The Legacy of Coach Dean Smith

On February 7, 2015, Coach Dean Smith passed away. Several people have written remembrances of him, his coaching style, and his values. The Basketball Hall of Fame called Dean Smith a “coaching legend.”

My friend Tim Spiker is the son of former North Carolina Athletic Director John Spiker. Although he was young, he shared these words with me about his memories of Coach Smith’s standards and values—and I thought you’d enjoy them. too.

“It was the mid 1970’s…1974, I think. The North Carolina men’s basketball team had a young athletic trainer named John Spiker (and I was his preschool-aged son). At that time, North Carolina actually had a JV men’s basketball team. (They still do.) The team would load their bus at old Carmichael Arena (in the days before the “Dean Dome”) and ride over to have their pre-game meal at the cafeteria before heading out for road contests. On one occasion during that 1974 season, one of the JV players, Charlie Stalnaker, missed the team bus at Carmichael. Given the lay of the land, he ran through campus and literally beat the team bus to the cafeteria. But that didn’t solve the problem, at least not in Dean Smith’s program. Charlie was allowed to eat the pre-game meal, but that was the end of the line on that day. Because of his tardiness, Charlie wasn’t allowed to travel to the game and play. (I bet he’s never been late to a meeting the rest of his life.) When I asked my dad on Sunday what he remembered most about Dean Smith, he said, “His willingness to hold people accountable to good things.” Good things like being on time.

Meeting the Legend

“I got a chance to meet Coach Smith my freshman year at Purdue. We played them in Chapel Hill. It was a close game until about three minutes to go in the first half. Then they slapped the famous North Carolina run and jump trap on us, and before we knew what hit us, we were down about 15. We lost 78-50. I remember being so nervous to shake Coach Smith’s hand after the game. I recall saying something about how much I’d heard about him growing up, but it came out all jumbled and awkward. The practice we had when we returned to West Lafayette the next day was memorable as well — straight from the bus to the locker room and then on to the floor. Coach Keady was so upset with our lack of toughness against their traps that we had a section of practice where our coaches literally said, “We aren’t calling any fouls.” And they didn’t. That was because of Coach Smith and UNC.

“Even if you set aside 879 wins, 11 Final Fours, and 2 National Championships, Dean Smith was great. 96% of Smith’s players graduated from UNC. His practices were run with military like precision. He was a champion for civil rights. And he was a deeply humble man. No wonder I was taught the Carolina fight song as a kid, even as I spent the vast majority of my childhood hanging around the athletic department at West Virginia University.

“In 1976, my father was given the chance to come home to West Virginia to help start the university’s athletic training program. When he went in to tell Dean Smith he was leaving UNC, Coach Smith’s first comment was about hoping we would find a good church in Morgantown (as we’d had there in Chapel Hill).

“It isn’t often that we get to be in the presence of greatness. For two years in the 1970’s, my dad certainly was. And though two years isn’t a long time, it affected how my parents raised us; it affected our entire family. I think that is how greatness works. It infiltrates everything around it even in a short period of time. In a world where terrible news of awful behavior travels around the globe in a moment, it is nice to be reminded that when we consistently make small but great decisions as Coach Smith did, good things can travel deep into the lives of those around us. Coach Smith had only won 293 of his 879 wins when my family left Chapel Hill. And yet, his positive influence in my family’s life was already embedded. His greatness didn’t come from his wins. He didn’t become a man worth following after his 600th, 700th or 800th win. He was that man all along. There can be greatness in small, daily decisions in life. There is more greatness in who we become than what we accomplish. Coach Smith’s passing has reminded me of these things.”

What Others Have Said…

George Karl on the man he was: “We look at him as a better person, as a better teacher of men than probably as a great coach. He was unbelievable how he stayed in our lives and held our hand in tough times and always remembered our children. … He was a giant of a human being.”

Mike Krzyzewski on one of his greatest opponents: “I can’t think of a time I’ve ever heard him blame or degrade one of his own players, and in return, his kids are fiercely loyal to him. He had a style that no one’s ever going to copy. To be that smart, to be that psychologically aware, that good with X’s and O’s – with that system, and to always take the high road – that just isn’t going to happen again. His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man.”

Michael Jordan on his former coach: “He was more than a coach – he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father, who taught me not only about basketball but also about the game of life.”

Dean’s one firm rule was that if any of his players needed to talk to him, his assistant was to interrupt whatever he was doing, no matter how important it seemed. His players had to point to the passer after he made a basket. Smith believed you should live your life for reasons more meaningful than fame. You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.

This was Dean Smith’s legacy. May this be said of us as well.


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Check out Habitudes for Athletes.

The Legacy of Coach Dean Smith