty of those -- 879 wins, 13 ACC titles, 11 Final Fours and two national titles -- it was because he was a Coach, with a capital C.
The ideal of a coach is of a man whose game plan is for a life, not just 40 minutes of basketball, who believes his job is to instill something in his players other than just a good stance on defense.
Smith was that ideal.
He called his method the Carolina Way, but really his principles guided people far beyond the reaches of Chapel Hill. Smith showed his peers how to truly be a coach and his players how to be men.
"He was just a wonderful fella," Driesell said. "We were rivals, but I always respected him. We all did. Every one of us."
They didn't necessarily love him, the other coaches, at least not when they were competing against him. Saint Dean, they'd say mockingly, angered and admittedly jealous about the special dispensation Smith seemed to receive. A young Mike Krzyzewski once wondered why it seemed his rival had a different set of rules, especially with ACC officials, and well, we can all chuckle at that irony of that now, can't we?
Smith's Four Corners offense -- the stall tactic that eventually gave birth to the shot clock -- was brilliant, no doubt, but absolutely maddening to coach against.
But mostly they didn't dislike him so much as they hated playing against him. He won so much and so easily -- with just one losing season, his first, during his 36-year tenure at Carolina. He had 27 20-win seasons, back when that benchmark was the true measure of success, and a top-three ACC finish in each of his final 33 years.
Smith didn't collect national championship trophies quite like John Wooden, but his program was no less a dynasty. The Tar Heels made 26 NCAA tournament appearances under him, rolling up 65 wins.
[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan and Dean Smith
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesMichael Jordan held a special affection for Dean Smith, one shared by seemingly everyone who played for the coach at North Carolina.
Yet buried beneath whatever on-court animosity Smith's successes may have engendered was a deep-seated respect for the quality of the man. He was fiery and competitive yet humble and dignified, and he demanded that his players carry themselves the same way.
Roy Williams is 64 years old, nearing retirement age himself. Never once has he referred to his coach by his first name. None of them have, the boys who arrived on campus as his players and became his sons.
He is Coach Smith, never Dean.
Smith gave his players lifelong advice and guidance, and in exchange they gave him the rarest of gifts -- true reverence and deference. It is not because he turned them into basketball greats, although he certainly did that, turning out 50 NBA players. He set standards for them, expectations of behavior and not just performance. He didn't demand perfection, but he required accountability. By being a man of strong character himself, he showed them how to be the same.
Long after they graduated -- and 96 percent of them did under his watch -- they sought his counsel. In the last few years, when his health failed and, worse, his beautiful mind faded, they still came to see him. He had no more advice to give them, but they went anyway, because they loved him.
Maybe the true essence of Dean Smith -- of Coach Smith -- is best defined by a picture, taken during a 2007 ceremony at North Carolina. It is of Michael Jordan and Smith.
Jordan has his arm wrapped around the crook of Smith's neck as he gently kisses him on the top of his head. It is a public moment of incredible intimacy, of a man adored by millions showing the world the man that he reveres.
His Coach.

Dana O'Neil | email

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