This'll be really big news back home. Unless Dean Smith retires tomorrow, that is.
North Carolina State basketball coach, right after his Wolfpack won the 1983 NCAA title in Albuquerque
It took 14 more years for the day to come, and when it did, the most vivid image wasn't that of the throng gathered in the catacombs adjacent to the Dean E. Smith Center—hundreds of boosters, friends and members of the press, along with current and former players and coaching colleagues. Dean Smith's leave-taking last Thursday afternoon, after 36 years at North Carolina, might best have been summed up by a scene in the parking lot behind the building in which he guided his teams to so many of his 879 victories, the most of any college basketball coach.
On this tract of asphalt clogged with dozens of TV trucks, scores of rental cars, even a couple of opportunistic catering vans, only a single space was empty: Smith's. A sign reading RESERVED AT ALL TIMES stood sentry where fans had scrawled with chalk their plangent sentiments. We love you, Dean. Please don't leave.
But he had already left. At his retirement press conference Smith's usual meet-the-press manner—a thrust at a flimsy interrogatory premise here, a parry of an intrusive or irritating query there—was absent. The fencer had laid down his foil. He let the questions pierce his armor, let all who were there see the blood, see that he bled. There had been countless times over the years when Smith shared with the public what he thought; here, for the first time that anyone could remember, he was letting outsiders know how he felt.
He said he still loved teaching basketball to young men. When it came time to acknowledge the players he would be leaving behind, college basketball's Organization Man had to pause lest he go all to pieces. No, what was driving him away were all the ancillary things that tapped into his time and energy. He had spent only one weekend with his family in the seven months after fall practice began a year ago.
"Do you feel any guilt toward the young players on the team who won't get to play for you?" asked a reporter with the campus Daily Tar Heel. Perhaps it takes youth to pose so blunt a question. But Smith didn't flinch.
"Yes, there is guilt," he replied. "I looked in their faces and couldn't handle that yesterday [when he had told the Tar Heels that he would be leaving]. I couldn't handle it if I turned and looked at them right now. But I still believe it's best for them."
He had come to believe so alter a former North Carolina player and assistant under Smith. Larry Brown, brought his Philadelphia 76ers to Chapel Hill for training camp in the first week of October. The old coach, 66 now, measured himself against this younger one and found himself wanting. "Watching Larry out on the court, I said to myself, I used to be like that," Smith said. "If I can't give this team that kind of enthusiasm, I should get out." The man who had ordered so many teams into the four-corners to run out the clock wasn't going to do the same for himself.
Like most of the Tar Heels, senior guard Shammond Williams broke down on Wednesday evening after Smith told the team of his intentions and then dissolved all over again the next afternoon. "Dean Smith not coaching at Carolina?" he said. "It sounds too crazy to believe. I keep thinking it's a dream, and I'll wake up and everything will be normal."
North Carolinians would have been no more shocked if Smith had announced he was taking up the challenge of managing the Chicago White Sox. Bob Holliday of WRAL-TV in Raleigh aired one of the first reports that Smith would step down, and that longtime assistant Bill Guthridge would take his place, in a live stand-up from campus on Wednesday night. As soon as Holliday pronounced the name Dean Smith and the word retire, he heard shrieks from the upper floors of nearby dormitories.