Several years ago I found myself called on the pile of Dean Smith's office carpet. In a biographical sketch of the North Carolina basketball coach, I had referred to him as someone who "quaffed" an occasional whiskey. I had intended the reference only to humanize this intensely private son of strict Baptist schoolteachers. But it had upset him, and I asked him why, since from time to time he does take a drink, and that is just what quaff means. Or so I believed. In fact, Smith insisted, the word means "to drink deeply."
The dictionary proved him correct, of course. Dean Smith is always correct, and that is at once the most maddening and most impressive thing about the man who became the college game's winningest coach last Saturday with victory number 877, a 73-56 defeat of Colorado in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But there was more at stake to him than mere semantics. "After all Linnea and I have done to try to ban alcohol advertising at collegiate sports events," he said, referring to one of the causes he and his wife fervently espouse. He seemed to be saying, Can't you see what I'm trying to do?
It has been said that a liberal is someone who believes in the perfectibility of society. Smith may be sport's last pure example of the species, and not just because he subscribes publicly to the usual articles of faith, from abolition of the death penalty to nuclear disarmament to opposing discrimination in all forms. He is a proud collectivist as he goes about business in the building that bears his name. It's with his full support that the millions in revenue his team generates is shared with sports like women's soccer. He wants no one's sympathy whenever one of his stars leaves early to go pro, for he doesn't believe players should come to school to gratify coaches. Yet at the Hotel Carolina, even as players check out any time they want, they never leave, for Smith keeps up with virtually every one of them. "We're his flock," says Bobby Jones, one of a fresco of former Tar Heels players who lined the wall outside the North Carolina locker room following Saturday's game. "He takes great pains to shepherd us."
There's something Nietzschean about most coaches, with their invocations to individual strength and dig-down-deep self-reliance. The humbler, more pious musings of Kierkegaard grace Smith's nightstand. In 1965 the Tar Heels returned to Woollen Gym after a loss at Wake Forest to find their 34-year-old coach, then struggling with a 15-9 record in his fourth season, hung in effigy. The episode left Smith shaken, and in the aftermath of that night his sister Joan gave him a book called Beyond Our Selves, by Catherine Marshall. In a chapter entitled "The Power of Helplessness," Smith found a lesson: Individuals can find strength within only after they acknowledge the limits to what they can accomplish alone.
"Beyond our selves" isn't merely a credo for a coach who sees his likeness dangling from a tree, or for a team, like this season's Tar Heels, that opens its league season 0-3. It gets right to Smith's vision for college athletics and explains why he was so uncomfortable in the spotlight last week.
That discomfort is nothing new. At a banquet tipping off the 1989 Maui Invitational, the participating coaches were invited to say a few words and introduce their teams, and James Madison coach Lefty Driesell launched into a monologue so windy and vaudevillian that by its end he had forgotten to acknowledge his Dukes. Smith followed Driesell at the rostrum. "O.K., Lefty, I'll take care of it," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you to meet the James Madison University basketball team. And the University of North Carolina basketball team." And he sat down.
Over the years Driesell, the longtime coach at ACC rival Maryland before going to James Madison, was Smith's reliable foil. But there's a more meaningful contrast between Smith and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, whose alltime victory record Smith broke. In 1964, at a time when Smith was joining a pastor and a black theology student to integrate The Pines, a Chapel Hill restaurant, Rupp was asking a sports editors to affix an asterisk to the names of black players in high school box scores so he might know where not to bother to send his recruiters. Two years later North Carolina enrolled its first black player, Charlie Scott, and that spring, in the NCAA title game, all-white Kentucky's loss to Texas Western, with an all-black starting five, began Rupp's twilight slide. "I wasn't trying to leave a legacy," Smith says. "I was trying to do what I thought was right."
He isn't politically fashionable. He isn't politically expedient. What he is—in the best sense of the phrase—is politically correct. After tracking him through 36 years and 877 victories, we know exactly what Dean Smith is trying to do. He's trying to make the imperfect less so.
Whether drinking to that mission or quaffing to it, let's raise a glass.