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Dean Smith - best coach ever?

February 9, 2015 by Mike Goff

Has there been a coach in college basketball history who has impacted the game more than Dean Smith?  Mull on that question for a minute and let me ask it again—has there been a coach in college basketball history who has impacted the game more than Dean Smith?

I know there will be outcries for John Wooden and perhaps Pete Newell, Henry Iba, Bob Knight or even another University of Kansas alum, Phog Allen.  But, I think you’d be hard-pressed to identify another coach whose system (Coach Smith would say “philosophy”) impacted the game more.

Coaches have copied Smith’s various schemes, on offense and defense, since his early days at North Carolina in the 1960’s.  The run-and-jump defense was the precursor to today’s trapping man-to-man principles in the full-court and half-court; the famous Four Corners offense, used in the era of no shot clock, bred the idea of spreading the floor and letting your best ball handler penetrate and create.

We can also see Smith’s principles in what a coach like Bill Self at Kansas has done this year with talented freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, i.e., you have to practice well and produce in order to get minutes on the floor during a game—your preseason/high school credentials are of no use here.  (Smith famously had a very lauded freshmen class play a 20-minute game against the North Carolina upperclassmen—that freshmen group lost by 46.  His lesson—here, you’re part of our system/philosophy.)

Watch a game today and see the scoring player point to the teammate who provided the assist.  That’s a Smith principle.  Watch a game today and see the players on the bench stand and applaud when another comes out of the game.  That’s a Smith principle.  The quick on-court huddle before a free throw?  That too is a Smith principle.

Smith was criticized, perhaps fairly, for what many viewed as the rigidity of “the Carolina system.”  The oft-told joke was that Smith was the only guy who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points.  True?  Maybe; but to Smith the point was that no player—not even a young Michael Jordan—was above the system that was North Carolina basketball.

Smith’s impact reached far beyond the arena and, in typical fashion, few know of his philanthropy and stands on social issues.  The son of Baptist schoolteachers, Smith came from humble beginnings in Emporia, KS, and consistently stood up for the less fortunate and oppressed.  He very much valued education—his players went to class and 97% of Smith’s North Carolina lettermen went on to earn their degree.

In 2006, Smith joined Wooden, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Ian Naismith, representing his grandfather James Naismith, in the inaugural inductee class for the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, housed here in Kansas City.  It was a magical night for college basketball, showcasing men who not only were successful on the court but also in life.

It is so very fitting that Coach Smith was part of that first event here in Kansas City, not far from his boyhood home, his high school and the campus where he played for Dr. Allen on a NCAA national championship team.  The Smith legend may have grown in Chapel Hill but it was in towns called Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence where the coaching prowess, and social conscience, of Smith was shaped.

Rest in peace, Coach Smith.