Dean Smith: A Roundup of Some of the Great Tributes, Stories, and Perspectives


Dean Smith passed away on Saturday night, after several years where he was battling the onset of dementia/memory loss. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was one of the most iconic coaches in American sports history. His impact on the court was sizable; add in the various things he provided away from it–civil rights advances, impact on players’  lives–and he ranks among the greatest of all-time.

There have been some really amazing tributes, snippets of information, and anecdotes that have come out. I am not qualified to write about his coaching career (I vaguely remember the 1982 title game when I was seven years old), but I do have experience with family members and dealing with cognitive issues/Alzheimer’s. It is extremely difficult to see someone you love become a shell of himself. The ending comes with those being the most recent memories. It’s a great and comforting thing to stand up and have everyone remember all of the wonderful things instead.

So I thought I would do a roundup of the various things I have come across on Dean Smith. I ran through the archives. [and by all means, if you have more, share in comments or by e-mail.] It started with a December 3, 1961 article noting his first win, over Virginia. “Smith, who took over coaching after Frank McGuire resigned, showed a new type of Tar Heel team. It was a fast breaking, hard pressing team.”

Smith, of course, was later famous for slowing things down with his four corner offense, taking advantage of the lack of a shot clock and the abilities of his players. There are innumerable old articles on “Dean Smith” and “four corners”, many of them gleefully pointing out the rare occasions that an opponent was able to turn the table on the Tar Heels. Smith, by the way, said that he was for a shot clock, but he was also a tactician. He would adapt many times over throughout his career, to the players and rules.

I came across a 1989 article where Smith spoke out against fans who were holding up “J.R. Can’t Read” signs in regard to his star forward.

It bothers me when somebody says . . . I know they’re trying to be clever and say J.R. can’t read. Well, you know, Danny Ferry and Laettner didn’t do as well on college board scores as Reid and [Scott] Williams. . . . kind of a racist remark. Sometimes, it really bugs me.”

I’ll recommend this great story from Charles Pierce at Grantland, which includes a great intro story about seeing Dean Smith quietly in his thoughts in the back of a famous church in Atlanta.

Terry Pluto, on his experiences with Dean Smith as a rookie reporter in Greensboro.

Then there’s this, Dean Smith, On the Passing of a Death Penalty Abolitionist from Dave Zirin. Not only was Smith an outspoken proponent of civil rights, he was also strongly opposed to the death penalty.

The ESPN piece, Smith’s Influence Felt Strongly at UNC, is also accompanied by several good videos on Dean Smith.

Dean Smith was also an early proponent of points-per-possession statistics and analytics in basketball.

Oh, and there is this amazingly touching letter sent from Dean Smith to Michael Jordan in 1983, on things to work on to become a better basketball player.

And among his contributions and innovations, there was Smith inventing the pointing to the passer to recognize an assist.

It was mandated,” Dave Chadwick, who played for Smith from 1967 to 1971, says of pointing to the teammate that assisted your basket. If you didn’t, he says, you’d soon be sitting next to Smith on the bench.

This week, as we work on teaching kids that it is about ball movement and teamwork, our fifth grade team will be working on pointing to the passer.

And we can all give a point skyward for Dean, who no doubt has an impeccable memory of all of it today.