I have to admit I was never a fan of North Carolina basketball growing up as a child, and for that matter, even into adulthood. Part of that is, unless I have a specific rooting interest, I didn’t (and still don’t) really like teams or individual players (like in golf) who seem to dominate their sport. But in the case of the Tar Heels and their innovative head coach, the late Dean Smith, some of it had to do with the way they won – specifically, with that late game, pre-shot clock strategy known as the Four Corners offense. Coach Smith had his point guard out front controlling the basketball, and the other players in the corners of the forecourt. The players would move around in their general area while the point guard would throw them the ball and eventually get it either back to that point guard or to one of the other players. The guard pretty much controlled the pattern of play, and the ball usually moved around quicker than the defense could react. Time would wind down off the clock towards another inevitable Tar Heels victory, and along the way either one of three things would happen: the defense would break down enough for someone to get open for a lay-up, someone would eventually get fouled (and usually make both free throws – back then it was all one-and-one so they had to make the first shot to get the second) or the game would end. Perhaps once in a blue moon the Tar Heels would turn it over, but that wasn’t the case often. Smith had his players drilled in this technique so that it always ran to perfection. Eventually the NCAA (and probably enough other teams) got so tired of it that they legislated a shot clock into the college game – first at :45, then a few years later cut it to :35. That didn’t stop Smith from using the Four Corners – his players just couldn’t do it for as long in each possession. And they still got fouled and made free throws, or picked up easy back-door lay-ups and dunks. It was still effective. And no one ran the Four Corners like Phil Ford, the best of the seemingly endless string of point guards Smith could always find to play at Chapel Hill. Ford later ended up with the Kansas City Kings of the NBA, which meant I could root for him then.
Smith, the Emporia native and Topeka High and KU grad who died this past weekend of complications from Alzheimer’s at age 83, also was an innovator in other ways, on and off the court. Along with the Four Corners, he also ran innovative defensive strategies, mainly in the changing of his scheme throughout the game. His players would go into different kinds of zones at any given time, along with traps and presses, along with the traditional man-to-man. They would never play the same defense throughout an entire game, and teams had to be ready for anything the Heels would show them. Nowadays you’re lucky to have a coach who will switch defenses once a season, let alone several times a game. But he also was one of the first major college coaches, especially in the South, to open his program to black players in greater numbers than most schools. The 1965 NCAA championship game where Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) had five black starters taking the title away from an all-white squad of Kentucky bluebloods (coached by another native Kansan and KU grad, Adolph Rupp) brought a new awareness to racial integration of teams, and Smith took charge in making sure the color of the players he wanted made no difference. The North Carolina program had a fine history even before Smith got there, when Frank McGuire had the New York City pipeline of players that helped the Heels become one of college basketball’s winningest programs before he left for South Carolina in 1959. Smith made sure that history became even greater, winning 879 games and two national championships when he retired in 1996. At the time it was the most in NCAA Division-I history, and today is still fourth. Of course, many of his players became outstanding pros, with Michael Jordan heading that list. And even though Smith never returned to KU after beginning his coaching career, he still gave back to his alma mater. Of course, most folks remember the record compiled at KU by one of Smith’s assistants who he recommended, a fellow named Roy Williams, who now is North Carolina’s head coach. Williams succeeded another Tar Heel alum that Smith coached in the late ’60s, Larry Brown, who headed Kansas’ program for five seasons which culminated in the 1988 NCAA title with Danny Manning heading that storied team. And during Brown’s time there, one of his graduate assistants was a recent player from Oklahoma State named Bill Self, who of course now is the coach of the Jayhawks and winning at an even greater pace than Williams did during his 15 years in Lawrence. (Brown also had John Calipari as a graduate assistant at that time. He’s now heading up Kentucky’s one-and-done gang that is dominating the current season.)
One reporter recently said that Dean Smith would be on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches if there was such a thing. Such was his influence on today’s game, the way it is played, the way it is recruited, the way it is coached. But rarely would you find such a great coach nowadays whose players, almost to a man, became outstanding citizens if they didn’t become star pro athletes. Such was the way he could mold young adults into men. Other coaches might get into the discussion in any one, or several, of the areas I have written about here, but only Dean Smith has done them all, and done them at the highest level. Surely he is in basketball heaven chatting it up with his own coach and mentor, Dr. Phog Allen. And surely he’ll be carved into that basketball Mount Rushmore, if someone ever decides to do it. Maybe they can come up with a drawn facsimile and display it at the College Basketball Experience in Kansas City. Given the location is so near his childhood roots, it would be more than appropriate.