Steve Kirschner is Carolina's senior associate athletic director for athletic communications. On Oct. 9, 1997, he was at the podium with Dean Smith when the legendary coach announced his retirement. He wrote this first-person account of those days for Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence.
By Steve Kirschner
It was Wednesday, October 8, 1997, seven days before the first practice of what was to be Dean Smith's 37th year as head coach. Coach Smith asked me to come to his office whereupon I was met not only by him, but also Director of Athletics Dick Baddour and assistant coach Bill Guthridge, who had matching 'you're not going to believe this' looks on their faces.
Dick said, "Coach Smith is going to step down and Coach Guthridge is going to be the head coach, effective immediately."
I answered, "okay."
Dick laughed and said it wasn't a joke. I didn't laugh and said I didn't think this was the kind of thing you would bring me in here and make jokes about, so I figure you're telling the truth.
For the next few minutes, the three of us politely but firmly spoke to Coach Smith about the need to have a press conference to make this rather historic pronouncement. Coach Smith wanted to wait a few hours to tell his team and call some prospects - namely Jason Capel and Kris Lang - then announce the news in a simple press release.
No, that was not going to do, we argued successfully. Well, somewhat successfully. Coach Smith agreed to conduct a press conference the next day, but he insisted that the team be allowed to play pickup while the press conference was being held, because he didn't want them to think they had to attend.
For the sake of moving on with what I knew would be about a thousand details to hammer out in the next few hours, we said we would discuss that with the players and agree to their wishes.
The team photo and annual mile run had previously been scheduled for that afternoon and Coach Smith did not want his news to adversely affect the players' times. Thus he waited until after the team's return from the track at Fetzer Field before he told the players his intentions.
Meanwhile, Sports Information Director Rick Brewer and I were allowed to call the media and inform them only that a "major basketball related press conference" was going to take place the next day. I remember giving both local and national writers only two clues - Coach Smith's health was not in question and it was not related to any NCAA sanctions.
Despite our rather coy invitations, word leaked out and it came pretty much straight from the source. The Philadelphia 76ers were holding part of their training camp at the Smith Center and former Carolina greats Eric Montross and Jerry Stackhouse were on the court when the current Tar Heels came pouring out of the locker room in tears. Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Shammond Williams and the other Tar Heels were unable to hide their emotions or the news that had them in such a state. Word went from the Sixers to ESPN's David Aldridge who was covering the team and, voila, the story went national.
Media such as Sports Illustrated's Alex Wolff, Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News, Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and others from Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and all over the country quickly descended upon Chapel Hill for the next day's news conference. They did so in part to cover a major news event, but also as a measure of respect for Coach Smith.
The current team's players not only insisted upon attending - Jamison laughed when told of Coach Smith's concern - but did so wearing suits and ties to honor their departing coach. Georgetown coach John Thompson, an assistant to Coach Smith in the 1976 Olympics, also was among those who attended. In fact, Coach Smith's first act as ex-coach was to give Big John a ride back to the airport.
Coach Smith seemed tired and relieved when it was over. He hated the fuss and is probably still mad at us for insisting we have a press conference. But it was Coach Smith, it was the end of an era, and judging by the outpouring of love and respect people displayed that day for Coach Smith, it was worth it. It was a day that changed college basketball forever, not just in Chapel Hill, but across the country and it was part of history.