College Sports

Dean Smith, a legendary coach whose contributions went beyond basketball, dies at 83

North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith won his first of two NCAA championships in 1982 when the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown 63-62 in New Orleans.
North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith won his first of two NCAA championships in 1982 when the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown 63-62 in New Orleans. The Associated Press

Perhaps no college basketball coach accomplished more in his lifetime than Dean Smith.

He also won many games and championships.

Smith, a native Kansan, died “peacefully” Saturday night at home in Chapel Hill, N.C., the University of North Carolina said in a statement from Smith’s family. He was 83.

He had been out of the public eye for several years battling a progressive neurocognitive disorder that robbed him of his memory.

But Smith’s impact on the game and in society has been felt since his coaching days at North Carolina, where his teams won two NCAA championships, played in 11 Final Fours and won 879 games, the most of any college men’s coach when Smith retired in 1997. He also coached the 1976 United States Olympic team to a gold medal.

“It’s such a great loss for North Carolina, our state, the university, of course the Tar Heel basketball program, but really the entire basketball world,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Sunday. “We lost one of our greatest ambassadors for college basketball, for the way in which a program should be run.

“We lost a man of the highest integrity who did so many things off the court to help make the world a better place to live in.

“He set the standard for loyalty and concern for every one of his players, not just the games won or lost. He was the greatest there ever was on the court but (he was) far, far better off the court with people.”

Michael Jordan was a member of Smith’s first national title team, in 1982, and made the eventual game-winning shot against Georgetown.

“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than coach Smith,” he said. “He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.

“Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”

Smith was born in Emporia, Kan., and was a member of KU’s 1952 NCAA title team. The seeds for his coaching career were firmly rooted in Kansas soil.

His father, Alfred, was a coach and teacher at Emporia High. The family moved to Topeka in 1947, and Smith graduated from Topeka High as an all-state guard and three-sport athlete.

He chose to attend Kansas over Kansas State and lettered for the Jayhawks in 1952 and 1953 while playing for Phog Allen and assistant Dick Harp. But Smith seemed just as interested in how plays developed and players were motivated than in his own game.

“He was so smart,” said former teammate Al Kelley in a 2012 interview. “When he was a junior and a senior, he would conduct the scrub team, the guys who didn’t start. We’d run their offensive plays against the starters and he coached the team.”

Smith’s contributions to Kansas extended beyond his playing days.

In 1983, Kansas fired coach Ted Owens and offered the job to Smith. No, thanks, Smith told athletic director Monte Johnson, who then asked Smith about Larry Brown. Brown had played for Smith and served as a North Carolina assistant.

Brown was hired and won the 1988 national championship in his fifth and final year in Lawrence.

Kansas again turned to Smith for its next hire, and Smith recommended to athletic director Bob Frederick a young assistant named Roy Williams.

“I wasn’t a household name, even in my own house,” Williams said.

But Frederick trusted Smith, and in 15 seasons at Kansas, Williams’ teams won nine conference championships and played in four Final Fours.

Williams often said 95 percent of what he does as a coach was patterned from Smith, and Brown said nobody in the game’s history took a greater interest in the lives of the players, coaches and team personnel that Smith.

“I never called coach Smith and asked him for help,” Brown said. “But he would always call me and ask if I needed anything. It was always about the school and the kids.”

Current Kansas coach Bill Self is connected to Smith through Brown. In 1985, Brown hired Self as a graduate assistant.

“It’s a huge loss to not only our basketball world, not only to the college game, not only to the fans that follow it, but to society in general,” Self said. “Because he was an innovator and certainly set an example for people to follow not just as players, but for the people that he touched directly and indirectly. It’s a sad day.”

Smith’s North Carolina teams were known for their selfless play. In Smith’s 36 years, a Tar Heel led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring just five times. He coached 25 NBA first-round draft picks. Smith was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and was part of the inaugural National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame class in 2006 in Kansas City.

Scoring a basket meant pointing to the player who gave the assist. Raising an arm was a tired signal. Smith honed the Four Corners delay tactic invented by another Kansas alum, John McLendon.

Under Smith, North Carolina emphasized high percentage shots, and the Tar Heels hit 50 percent or better in 32 years. Williams brought many of these ideas to Kansas in 1989.

After finishing at Kansas, Smith served as volunteer assistant for the Jayhawks, and served military duty in Germany, where he met Bob Spear, who became the first basketball coach at the Air Force Academy. Spear’s first hire was Smith.

Smith’s career took a big turn at the 1957 Final Four in Kansas City. North Carolina defeated Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in an epic triple-overtime title game at Municipal Auditorium, and that night Spear introduced Smith to his friend, Tar Heels’ coach Frank McGuire.

A year later, Smith had a job with the Tar Heels, and in 1961 amid an NCAA investigation, McGuire took a job in the NBA, and North Carolina elevated Smith. His first team, which included Brown, finished 8-9, the only losing season of Smith’s career.

The victories soon would pour in, on and off the court.

Before he won an NCAA Tournament game, Smith recruited Charlie Scott, the first black player at North Carolina. Scott went on to become ACC athlete of the year and helped the Tar Heels to two Final Fours.

Smith had strong convictions and wasn’t afraid to take public stands. On Scott’s recruiting visit, Smith took him to a predominantly white church on Sunday.

Although he never ran for office, Smith often supported liberal candidates and used his church as a base for his advocacy. He once openly supported a call for a nuclear freeze and signed a petition against the death penalty.

In his retirement, Smith maintained an office in the arena named for him, but kept a low profile. As the years went by, Smith was passed on the career victory list by Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim.

Smith, who stressed positive ideals, team-first and selfless philosophies, contributed to the program in retirement. He tried to land Brown as the coach in 2000 when Williams turned it down. The job went to Matt Doherty.

When Doherty was fired after the 2003 season with North Carolina out of the NCAA Tournament for two straight years, Williams couldn’t resist the obligation he felt to the program Smith had created.

Williams left for North Carolina, the Jayhawks hired Self, and both programs have won national championships since those moves.

Two years ago, Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. On Sunday, Obama was among many who paid tribute.

“He pushed forward the Civil Rights movement, recruiting the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helping to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. And in his final years, Coach Smith showed us how to fight an illness with courage and dignity,” President Obama said. “For all of that, I couldn’t have been prouder to honor Coach Smith with the Medal of Freedom in 2013.”

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BlairKerkhoff.

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