Also, it was during this grim time that Smith began to understand that his marriage was broken and probably could never be put back together, and that was tearing him into even smaller and more jagged pieces.
Of course, almost nobody knew that. Smith is an insular being, and, almost pathologically, his existence is built upon giving. He seems to fear that if for one moment he were to relent from his outpouring of care and concern, those on the receiving end might seek to help him, to give back, to encroach, to pry. Blessed with a need for little sleep and with an extraordinary memory for names and minutiae alike, Smith takes the lead in any conversation he has with a player and never lets up.
In fact, virtually everything under discussion always concerns the younger man across the desk or at the other end of the phone line. That's the way Coach wants it; that's the way it must be. And the players respond by turning to him for advice in all aspects of their lives.
Each description of Smith the mentor is more cloying than the last. If Tar Heel basketball were a food, you would never let your children touch it for the sugar content. Nearly 100 of Smith's 121 letter-men paid their way back to Chapel Hill two summers ago to attend a tribute to him. By all accounts it was like OD-ing on Osmond Family reruns. The blood runs cyclamate. The highlight of the evening—numerous grown men giggle uncontrollably as they recount this—came when Doug Moe, the coach of the Denver Nuggets, the class clown, kissed Smith on the forehead and actually called him El Deano.
"I know nobody on the outside can believe all this stuff is that good," Cunningham says, "but I swear it is. I'd hate Dean Smith, too, if I were a guy who had to coach against him all the time."
Smith may, in fact, have made himself a coach, but what he is first is a born uncle. Accounts of his childhood indicate that he was never less than 62 years old. It's no wonder that his first years as a coach were the most difficult, because it is obvious he was never cut out to be a young man. "Whoever heard of anybody named Dean?" Frank McGuire railed in mock anger when he first met Smith. "Where I come from, you become a Dean. You're not named Dean." But Dean is the perfect name for Smith, and he can only get better as his chronological age catches up with the real old age he has always been.
"What about your youth?" an interviewer asked Smith shortly after he had gotten the head coaching job. "Do you see it as an advantage?"
"It could never be an advantage," Smith replied. "The more experience you have, the better job you can do."
Smith, the uncle-child, planned to grow up and teach math, his major at the University of Kansas. As an athlete, he was a basketball playmaker, a football quarterback and baseball catcher. "I've always wanted to call the signals," Smith intones. When he did become a head coach, he employed the word "family" as a euphemism for "team," and his program was constructed in that vein, inside out, rather than the way most coaches do it—by seeking to create aura first. Smith has often said that he could never coach a sport like football, which has too many athletes for a family setting. Above, all, what distinguishes Smith as a coach is his singular ability to treat all his players as equal members of the family, regardless of their unequal status as components of the team.
Originally, though, it wasn't easy for him blithely to dispense family spirit. While his players sensed his avuncular attitude and his inherent fairness/ honesty/ loyalty, which they all cite as if it were a litany, Smith's natural aloofness guaranteed that what he sought to build could only grow over a long time.