Remembering Dean Smith: A Hero On and Off The Court

By now, you know I admire and study coaches. Dean Smith, who died Saturday at the age of 83, is the one I admire most.

I’ve quoted him often in these notes. I began to follow him over 50 years. I was a nine year old falling in love with basketball. Smith was a creative, young coach at the University of North Carolina frequently mentioned in sports magazines. I read all I could about him and his program.

“Play hard, play smart, play together” is a quote attributed to him.

He insisted on all-out effort. He wanted 100% all the time. One of his innovations was giving his players the option of taking themselves out of the game when they were exhausted. If you poured yourself out on the court, you could give the bench a hand signal. In would come the replacement. In return for putting the team first by giving up your spot, you could tell the coach when you had recovered and he would put you back in the game.

He approached the game with creativity. He developed a “four corners offense” designed to consume the clock when you had a lead or shorten the game when the opponent was more talented. It was so effective, it caused the implementation of a shot clock which forced a team to shoot the ball.

He countered that by changing his game to a full court, transition game making use of three point shooting and frequent defensive changes.

All of his inventions required well trained, well taught, disciplined, purposeful players. Playing smart gave his team an edge.

Playing together. His basketball style depended on teamwork. He honored the passer who created the open shot as much as the shooter who made it. He encouraged risk taking defensively, reasoning that risks created more steals and pressure. But, you couldn’t take risks unless you were confident your team would cover for you when you missed. He insisted that freshmen paid dues and seniors earned privileges. It was a code that all the players embraced.

His system worked. It created dozens of successful coaches, but it also created scores of successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians. The idea of playing hard, smart and together translates from the basketball court to life.

Smith had a great deal of pride in this approach. He had confidence that it yielded the right results. At the same time, he resisted personal credit. He conducted himself with humility.

There was a story making the rounds Sunday. In 1959, when he was an assistant coach and new to Chapel Hill, he was surprised to see the eating establishments there were still desegregated.

Smith decided to do something about it. He invited an African American friend with him to lunch. He and his guest were served. The barrier had been crossed.

When the story was told to a journalist, Smith tried to keep it from coming out. The reporter argued with him. Said it was a courageous act. He thought it was a big deal.

Smith disagreed. “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

Smith remains a hero. His life demonstrates the fruit of a one well lived.