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Feb
09

North Carolina Loses The Great Teacher

2015-02-08 12.59.14On the evening of Saturday, February 7, UNC lost perhaps its most important family member of the school’s storied history. Coach Dean Smith had suffered from dementia for many years, and his life ended quietly. The irony that such a sharp mind that steered so many storied comebacks would not be able to mount one in his own life is a bitter pill to swallow. That we are not in control of our fates is just one of the lessons Smith taught us.

There are hundreds of great stories being passed around these days about great Smith moments. Mine came after reading his book Multiple Offense and Defense. It is a fantastic, concise X’s and O’s manual for running several of the offensive and defensive sets Smith used in the first half of his coaching career. There are also great lessons about team play, running structured practices, acknowledgment of the groundbreakers that came before us, and the beauty of math in the game we love. That final point led me to corral my own stats for the team, which eventually blossomed into my Tar Heel HOOPla website 20 years ago.

In the book Coach Smith explained his system for evaluating offensive and defensive efficiency, and stated that his team’s goals are to exceed 0.85 points per possession and to keep the opponent below 0.75 points per possession. The book was written before the advent of the 3-point shot, leaving me to wonder about how much that rule changed the stated goals. Woody Durham hosted a weekly call-in show with the coach and I was able to ask him my question on the air. He first stated,”Very good! You’ve done your homework,” then stated his updated goals of 0.95 and 0.85, respectively.

Apparently I’m not alone in being fascinated by the statistics basketball brings us, as evidenced by the popularity of Ken Pomeroy’s work. Pomeroy’s stats differ from Smith’s because Smith considered a possession to end when a field goal is attempted while Pomeroy considers it ending when the other team gets possession of the ball. Pomeroy reaches this figure by subtracting offensive rebounds from field goal attempts, making Total Possessions an irrelevant statistic. Smith’s method, on the other hand, leaves a Total Possessions differential which reflects the true rebounding, making his method much more useful.

When I was in Chapel Hill for college and dental school, I only had a couple of brushes with Dean Smith. One morning my dental class sat in a hallway waiting to take an exam. A hush fell on the group as Dean Smith walked down the hall by us after completing an appointment with one of our professors. It was as if we all wanted to be put into the game. We all got a chuckle at how we responded, but also were impressed that someone like Dean Smith thought that highly of our teacher.

I was lucky enough to get to sit behind the bench in ‘93 to watch the eventual National Champions play Duke on Senior Day. Committed recruits Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis sat in front of me while uncommitted Rasheed Wallace sat two seats toward midcourt. Wallace, of course, chose UNC over his hometown Temple, and Smith would later proclaim Wallace to be the best player Smith coached. The photo above is from the book Return to the Top, and shows me right behind Stackhouse and McInnis. Jim Valvano sat across the court doing his final full broadcast. Phil Ford, one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time, and Bill Guthridge, one of the best big-man coaches in the history of the game, were 10 feet in front of me. It was an incredible experience to be a spectator around these great masters of their craft. Of course from that angle one gets an appreciation of the vertical elements of basketball, but I was also able to appreciate the level of focus players from each team carried.

We essentially lost Coach Smith several years ago with the onset of dementia. Unlike other coaches, Smith retired and made few public appearances. In one of the many pieces of irony surrounding Smith, he was always proud of his ability to teach, yet could have taught us all so much about the game and life after retiring from coaching. Smith could be ruthless in team practices, slicing giants to pieces with his words. However those were  players (and families) into which he had emotionally invested. He would never have felt comfortable criticizing the play of players he didn’t know, so he never pursued the chance to teach us more.

Smith learned basketball from Phog Allen who learned basketball from the game’s inventor, James Naismith. While Smith may be gone and the building bearing his name may not stand for the remainder of our lives, Smith leaves an indelible mark on both the game and the culture of the State of North Carolina through not only his bountiful coaching tree, but also through the many of us whose lives were enriched by his work.

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  • DougInNC Said:

    Well done! Facts, anecdotes, and observations melded to a brief but compelling feature that provides a glimpse of what Coach Smith meant to countless basketball fans from Carolina.

    At some small risk (for me, from your audience) I will add additional kudos for not including the “Four Corners” as a highlight in this look back. That, for me, was far from basketball’s finest hour(s). Spun differently, it was another time Dean taught those watching; this time the lesson was, “The game has to evolve.” And thus it did.

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