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Frank Deford
November 29, 1982
The much-awaited NCAA title he got last season wasn't the most important victory of Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith's career
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November 29, 1982

Long Ago, He Won The Big One

The much-awaited NCAA title he got last season wasn't the most important victory of Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith's career

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Perhaps more damaging, though, Smith has a convoluted way of concealing what passing flaws he does possess, thereby encouraging his detractors to discover hypocrisy where there may well be none. The easiest example: cigarettes.

It's a well-known fact that Smith goes through something like three packs a day, yet often, in public places, he will sneak off and smoke with his hand cupped over the cigarette, like some teenager out behind the shed. It requires very little cynicism for someone to think: Well, if he can't even own up to that little failing, what else is he hiding?

Then, too, Dean Smith—a Baptist deacon, son of Baptist parents who had him in church four hours every Sunday, grandson of a Baptist preacher—that Dean Smith drinks Scotch. Not even his snidest critics have ever whispered that Smith abuses alcohol, but his deviousness with the Demon Rum—he hides his glass when minors enter a room, and he still won't drink in front of his parents—only widens the alleged man-image gap.

Baptists, of course, are traditionally expected to be abstainers, perhaps especially in Carolina, where, as Frank McGuire suggests, "The only thing there's more of than Baptists is sparrows." But Smith is also widely known to abhor the Baptist-deep Moral Majority and to possess serious reservations about certain tenets of slick fundamentalist sports religiosity. Smith plays dumb in these matters, helping the gap to widen. "He's so concerned with what people may think," Brown says. "The reason he wears a tie all the time is because he worries: You never know who may come by."

Smith's friends acknowledge that his deep penchant for privacy derives largely from his divorce and his determination never to be vulnerable. Smith came from a family, from a whole culture, in which people didn't get divorced. Divorce was failure. Divorce was shame. By the best accounts, Smith all but drove himself to the brink of madness, wrestling with his conscience, his morality, as he realized that his marriage had collapsed. Compulsively he immersed himself in his basketball family. "I think coaching literally kept Dean's sanity during that period," Bill Guthridge says. "He could throw all his energies into that." Well, not quite all. Between the breakup of his first marriage and the start of his second, Smith was something of a lady's man, and much of the criticism of his being holier-than-thou, dates to that period.

Smith also suffers merely for being a success in his profession; college basketball is such a corrupt enterprise that victory carries with it the implicit assumption of guilt. The wise guys wink that not even Saint John Wooden could escape his program's being tainted. Furthermore, on the bench, Smith isn't Mrs. Caesar, and when he's less than completely decorous, his critics are quick to wag their fingers. So Smith's winning record and his sanctimonious air encourage—beg—closer scrutiny. In a way, he's reminiscent of what Churchill once said of John Foster Dulles: "He is the only case of a bull I know who carries his china closet with him."

Smith can be stubborn, too, and occasionally it verges on haughtiness. It is, for example, the prime sin in his decalogue for anyone to be late, and on one occasion when Smith was himself late for a call-in radio show, the coach went on for several minutes of air time about how he couldn't possibly be late: Must be the clocks were all wrong. Any criticism of The Four Corners is his special tar baby, Smith never conceding—never conceding squared—when talk turns to The Four Corners and The Marquette Game. Smith has regularly made pious statements about how "society measures success too much through winning and losing." But though The Four Corners is demonstrably a bore and bad for Smith's sport, he invariably defends it on narrow legal grounds, that it's a useful instrument he has no qualms about wielding because it helps his team win...and the devil take the hindmost.

So there are contradictions. But hypocrite? Consistency, thy name is El Deano. The coach rises to any challenge. His regular golf games are legendary for their unholy intensity and gamesmanship. His contentiously happy foursome regularly includes Fordham; Simon Terrell, a high school athletic administrator; and Earl Somers, a psychiatrist. (Smith's present wife, Linnea, is also a psychiatrist. For a man so guarded, Smith certainly sticks his head in the lion's mouth a lot, doesn't he?)

Ultimately, as with most any coach," the inner duel Smith fights is between his compassion and his competitiveness. But his own little private sin, if it be that, appears to be an odd form of hubris, which makes it possible for him to readily accept the greater limitations of man but, hard for him to deal with the petty, trifling flaws of excess and omission. It's only the everyday china he breaks. But therein lies his problem of image, and that is unfortunate, too, because Dean Smith certainly is a stouthearted man, carrying with him a noble spirit and a" warm dignity and, as his pastor says, "an enormous conscience."

One day in the summer of 1959, the Rev. Robert Seymour approached Smith. Then, as now, Seymour presided at the Binkley Baptist Church, which Smith has belonged to since he came to North Carolina. The Chapel Hill area was intellectually ahead of its region then, but like the rest of the state it still lay adrift in the horse latitudes of segregation, and so some clergymen and other citizens were attempting to integrate the town's public facilities.

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