I admired North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith from afar.
I shared friendships with two of Coach Smith’s basketball family when they lived in Nashville. Jim Delany was the Ohio Valley Conference commissioner from 1979-89 before he advanced to the same position at the Big Ten Conference.
Eddie Fogler was Vanderbilt’s basketball coach during a four-year run starting in 1989. When Fogler was named National Coach of the Year in his final season, he never received a token raise for what his team accomplished in reaching the Sweet 16. Fogler accepted an offer from South Carolina and left Vanderbilt.
Fogler was one of Coach Smith’s first point guards, the position Coach Smith put many demands on. Delany was Fogler’s backup and roommate, a scrappy, but unspectacular player. He pushed Fogler, irritated him, hacked him at every opportunity.
Fogler had his role in Smith’s lineup. Delany had his.
In playing pickup basketball when Delany lived here for 10 years, it was easy to see Smith’s impact on the scrappy guard. I still have some bruises to prove it.
Fogler and Delany were teammates and Coach Smith was their father figure, their mentor and role model. Both always spoke of Coach Smith in reverent tones. To them, Coach Smith was larger than life, even though the Hall of Fame coach deflected praise at every turn.
Smith helped integrate the city of Chapel Hill and in turn, the state of North Carolina. The story of Coach Smith, accompanied by an African-American and Smith’s pastor sat down at a lunch counter in a department store when segregation ruled the South.
They were asked by the manager to leave. Smith declined, stood his ground and it wasn’t long after that, the department store accepted everyone to its restaurant counter.
Coach Smith was uncomfortable when accolades came his way. Coach Smith was intent on teaching the game of basketball. But equally important to him was helping his players grow up, teaching them to be men.
All but two of his players called him Coach Smith. To refer to him as Dean was sacrilegious. Sportswriters who used Coach Smith’s first name in a quote never got another interview from Fogler. Included was a Vanderbilt beat writer for Nashville’s morning newspaper.
It was all out of respect for Coach Smith and how he became a part of their lives. Every summer, Coach Smith would gather a select group of his former assistants and players who became a part of his coaching tree. They played golf. They talked basketball. They went out to eat. It was a man’s vacation, another opportunity to enjoy each other’s company. It was the ultimate basketball brainstorming session.
Smith remembered every player. He had pictures of all of them on his office walls. All of them were the same size. Smith didn’t play favorites. He sent them cards. He called them, sent them notes. He knew the names of their children.
Coach Smith taught them far beyond the basketball court. He learned the game from Hank Iba, his college coach at Kansas. Iba learned it from James Naismith, credited as the inventor of the game.
Smith developed his own style. An innovator, he installed a “Four Corners’’ offense, that forced opponents to chase the Tar Heels ball-handlers, who would usually wind up making a layup. They drained time off the clock, frustrating the opponents, as well as many fans other than Tar Heels.
It forced the NCAA to install a shot clock.
Coach Smith valued an assist as much as he did a lay-up the recipient made. The player who scored always pointed to the one who made it possible and vice versa.
It was all about the team for Coach Smith. It was all about family.
After his retirement, Coach Smith became a victim of advanced dementia. He was a brilliant man with numbers, with names, with the success of his boys, but a man who struggled mightily at the end.
He leaves behind a rich legacy for others in the teaching and coaching professions to learn and live by.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.