Only then does Smith go back and rejoin the celebration, mere Duke at Duke again. Only: "His eyes gave him away," Worthy says. "There was a drop of a tear here and there." Still, who would ever know what Smith was crying for, whether it was in joy for the triumph finally gained or lament for the quest finally lost? Striving has its advantages, too, that's for sure. "Creativity rises out of the pit of life, rather than the high places," Smith had read 17 years before, in the days right after he had been strung up in effigy at North Carolina and was pondering whether he was right for coaching, or it for him.
On Aug. 5, 1961, Dean Smith, 30, was appointed to preside over what survived as basketball at the University of North Carolina. It was something of a shotgun marriage. There were only a couple of months left before practice opened, and the team was just coming off a one-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations. Meanwhile, the fear of gambling influences had prompted the university to cut back the 1961-62 schedule from 23 to 16 games, and to limit recruiting to two players a year from outside ACC territory. These restrictions were especially debilitating because the region had little high school basketball tradition, and besides, more than half of what good homegrown players there were came in a shade that still contrasted starkly with Carolina blue.
As for Smith, he was largely an unknown quantity. He had been assistant coach to Frank McGuire for three seasons, but he was an outlander from Kansas, content to stay in the background juggling X's and 0's. As Marquette's Al McGuire was to say later of coaching staffs: "Only one of us can wear the brassiere." Dean Smith knew that that was not his attire. Carolina's McGuire, the man who had hired Smith, was the hero who had guided the Tar Heels to their first national title in 1957, a fellow with a D cup worth of charm. Now Frank had gone off to coach Philadelphia and Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA, and on this summer's day Smith was introduced to Carolina and the world.
"The successor to Frank McGuire, one of the most dynamic men in sports, is not overpowering in personality," one of the local papers noted, gagging on understatement. And another: "...McGuire in one corner, parrying questions with the dexterity of an accomplished fencer, supplying the correct anecdote at the proper time, dropping a joke when the atmosphere became too solemn. And Smith, with his back to the wall, answering everything with the only public relations weapons at his command—a smile and straightforwardness."
The boy coach was duck soup for impressionists, a regional Ed Sullivan, the staple of every press box comic's act. Even now that he's venerated and lionized, Smith is everywhere still done. The impersonator turns his voice into a numbing buzz saw, droning, a verbal ebb tide of forced humility and transparent obfuscation, all the while glancing at his watch, smoking or, with one hand, alternately circling and jabbing the air, index finger and pinky raised. Nobody ever said it was pretty.
Such a pale presence did Smith offer in those early years that a folk tale grew up, still repeated in some precincts, that William Aycock, the university's chancellor at the time, had purposely hired Smith because he wanted the program de-emphasized, and he figured that Smith, in hopelessly over his head, would hasten the ruin. Aycock, who's now a professor at the North Carolina law school, puts that canard to rest—"I ain't that big a fool," he says, laughing—but he readily acknowledges that Smith's very lack of stature worked in his favor. "Coach Smith was, primarily, a case of the right man at the right time," Aycock says. "He was quiet, but it was also apparent to me that he was smart, and there was something fundamentally strong about this guy."
Smith understood, however, that Aycock would be leaving the chancellor's office soon enough to return to teaching and that otherwise his support was virtually nonexistent. "Dean is the program now," Cunningham says, "but people forget. He really paid his dues. You know, he wasn't Dean Smith when he started. He wasn't anybody then."
Chapel Hill wasn't anything very special at that time, either. Now...oh, now it's very chic. The present chancellor, Christopher Fordham (who just happens to be one of Smith's closest friends), says that even W, a women's fashion review, has fallen for Carolina, listing it as an In in its regular compendium of great American Ins and Outs. Carolina is widely accepted as one of a handful of outstanding American state universities, its campus beautiful, its athletic teams triumphant—UNC, the stickers boast, UNIVERSITY OF NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Now, God help us, even its sissy baby blue has come to be admired as manly handsome. Why, the whole place reeks of momentum itself. At least during those blessed intervals when the state's two antediluvian senators—Jesse Helms and John East—keep their mouths shut, North Carolina is generally admired in a way that no southern state has been since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. And there's no doubt that much of this esteem derives from the glamorous university and its basketball team and, thereby, from the little man with the beef nose and the pot belly and the grating voice who coaches it.
In 1961, though, neither Carolina nor its university were much to treasure. The shroud of segregation still covered the state, and the enmity of much of the rest of the U.S. was specifically directed against North Carolina because of the lunch-counter sit-ins that had originated in Greensboro the year before. Tobacco reigned; Tobacco Road. The university itself probably was a fine regional institution, but to say that some place was a good Southern school then had the same odor of faint praise as when one talks of "fine English cuisine." Sports was in ragged retreat at Chapel Hill. McGuire's 1957 championship was a memory fading before the harsh present of probation here and Duke divine. The woebegone football team had scuffled to a 3-7 record in 1960.
So, Smith installed a tightly controlled offense that was completely at variance with the popular wide-open style McGuire had won with; Carolina finished below .500 the first year (see box, page 116). Of Smith's recruits the next, none made an impression. The third season began with the freshmen whipping the varsity in a scrimmage watched by 5,000 fans. By the middle of Smith's fourth year, each defeat was supposed to be his sayonara. Larry Brown, the coach of the New Jersey Nets and the best player on Smith's first team, says, "I don't know how many men could have gone through those first few years."