When former North Carolina All-American Eric Montross greets his former coach, he extends his hand and introduces himself.
Dean Smith has good days and bad. The coaching icon who suffers from progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory still gets to an occasional game and practice in Chapel Hill, and Montross doesn’t give Smith the opportunity to be unfamiliar.
“For a lot of us, we introduce ourselves every time,” Montross said. “We try not to give him the chance to falter on a name.”
No person is likely to take a greater amount of pride in Sunday’s Midwest Regional showdown between the top-seeded Tar Heels and second-seeded Kansas.
As North Carolina’s coach for 36 years, Smith retired in 1997 with college basketball’s career record for victories at 879, a mark that since has been surpassed. His North Carolina teams won two NCAA Tournaments and appeared in 11 Final Fours.
He also has been the background source of coaching transactions at North Carolina and his alma mater, Kansas.
Smith helped Larry Brown and Roy Williams get their jobs at Kansas and then helped persuade Williams to return to North Carolina in 2003.
All moves resulted in remarkable success, with Brown winning a national title at KU, Williams reaching four Final Fours in Lawrence and winning a pair of national championships at North Carolina.
Reaching college basketball’s ultimate goal started to become a habit with Smith during his Kansas days.
Playing for coaching legend Phog Allen, Smith was a reserve guard on the Jayhawks’ 1952 NCAA title team and 1953 national runner-up, and his strengths were on display throughout his career.
Not his game.
“He was so smart,” said Al Kelley, a former teammate of Smith and member of the 1952 team. “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 was always looking to absorb basketball knowledge. When he served as an assistant coach at Air Force, Smith would drive to Denver to watch the national AAU Tournament, and join coaches and players after games in the bar.
“He’d sit and have a beer and talk basketball with everybody, sometimes till early in the morning talking basketball,” said Bill Hougland, a 1952 team member who also played in the AAU Tournament for the Phillips 66ers.
Kelley and Hougland were part of a group that returned to Allen Fieldhouse in February for the 60th anniversary celebration of the national title team. Smith had been to Lawrence for previous reunions. He didn’t make this one.
Kelley said he made it a point to stay in contact with Smith over the years, but they hadn’t spoken in a year, the longest time between contact.
Jerry Waugh, who played and coached for the Jayhawks in the 1950s, said he contacted Smith last year, but the conversation was short.
“I tried to lead him into conversations he would know,” Waugh said, “but it was obvious he didn’t track.”
Williams has often said as much as 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 his players, coaches and team personnel than Smith.
“People would get upset with Coach Smith outside of the North Carolina program because he never seemed to have enough time for them,” Brown said. “But his whole life has been about taking care of the kids who played for him and the people who were part of the program.
“I never called Coach Smith and asked him for help. But he would always call me and ask if I needed anything. It was always about the school and the kids.”
Montross remembers the telegram he received from Smith on his NBA debut game and the handwritten notes Smith would send to say he was thinking about his family.
“It was the simple things he’s done that make a difference, the way he reached out to his players,” Montross said. “He laid the foundation.”
And his work is part of both teams in Sunday’s showdown.