Sportsman of the Year


"It was as if he said, 'Just do as I say, and we'll win'"

After seeing their coach dangling from a tree, the 1964-65 Tar Heels went on to win nine of their remaining 11 games. The following season they added Smith's breakthrough recruit, a swaggering forward from Pennsylvania named Larry Miller. Freed at last from NCAA purgatory, finally with a team of his own choosing, the coach began to put together something that, if it wasn't a system—he bristles at the word, for to him it connotes rigidity—did have a kind of daunting industrial strength.

4.jpg (22k)  
At the East Regional final of the '69 NCAAs, Smith showed the confident manner in the huddle that would become his trademark.
photograph by John D. Hanlon

Smith started to make a family of the players passing through his program, from which none would be entirely weaned. (His feistiness in showing his loyalty once caused Terry Holland, then Virginia's coach, to remark, "There's such a gap between the man and the image the man tries to project.") In keeping with the spirit of a time of social turbulence, Smith did his own groping and struggling, both personally and professionally. During the 1970s he divorced and remarried, and he was widely second-guessed for losses in which he ordered his team into the Four Corners too early. Given his nature, he did plenty of second-guessing himself. Rules remained at the foundation of his philosophy. But no rule was exempt from the test of reason, which would sometimes introduce a rule to its exception.

LARRY MILLER, forward, 1965-68:

One of his rules was that we had to go to church on Sunday and bring back a brochure to prove we'd gone. After I didn't go a couple of weeks Coach Smith called me into his office. At the time I had objections to what I thought was hypocrisy in the church. So I told him that if I were at home, my parents wouldn't make me go—that I could have had someone grab a brochure for me, but that wouldn't have been right. I asked him to respect my beliefs. And he did.

CHARLIE HOAG, college teammate and fraternity brother:

I remember him telling me once that he recruits the parents harder than the kids. "Parents help me sell the kid," he told me. "And if the kids don't respect their parents, they sure won't respect me."

GEORGE KARL, guard, 1969-73:

Before we lost in the 1972 Final Four, he said Florida State was a team we probably shouldn't press. But we'd pressed all year, so we weren't going to change. He was right; we shouldn't have pressed. But it showed that he wasn't going to back off his belief in us. We returned that belief with our belief in him.

Coach Smith kept us believing, even when we probably shouldn't have. Sometimes just believing resulted in miracles.

MITCH KUPCHAK, center, 1972-76:

At home against Duke in 1974, we were down eight points with 17 seconds left. There was no three-point shot, so we had to score four times to tie it. The final shot in regulation was a 35-footer by Walter Davis, and we won in overtime.

His calm throughout was amazing. The way he walked us through those 17 seconds, it was as if he said, "Don't think about this. Just do as I say and we'll win." There he was in the huddle, looking up at us with a kind of smile, saying, "Bobby [Jones], make these two free throws, then we'll go into this defense, steal the inbounds pass, score and call timeout." He didn't let us think about being down eight. He gave us step one—just do that. So Bobby made both free throws. We stole the pass. We scored. We called timeout. It all happened so fast.

I remember the last play in particular. Their best free throw shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one. We grabbed the rebound and called our last timeout. We had the ball under their basket and had to go the length of the floor. Coach calmly told us to run the 5-3-5. The five man, me, took the ball out and threw it to the three man on a five pattern, which is a square-out at midcourt. We'd run the play in practice so often that we wondered when we'd really need it. Normally we'd try to get the ball to half-court and call timeout. But we had none left, so the plan was to get Walter the ball, have him take one dribble and shoot. He did, and banked it in.

The key to it all was that we were prepared—and that we believed. I'll tell you, we believed a lot more afterward, too.

BOBBY JONES, forward, 1970-74:

One thing I'll always remember is his honesty. He'd tell you he was struggling with smoking. We all knew he had problems, just like everyone else, but most coaches would never admit to them. He also admitted he didn't have all the answers.

TOM LAGARDE, center, 1973-77:

If one of us got a technical, we all had to run suicides the next day in practice. Now, Dean would get technicals too, but his were usually calculated. But once or twice a year he'd get one he didn't intend to get, and he and the coaches would run suicides for the unintentional technicals. [Assistant] coach [Bill] Guthridge ran five to 10 miles a day, but Dean didn't run much. So he would get pretty winded.

TERRY HOLLAND, Virginia coach, 1974-90:

He thought one of my players, Marc Iavaroni, was roughing up Phil Ford, and at halftime when the teams came off the court at the ACC tournament in 1977, he confronted Marc—physically touched him and said things. That's one area where I think Dean always had a problem. He felt he had a right, in order to protect his players in his own mind, to confront other people's players. That's extremely dangerous and way over the line. I'm sure Dean would say that Marc was a dirty player. But that's what the officials were out there for. You can't be objective in that situation.

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI, Duke coach, 1980-present:

We've all probably done things we're not proud of, backing up one of our players. But I can't think of a time I've ever heard him blame or degrade one of his own players, and in return, his kids are fiercely loyal to him. That kind of loyalty doesn't just happen. Things done on a day-to-day basis develop that kind of relationship.


The Big Ten was really physical back then, and the ACC was more of a finesse league. I wanted us to be more physical. At a team meeting I said we ought to go out there and throw some elbows. Coach Smith said, "No, we shouldn't. That's not the way to play the game." He was very competitive, but he wasn't win-at-all-costs.

MIKE O'KOREN, forward, 1976-80:

The halftime score at Duke in 1979 was 7-0, Duke. The game ended up 47-40—we played them even in the second half—and afterward reporters asked me about our decision to stall, and I said, "Personally I thought we should have played with them. He wanted to stall." Well, he saw that in the papers, and he told me that I should do the playing and he would do the coaching. So I had to put on the weighted vest and run pretty much all of practice. A week later we played Duke in the ACC championship and beat them [71-63].

JAMES WORTHY, forward, 1979-82:

He didn't allow players to wear beards. I had a skin problem and couldn't shave close, and I complained so much that he said, "O.K., if you get a doctor's note, I'll let you wear one." But if you look at the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover in 1981, with Jimmy Black, myself, Matt Doherty, Sam Perkins and Coach Smith, I had to shave for that. He said, "Can you shave just this once?" So I shaved.


Having a system has its advantages and disadvantages. You knew they were always going to reverse the ball, that they were never going to shoot too quickly. But every now and then he'd suck you into defending his system and surprise you. When they beat us in the Final Four in 1981, they just turned Al Wood loose.

I later found out that he'd had someone come in to scout his team, and that person had told him, "Your guys are easy to guard because you make them easy to guard." Evidently he took that advice and shook things up. To take someone's advice to that extreme, at that time of year, shows he's not as inflexible as people might think. That was brilliant.

Next: BREAKING THROUGH, 1982-1997  

Back to 1996 Sportsman of the Year


 /baseball /basketball/nba /basketball/college /football/ /football/college /hockey /golf /tennis /soccer /motorsports /olympics /womens