Throwback Thursday: Remembering Dean Smith, the extraordinary man

I wrote this in September of 2012, well before legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith died on February 7, 2015 at age 83. I saw an old book (written in 1980) about Smith at the annual Friends of the Library Book Sale. I saw, bought and read it as problems in the UNC athletics programs were being widely reported. It made me think about the man’s stellar career and I wrote a column about it. I was reminded of the column this week by now former Alamance-Burlington Schools Superintendent Bill Harrison who asked on Twitter if I had ever met Thad Mumau, the book’s author. The question wasn’t related to Smith, just whether I had made this particular acquaintance. I had not. Several books have been written about Smith since. This one interested me most because of when it was written.

By the way, this is something about how the matter at UNC was resolved within the past year.

So here goes, first published Sept. 14, 2012 …

“This is a book about an extraordinary man.”

So begins the preface to a book I never knew existed until Thursday. It’s the first biography written about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach who took over a University of North Carolina program when it was engulfed in flames of corruption and scandal and led it into the light of greatness. The book is called “The Dean Smith Story: More than a Coach.”

coachAnd it was written in 1980 — before a Smith-coached Tar Heel team had captured even one NCAA championship. Think of that. Thad Mumau, a sportswriter from Fayetteville, took on the job before Smith had accomplished what most in his profession consider the most important thing.

That is the point, I suspect.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dean Smith lately so when I saw this book on a shelf at the Friends of the Library Book Sale in Burlington on Thursday there was no doubt I would buy it. For $3 I also bought a book by Frank Leahy, a famed Notre Dame football coach from the 1940s. The moral here is, it’s wise to go to the book sale with very little on your mind.

Dean Smith has been in my thoughts because of the troubling news that continues to trickle out of Chapel Hill and what he might think of it. The sordid tale began with the UNC football team, where academic and other abuses have already landed the Tar Heels on the NCAA sanctions list and forced the ouster of coach Butch Davis.

And, as is often true in such instances, once one scandal is revealed, others seep through previously sealed crevices. Outstanding reporting by the News & Observer of Raleigh uncovered instances of academic fraud in the African American Studies program, largely involving athletes — including some in the basketball program. Over the past week or more the N&O also reported that Matt Kupec — a UNC quarterback from the 1970s who, until his resignation under fire, was the university’s chief fund-raiser — took unnecessary trips and often with the mother of former UNC basketball player Tyler Hansbrough. Kupec also helped Tami Hansbrough get a $95,000-a-year job in his office. She was his girlfriend.

Yes, a lot of things here really stink to high heaven, as my Carolina-grad mom would say. In fact, it smells so bad that UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp commissioned an independent probe of the situation. The State Bureau of Investigation is on the case, too.

But one thing is certain. This is not the Carolina Way. In fact, it would seem by all appearances that Carolina has lost its way.

That’s why Smith, architect of the Carolina Way, jumps to mind.

Under Smith’s watch, the UNC basketball program was a model for others to follow. He was teacher, coach, innovator, mentor, leader, social activist, integration pioneer and on-campus father-confessor. The vast majority of his players not only earned degrees, they became doctors, lawyers, government leaders and teachers. In the main, his teams conducted themselves with an air of professionalism. Nothing smelled very bad in the basketball program for nearly 40 years.

Smith’s vision was that of a program that would endure and succeed without shortcuts. If it meant fewer national titles, well, that was OK. If it meant less attention on him, even better.

“I’m not trying to sell a championship short, but often it’s a one-shot thing,” Smith told Mumau in 1979. “There have been several times when a team was on probation just before or just after winning the national championship.”

Smith was just 49 years old when he sat down with Mumau to work on this book. He would coach for another 17 years, win two NCAA titles and be named national coach of the year two more times. He would pile up ACC championships like ordinary folks stack wood and graduate successful student-athletes at a rate of 96.6 percent. He retired with the most wins ever, a figure since eclipsed in an era where teams play 30-plus games a season.

Since his retirement, the program he constructed has had some wince-worthy moments. A Final Four player meltdown under his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge and the player revolt under coach Matt Doherty along with an embarrassing stretch of defeats. While Smith protégé Roy Williams righted the ship in terms of championships, changing times and early departures by players have altered the collegiate landscape for all.

Today, Smith is 82 and his family says he suffers from a “progressive neurocognitive disorder.” He has good days and bad in terms of memory. He may be only marginally aware of the scandals that have rocked the university he served so well. That’s both a blessing and a shame.

Because now more than ever, UNC needs to ask itself “What would Dean Smith do” and search for another extraordinary man to help them find the answers.


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