END OF AN ERA
OCTOBER 9, 1997
After 879 wins, 11 NCAA tournament Final Four appearances and 2 NCAA Championships, Dean Smith, the legendary men's basketball coach of the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, announced his retirement after 36 years of coaching.
PHIL PONCE: After 36 years, Dean Smith, the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history, is retiring. A native of Emporia, Kansas, Smith began his college basketball career as a player with the Kansas University Jayhawks, where he won a national championship in 1952. In 1961, at age 30, he became the head basketball coach with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
After a losing season in 1961, Smith's team had 35 straight winning seasons, won more NCAA tournament games than any coach in history, reached 11 NCAA tournament Final Fours and won two NCAA championships in 1982 and 1993, and last season he became the all-time winningest coach winning his 879th game. Smith did not just win basketball games. He broke a regional color barrier by recruiting the first African-American player in North Carolina history, Charlie Scott. Smith has coached 14 all Americans, including NBA stars Michael Jordan and James Worthy. Smith announced his retirement at a press conference at the stadium that was named after him, the Dean Smith center, otherwise known as the Dean Dome.
DEAN SMITH: If I can't give this team that enthusiasm, I said I would get out. And that's honestly how I feel. I'm the luckiest guy in the world, and I've said that, to be in Chapel Hill, to be at the University of North Carolina, with this faculty, this student body. And I've been through a few of them. This is 39 student bodies. Actually, it's 40.
My only guilt, if there is such a word, as I said, is some team, some day would be my last team, and so, yes, there's guilt, and I look in their faces, and I just couldn't handle that yesterday, and I couldn't if I turned right now, but I still believe it's best for them, unless I could give them what I want, but I'm going to work for them. And I owe ‘em. Any player who's played for me, I owe ‘em. What loyalty I've had any man--from my players over there--they're really special. That's all. (Applause)
PHIL PONCE: For a look at the legacy of Dean Smith we're joined by John Feinstein, sports author and commentator. His new book about coaching and the Atlantic Coast Conference is due out in December. John, welcome. First of all, for people who may not follow basketball, why was Dean Smith a big deal? JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sports Author: Well, you have to start with the numbers. That's the easy way to explain it because he was the winningest coach of all time. He surpassed Adolf Frup last March. He won national championships. He went to Final Fours. He graduated most of his players. His graduation percentage was higher than his winning percentage. And that's a significant thing because what he proved over all these years at North Carolina was that you could win games and win championships with players who went to class and graduated.
But beyond that was what we saw at the end of the piece, it's not insignificant that he started to break down talking about his players and their loyalty. When he broke the all time record last March for wins dozens and dozens of his former players flew in to Winston-Salem, North Carolina just to be there. He told them not to come. You know, don't make the effort; come in during the off season, we'll go play golf, but they wanted to be there because he'd meant so much to them. And I think the significant thing you have to remember about Dean Smith is not the 879 wins but the number of lives he touched because that's what he did all these years as a coach; he touched lives.
PHIL PONCE: And one of the ways that he touched lives, according to the reports, is his emphasis on sportsmanship.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. Dean was always like that. He always insisted--for example, if you watched him when the other team was being introduced before a game, he would stand there and clap for the opposing players. He just felt that was the right thing to do--small things. Lefty Drizelle, the Maryland coach, once--they were having a big battle, and Lefty wrote him a letter saying, next year when we play I don't want to shake hands with you after the games. And Dean wrote back and said, "I will always shake your hand, win or lose." And he did; he literally chased Lefty off the court after their first game the next year to make sure they had their handshake.
PHIL PONCE: As far as innovations, how he affected the game, what things did he contribute to the game that made him sort of unique?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, there were some things on the court. He ran the four-cornered delay offense in which he would just give the ball to a great point guard like a Phil Ford, who played for him and was a great player, and let him dribble out the game the last four or five minutes when North Carolina had a lead. That offense led to the shot clock because players and coaches and fans got so frustrated watching the game grind to a halt that they said we've got to put in a clock. He told his players to give his signal when they were tired, and then they were allowed to put themselves back in the game.
