There is sadness up and down Tobacco Road this morning. The heated-hated rivals, Duke, North Carolina State and North Carolina for once agree on something. In Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, they are united emotion, mourning the passing of the Coach. The basketball world, from coast-to-coast is saddened too, mourning the passing of Dean Smith.
Claimed by Alzheimer’s and Dementia quickly, gone at the age of 83, just three years after the memory loss disease was diagnosed.
It was an eerie feeling last year during the NCAA tourney to see both Smith, and Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summit sitting courtside. Both suffering from Alzheimer’s, wondering if they could understand now how beloved they were for the sport they gave so much too.
Dean Smith was an enormous coach, who took on and beat all the giants; John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewzki, Al McGuire and Adolph Rupp. Basketball was indeed king in the deep south for so many years. You listen to the greats of the past down there, Terry Holland, Lefty Driesell, Norm Sloan, Gary Williams, his peers, talk about him, and the stories are legendary. Like waves crashing over the Outer Banks, of how Coach Smith impacted one and all.
But he took on society too. He broke the color barrier in the ACC, first with the signing of guard Charley Scott. That was followed by a litany of great players, capped my Michael Jordan and James Worthy, also including Bob McAdoo and Phil Ford, Walter Davis and Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and 55-Tar Heels who eventually made their way into the NBA.
He was so proud of tradition, ‘the Carolina Way’, even prouder that 95% of his players graduated from the Chapel Hill campus, a far cry from the horrors of the current NCAA academic fraud scandal that has swallowed up the Tar Heels program.
He came from Kansas, played for Phog Allen, the Hall of Famer, who shaped the game, knew everyone, had an opinion on everything, and influenced so many.
When players signed at North Carolina, they came to play for the coach, not knowing they were also inheriting a father figure, a counselor, a trustworthy friend. The stories are legend of Dean Smith being there when there was a death in the family, an academic crisis, a money crisis, a social question. There not to bail out an athlete, but to give guidance and direction and sometimes harsh opinion too.
The foundation of the ACC was that post season tourney, the one in Greensboro, that captured the fancy of the fans, well before the days of ESPN, bloggers, twitter and 500-different networks. Dean Smith and North Carolina made that foundation.
The records are enormous, (879-254), two NCAA titles, 13-ACC crowns, 11-Final-4 appearances, and just one losing season, his first, in the 27-years at UNC.
There was the invention of the Four Corners offense, the Jump-and-Run defense, the foul line huddles with players. He reveloutionzed recruiting, developed coaches who went elsewhere and did well, and he helped win a US Olympic Gold Medal.
In every NBA Arena yesterday, there were stories from players and coaches who had crossed paths with the ever-humbled and quiet coach. The stories were superb.
Somewhere in heaven this morning, Dean Smith is wearing Carolina Blue. We remember him for all he was, coach, friend, leader, civic gentlemen. Coach Smith was a ‘Man of Values’, and though memory loss took his life, we will forever remember him.