Bob Ryan

North Carolina blue with passing of legendary Dean Smith

Coach Dean Smith had a system at North Carolina, and it was honored by players as individually gifted as Michael Jordan.
Coach Dean Smith had a system at North Carolina, and it was honored by players as individually gifted as Michael Jordan.Ellen Ozier/Reuters

Guess who Dean Smith had to beat in order to get to his first Final Four?

Bob Cousy.

Yup, the team in North Carolina’s way in College Park, Md., on that March evening in 1967 was Boston College. It was the very best of all the BC basketball teams, and I well remember the euphoric state in which we BC fans ascended when Jim Kissane dunked a rebound at the end of a fast break to make it 12-3, Eagles, forcing Smith to call the game’s first timeout.

The final was North Carolina 96, BC 80.

The Dean Smith Tar Heels would return to the Final Four 10 more times, winning it all in 1982 and 1993, each featuring rather bizarre endings in which the Heels were clinging to a lead when a member of the opposing team did something inexplicably awful. Do the names Fred Brown and Chris Webber ring a bell?

That Dean Smith’s two NCAA championships involve controversy not of his making is supremely ironic (I hope I’m using the word properly), given that Smith was the most meticulously prepared coach imaginable. Any Carolina victory was supposed to be neat and orderly, not messy and subject to the whim of an opponent.


But you have to take your NCAA championships when and where you find them, and by 1982 Dean’s number of critics were wondering aloud when the Great Man might actually win one.

It was a stupid form of attack, because by 1982 Dean Smith had been enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He was then 20 years into what would be a 36-year career in which he was not merely a successful coach but a personal frame of reference. He was the gold standard by which all other coaches were being measured.

And in the North Carolina community Smith was, well, The Almighty.


Other schools had alumni. Carolina has Dean Smith cultists. It has been a source of both amusement and admiration for the rest of us to watch and listen to the grown men of great basketball distinction pay homage to Smith in terms that were best summed up years ago by John Feinstein, then of the Washington Post.

“His former players,” wrote Feinstein, “think of him in terms so reverential it’s hard to believe they are discussing a mere mortal.”

It is no flight into hyperbole to say that scores of former North Carolina players and coaches worshipped this man. And I’m talking about such people as Billy Cunningham (Dean’s first big star), Larry Brown, Roy Williams, George Karl, and, of course, Michael Jordan. That would be in addition to the countless number of Carolina names unfamiliar to you and me whose lives were touched in a positive manner by Dean Edwards Smith, who passed away after a sad battle with dementia Saturday night at the age of 83.

Smith treated his student manager with as much respect as his latest All-ACC player. People were all over the airwaves Sunday sharing remembrances. A theme was Smith’s phenomenal memory, not just of ballgames, but of names. Names of wives. Names of parents. Names of children. Smith seemingly never forgot anything, which is why the idea that this man, of all people, would spend his final days robbed of that legendary memory is so distressing. This development is hardly exclusive to award-winning basketball coaches. But if ever there was Exhibit A to show the viciousness of Alzheimer’s or dementia, it was Dean Smith.


I heard the word “mentor” a lot Sunday. The Cunninghams, Browns, Williamses, Karls, and Jordans claimed they never would make a life decision without consulting “Coach” Smith. And it was always “Coach” Smith. The only deviant, predictably, was Doug Moe, a man known for his irreverence. To him, Coach Smith was always “Uncle Deano.” I’m sure Uncle Deano loved it.

I’m not a Carolina alum, so I’m here to tell you he wasn’t a saint. He was never known to be profane, but he could get on refs. Let’s not forget who is the only man ever ejected from a Final Four game. I mean, it was either Coach Smith or his evil twin. Oh, and horror of horrors, Coach Smith smoked.

He didn’t take all his losses in a gentlemanly manner. Sorry to go all BC on you once again, but he was far from gracious when BC upset his No. 1-ranked team in the 1994 NCAA Tournament. He practically called for the incarceration of Danya Abrams, who had the effrontery to lay a body or two on one of Dean’s precious Tar Heels.

The man actually was human. I’m just sayin.’

Part of that humanity was a total devotion to civil rights. He gave both his time and money to the cause.

Carolina players had to point to the man who made the pass leading to a basket. The entire bench arose when a man returned to the sideline after being subbed. They all would come back to Chapel Hill, N.C., in the summer for pickup games.


But that’s all fluff. What really mattered was the team concept he fostered. He had a system and it was honored by everyone, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins included. His players often were difficult for the NBA to evaluate, because some players were protected by the system and others were smothered by it.

He had a subtle way of introducing players to the Carolina way of life. Matt Doherty, who both played for Smith and later coached in his wake, told a nice little tale to ESPN.

It seems that on his first visit to the coach’s office in his freshman year, Doherty was wearing a shirt proclaiming him to be a McDonald’s All-American.

“Coach Smith knew I had a little brother, John, who was a player,” Doherty said. “He said, ‘Matt, that would be a nice shirt for John.’ I got the point.”

One more Dean Smith nugget: There was one degree of separation between Dean Smith and the man who invented basketball. He played at Kansas for Phog Allen, whose coach was Dr. James Naismith.

There will be a memorable gathering of the clan for the funeral in Chapel Hill. Hall of Famers in their 70s will tell us, I am sure, that there is now a void in their lives. Coach Smith is gone. Uncle Deano, too.