Sixteen years ago today, Dean Smith announced his retirement to the world. But he had told his players--the players expected to make up a formidable 1997-98 squad, certain to be the top-ranked team in the preseason--one day earlier.
Junior Brad Frederick (now the director of operations for Carolina basketball): There was so much excitement going into that season, because we had such a good team coming back. The previous year we had been 3-5 in the ACC, and there were some articles about how the game had passed Coach Smith by. The next thing you know, we won 16 games in a row and went to the Final Four. We had a great team coming back.
Senior Shammond Williams (now an assistant coach at Tulane): It was after the mile run. When we finished the mile run, he asked (fellow senior) Makhtar (Ndiaye) and myself if we would rather go home and shower first, or go ahead to the meeting. We decided to go ahead and have the meeting. We left the track and went straight to the old locker room in the Smith Center. I had no idea what the meeting was about.
Frederick: The first thing that pops in your mind is, 'Are we in trouble? Did someone do something wrong?'
Freshman Brian Bersticker (now director of member benefits with the Rams Club): I was a freshman, so I didn't know anything. I just showed up when they told me to show up. During my recruitment, Coach Smith had told my family there was a chance that sometime in the next four years, he wouldn't be my head coach, and that if he had his choice, Coach Guthridge would be the next coach. He was blatantly honest, but I still didn't expect it to happen my first year. I was shocked, but some of the guys--Vince, Antawn, Ademola, Shammond, guys who had played so many years for him--were really floored.
Williams: When he said it, it was almost like it didn't register with me. I thought he was telling us he was going to retire at the end of the season. One of my teammates told me after the meeting, 'No, he's retiring right now.'
Frederick: One thing Coach Smith had done that fall that he hadn't done in the past is that he conducted the individual workouts. In previous years, it was other staff members who did those workouts. None of us had any idea at the time, but it turned out that the reason Coach Smith did those workouts was to see if he could recharge his batteries. It was his way of seeing if he was going to have the energy to go through the season.
The players left the meeting as the only people who were aware of news that would shake the sports world the next day. This was pre-Twitter and largely pre-Internet. Their charge was simple: be quiet.
Frederick: Shammond was the only player on the team who had a cell phone. It was not a situation where everyone started sending text messages. I remember Coach Smith and the coaching staff being very clear that we were not to let the word get out. I did not want to be the one who somehow broke the news.
Bersticker: We were living in Granville at the time, and I went to a different one of the towers so I would be out of my room. I didn't want to answer questions. As word got out, campus was bizarre. When you walked out of Granville, you saw people hanging bedsheets out of the window with signs on them for Coach Smith.
Williams: I don't remember talking about it with anyone other than my teammates. What I said to them was that as long as he was OK and nothing was wrong with him, then we need to respect his decision and move forward as best we can.
The Philadelphia 76ers were holding training camp at the Smith Center. That was the vehicle that actually began to leak the news to the world at large. The next day, the players attended the press conference.
Frederick: I had been to many press conferences (his father, Bob, was the athletic director at Kansas at the time). One thing that struck me was that when Coach Smith finished his statement, the people in the room applauded. You don't see that at a press conference.
You can see the moment Frederick mentioned around the 5:15 mark, at the one time Smith choked up--when talking about the loyalty of his players and assistant coaches.
Bersticker: I remember students being lined up outside the building, and somehow they got one of those sliding glass windows to open. They started chanting, 'Don't leave,' or something like that.
All three players said their experiences with Smith regularly impact their lives today.
Williams: There's nothing I do as an assistant coach that I don't think about Coach Smith. I always wanted to make him proud. It's important to me to do the things he would want me to do and do them the way he would want me to.
Frederick: I refer to it all the time. It's not just how well he ran the program from the basketball standpoint, but how well he did everything else off the court. Everyone knew he was this unbelievable X and O's coach. But for me, wanting to be in coaching, it was how well he handled all aspects of the program.
Bersticker: I had to go to a meeting last week, and they asked us to send a quote before the meeting and we'd talk about it. So, of course, I referred back to an old Thought for the Day because it's ingrained in you. I see his influence on an everyday basis in my life. My clock in my car is set ten minutes fast for that reason, because it was always said, 'If you're early you're on time, if you're on time you're late, and if you're late don't show up.'
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.