CHARLOTTE, N.C., February 8, 2015 — No college sport has ever been so pressure packed as Atlantic Coast Conference basketball from the mid-60s to the mid-80s.
How intense was it? As a North Carolina alumnus and television reporter who covered the Tar Heels during that era, I can attest that there was never a sporting event in history to match the out-and-out hatred among teams during the three-day madness of the ACC basketball tournament.
So delicious and exciting was college basketball during the Dean Smith era at Chapel Hill that I cannot even watch a college basketball game today. In those days it was life or death; in the post-Smith era, college basketball cannot measure up.
Dean Smith was, and is, the face of Tar Heel basketball. Frank McGuire won a national championship in 1957, but it was Smith who set the bar for quality in the ACC.
Upon his retirement, Smith was the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, with apologies to “Big House” Gaines. But it wasn’t the number of victories that made Carolina basketball special under him; it was the way his teams won. That was unique, and it may never be duplicated.
Players under Coach Smith will tell you to this day that they never made a career move, in basketball or in business, without consulting Dean first. Tar Heel basketball was a family affair. Smith’s teams knew it. Their fans knew it. And most all, their opponents knew it.
When a game was on the line in the closing seconds, a Dean Smith team was almost always at its best. Why? Because Smith practiced every conceivable last minute possibility there was. Not just once or twice, but over and over and over again. Never was a North Carolina basketball team under Smith ever in a situation they did not understand and had not prepared for.
During the regular season when the first string practiced, chances were that the best team they would face all year would be the second string team they were practicing against.
When a front line player got into foul trouble or went out for an injury, Tar Heel fans might moan at the prospects of a bench player taking the floor, but not Smith. The reason was simple. Every player on a North Carolina five under Dean Smith knew exactly what was required and the transition into the game was practically seamless.
But there were other Smith qualities that went beyond the basketball floor and the locker room. In the days when Smith was coaching, college basketball was a four-year proposition. Players didn’t come for year and head for the pros as they do today.
Smith had a caste system that he incorporated in his teams right up until his final game. Freshman were at the bottom and seniors at the top and nobody, not Michael Jordan or James Worthy or Billy Cunningham or anyone else, got special privileges until they earned them by coming through Dean’s “ranks.”
Smith was the ultimate “team coach.” Tar Heel teams were the “Musketeers” of college basketball: all for one and one for all. During the Jordan years, nobody had any idea how dominating Michael Jordan would be in the pros because as a college player it was all team and nothing else.
There was an old joke after Jordan went to the Chicago Bulls that said “the only person who could ever keep Michael Jordan from scoring was Dean Smith.”
During the ‘70s, when 60 Minutes was one of the top rated investigative news programs on television, the CBS affiliate where I worked decided to do a local version of the program. Since I had graduated from Carolina and had covered ACC basketball for several years, I was given the assignment to go to Chapel Hill and uncover the “dirt” on Dean Smith.
Rather than do a hatchet job on the coach, the idea was to find out the real Dean Smith. The station wanted to know about the man behind the man.
After three days on campus, I was scheduled to interview the coach in his office at Carmichael Auditorium, which was then the home of the Tar Heel basketball team.
Smith had an uncanny memory. He never forgot a name and he never forgot trivial things about people. Meet him once and see him five years later, and he would call you by your first name. He was that sharp.
Though I covered ACC basketball for many years, I always had to reintroduce myself to the coaches whenever I had a personal interview with them, except for Dean Smith.
When the time came for my interview with Smith I walked into his office and he called me by name. I was not taken aback because he already knew that I was coming. But then he asked, “Is your son Andrew still playing baseball?” It was then I knew I was in trouble.
Nevertheless I plunged ahead and I walked out of the interview thinking I had hit a three point jump shot at the buzzer. I left Smith’s office after a 30-minute interview believing I had just had the most in-depth conversation with the coach in history.
When I returned home and my editor played the film back, there was undeniable chagrin on her face. “You talked to the man for 30-minutes,” she said, “and he didn’t say a thing we don’t already know!”
That was Dean Smith. He was a class act and a master of strategy both on and off the court.
The luster of college basketball dimmed the day Smith retired, and the Carolina Blue sky in Chapel Hill is a dark shade of gray today.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod