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'Gentleman And Coach' Dean Smith Did What He Believed In

UNC Tar Heels head basketball coach Dean Smith gives instructions during a 1997 playoff game against the Colorado Buffaloes. Smith died Saturday. He was 83.
Doug Pensinger
Getty Images
UNC Tar Heels head basketball coach Dean Smith gives instructions during a 1997 playoff game against the Colorado Buffaloes. Smith died Saturday. He was 83.

When I was a callow basketball reporter, I wrote critically of a stall strategy called the four corners that North Carolina Tar Heels coach Dean Smith would have his team use if they were ahead late in a game. He asked me why I didn't like the ploy, and I told him that it was my experience (my experience: I'm like 25 years old) that "sitting on a lead" — that's the expression — changes the emotion, the passion, and while it may be rational, it's dangerous psychologically.

Smith listened to me, then explained his philosophy, and when I departed, even though he hadn't convinced me, I was so stunned that he had politely heard me out, engaged me, man to man, this big-time coach letting a kid meet him on even terms, on his turf. I was a Dean Smith fan thereafter, and had no sense of gloating when going into the four corners too early against Marquette in the 1977 national finals cost Carolina the championship.

I just told myself, "Well, he did what he believed in." That was Dean Smith: Let the devil take the hindmost.

Unlike most hot shot coaches, Dean was not at all charismatic. He had a terrible, flat, nasal voice, and an ordinary appearance, not given to colorful language. But leaders are cut from many different bolts of cloth. Smith's was a plaid, with the deepest shades of loyalty and decency, so his Tar Heels were always his men, long after they were his players. A lot of players stay in touch with their old coaches, but for the Tar Heels, it was different. I'd go so far as to say that it was a fellowship.

I think his human frailty appealed to them. He was so embarrassed that he smoked, for instance. I can remember him sneaking under the stands with me for a smoke, only he cupped the cigarette in his hands like a teenager hiding it. But then it was he who just boldly walked into a segregated restaurant with a black recruit, because he figured it was past time for Carolina to integrate its team.

Years after I got to know him, he flatly refused to talk to me for a story because he thought I'd been unfair to another coach. Stubborn me, I said, "Dean, I'm gonna do the story anyway." OK, get this: He remained completely civil, never told anybody else not to talk to me, and then he would greet me each day politely, and we would casually chat. He would not allow his professional feelings to override the personal. Boy, was that weird, but that was Smith being himself.

He worried sometimes that he wanted to win too much, but as I said, the man was refreshingly human. He might have given up smoking, but, says a great friend who played a lot of golf with him, "The S.O.B. never once gave me a 2-foot putt."

We talk about a gentleman and a scholar. Well, Dean Smith, he was a gentleman and a coach.

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Frank Deford died on Sunday, May 28, at his home in Florida. Remembrances of Frank's life and work can be found in All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and on NPR.org.

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