Lucas: Missing Coach Smith
Release: 10/09/2013

By Adam Lucas

I feel a little cheated.

It's a selfish feeling, and I don't feel entirely good about it, but there it is: I feel cheated.

Sixteen years ago today, Dean Smith retired as the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. It was a where-were-you-when moment for Tar Heel sports, and for college basketball. It was just early enough in the internet era that many people heard about it on the 11 p.m. news the night before, and many more woke up to the news in their morning paper on Oct. 9.

In a tribute to Smith's impact, even with very little lead time, Skipper Bowles Hall was packed that day. Former players and coaches changed travel plans to be there. Then-Georgetown coach John Thompson flew to Chapel Hill. Carolina administrators and staffers, plus media from around the country, packed the rest of the hall. It was an emotional day. As Smith spoke from the podium, a student held a hand-lettered sign at the window. It read, "We love you Dean."

The elite college basketball coaches have a four-stage career. There are the early years, when they are establishing their credentials. Smith did that beginning with the 1961-62 season, when he took over in Chapel Hill.

Then comes the period of domination, when they are clearly in their prime and acknowledged as one of the game's best. For Smith, that came around the time that he took three straight teams to the Final Four from 1967-69, extended through the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, and then culminated with the 1982 national championship.

Then there are the golden years, when there is nothing left to prove, and the coach is included in every discussion of the game's best coaches. Smith and the Tar Heels were there from the moment Michael Jordan hit the shot in New Orleans in 1982 through the incredible run to the 1997 Final Four, the last game Smith ever coached.

And then there is the post-retirement adoration. Some coaches appear on television (Bobby Knight). Some simply go to games and watch the new regime, enjoying what they've helped build (John Wooden). No matter what, though, they're around, a living link to the program's glory days.

We never got that era for Dean Smith.

The retirement news broke so fast and was so unexpected that it was mostly accompanied by as much shock as adoration. Smith, predictably, was not a regular attendee at Tar Heel games after his retirement. Wooden was such a fixture at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion after he left the program that one lower level seat is still painted yellow instead of blue, to indicate that it's reserved for the legendary coach.

Smith would have hated that. He wouldn't have wanted to sign autographs during every timeout, wouldn't have wanted to have to stand and wave at a timeout during every game. He wouldn't have wanted the fuss, and for that reason, he watched games at home, often commenting that he never realized how difficult it was to be a fan.

But then, with little warning, he was almost completely out of the public eye. He made a brief appearance at the Celebration of a Century in 2010, where one of the best videos ever produced about Tar Heel basketball was shown (it's below). And then he was gone.

Current Carolina freshmen were two years old when Smith retired. They have no memory of him on the Tar Heel sidelines. He is a name on a building--and remember, in the original plans, he didn't even want his name on that building--to them.

I don't want him to have to sit in the Smith Center stands at every game, fidgeting uncomfortably as dads point him out to their sons.

But I'd like to be able to write him a note and tell him that I still put his quotes in my kids' lunch boxes on a regular basis, and that one of my son's basketball coaches--a diehard NC State fan--regularly quotes his strategy and talks about his brilliance.

I'd like to use him as an example of someone who wasn't perfect, but was someone who even had a good reason for his mistakes. Sure, he left Mike O'Koren at the scorer's table too long in the 1977 championship game. But why did he do it? Because he didn't want to potentially embarrass a senior, Bruce Buckley, by yanking him out of the game.

Was that wrong? In a basketball sense, absolutely. But in the sense of the 36 years Smith devoted to building his program on unshakeable principles, maybe not.

I'd like to be able to tell him that after decades of him reminding us that basketball was tiny in the grand scheme of life while we rolled our eyes and obsessed over beating Duke or making the Final Four, that someone agreed with him: the President of the United States, whose announcement of the Presidential Medal of Freedom mentioned Smith's non-basketball activities more than his hoops achievements.

Dean Smith, perhaps less than anyone in basketball history, doesn't need that type of affirmation from outside observers, even if that outside observer is the President. But somehow, you have to think it would please him that 16 years after he retired, he's still teaching us a lesson.

For the first 20 years of my life, I couldn't conceive of anyone other than Dean Smith coaching Carolina basketball. It just seemed like he would always be there, and now we're nearly two decades removed from his head coaching tenure. At least in terms of my lifetime, he hasn't been the coach for almost as long as he was the coach. And I'm old, so what does that mean for all those people younger than me who don't remember him quite as vividly?

So, sixteen years after he retired, what did Dean Smith teach us?

Point to the passer.

Seniors first.

What to do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, and forget it.

Save your timeouts.

Stand up on the bench when your teammate comes out of the game.

Nothing is impossible, even 8 points in 17 seconds with no three-point line.

Remember the names of everyone. Write thank-you notes. Do the right thing, not because you might get credit for it, but because it's the right thing.

Oh, and don't leave things left unsaid. You never know when you might not be able to talk to someone you've taken for granted.

Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.

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