But another thing that was significant to me was when he was a senior at Kansas he wasn't a starter, and he didn't get to start in his last home game, and he always remembered that. So when he became a head coach, he always started his seniors, even walk-ons who weren't on scholarship in their last home game, and now that's a tradition. At every college in America the seniors start their last home game; they call it Senior Day, and that's because Dean Smith didn't start his last game as a senior at Kansas.
PHIL PONCE: In spite of the fact that he was so successful against opposing colleges, what was the level of respect that other coaches had for him?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, the respect was always tremendous but there was also a good deal of animosity, especially in the ACC, which is a league where geographically for most of Dean Smith's career only went from the University of Maryland in College Park as far as the University of South Carolina, then moved South to Atlanta and eventually into Florida. There was a lot of antagonism between he and other coaches. He and Mike Shashefsky, the Duke coach, had been great rivals for the last 18 years, and there have been moments when they've had angry exchanges both on the court and away from the court, but when you're talking about respect, they would also say over and over again how could he do it for so many years, the competing, the recruiting, the wins, the losses, and come back and come back and come back, and finally after all these years he ran out of energy.
PHIL PONCE: How did he do it for so many years?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think Dean Smith is the most competitive human being I've ever met in sports, and that's a pretty long list. Guys who play golf with him will tell you two words you will never hear from him are "that's good." He never concedes anything. He is the most competitive person I've ever interviewed in the sense that he would never give you an easy answer to something. He would say, why do you want to know that, or try to turn the question around, and as long as he had that competitive spirit and because he--he's a brilliant guy. He was a math major in college; he read a lot. He isn't just a jock. He was a very bright man. That and the competitiveness kept him going.
PHIL PONCE: Is the world of collegiate athletics, collegiate basketball passing him by as far as--I mean, is he an anachronism, with his emphasis on team work and sportsmanship?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I don't think he's an anachronism in the sense of being able to win. Dean Smith could have kept winning for another five, ten, fifteen years, as many years as he wanted to, but the way the athletes have changed I think made coaching less fun for him. He had some players in the program the last few years who he found frustrating to coach, who didn't respond to him, who wanted to do it in their way, who wanted to thump their chest when they dunked after big plays, who wanted to trash talk the other team, and Dean didn't enjoy that. He told me that in 1996 when he had a difficult season that he almost quit then but wanted to come back because if he was going to go out, he wanted to go out on a good note. And this team last year going to the Final Four gave him that good note to go out on.
PHIL PONCE: Were recent players--would they respond to him when he would tell them don't trash talk, that is, don't--
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Not always. Not always. I mean, I had never seen North Carolina players trash talk until the last couple of years, and then they had a couple of players who would actually talk to the fans during games when they were on the road. And Dean's attitude was on the road you go in, you beat ‘em and you get out of there. And that's the way you shut up the fans is by beating them.
PHIL PONCE: Early on, and he continued to have an interest in civil rights.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Very much so. His father was the first high school coach in Kansas to coach an integrated team. The school board there told him not to do it, and he said, no, I'm going to do it, or I'm going to resign. They won the state championship, and then nobody complained about having an integrated team anymore. When he got to North Carolina, Chapel Hill was still a segregated city, and the minister at his church and he and a black member of their church went into a restaurant in 1959, when he was still an assistant coach, not famous or anything, and it was segregated, and they basically dared the management not to serve them. And they did serve them, and that was one of the beginnings of breaking down the color lines in Chapel Hill. And he was very much a civil rights activist throughout the 60's and was the first coach to recruit black players at North Carolina, obviously--recruited a walk-on nobody'd heard of named Willie Cooper in 1964 and then Charlie Scott two years later.
PHIL PONCE: What is the world of collegiate athletics losing by his stepping down?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Besides losing an icon they're losing someone who stood for the things we want college athletics to be that very often too often it's not anymore. As I said, Dean never backed away from his principles. He insisted his players go to class. They did graduate. He would never--you know--do the things that we hear about in the news all the time that go on in college athletics. Dean Smith could have made a lot more money than he did, but he turned down endorsement opportunities because he felt the players should be making more money. He was always outspoken on behalf of the players. And that's gotten lost a little bit in this rush for all these coaches to have their fancy suits and their endorsement contracts the last few years.
PHIL PONCE: John, I thank you for being here.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: My pleasure.