The American failure in Munich shocked the nation’s basketball elite out of their decades-long complacency over the nation’s Olympic dominance. To most fans, it became vital to re-assert America’s control of the sport it had invented and so long ruled with an iron hand. The key was to find a coach more in tune with the modern game than the 68-year-old Iba, whose greatest success had come in the mid-1940s.
UNC’s Smith To The Rescue
North Carolina’s Dean Smith, who was 45 years old in 1976, was selected to fill that role by a committee that included Iba, Red Auerbach, Pete Newell, Wayne Embree and Dave Gavitt. The Tar Heel coach picked his good friend John Thompson and his right-hand man at UNC, Bill Guthridge, as his assistants.
Picking the 12-man roster for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team was far more controversial. When the team was announced after tryouts on the N.C. State campus in Raleigh, it included seven ACC players, including four from Smith’s own UNC team.
“I didn’t select the players; the selection committee did,” Smith later wrote in his autobiography. “I had a single vote. I was allowed to advise the committee on the type of players I was looking for, but that was no guarantee that I would get the players I wanted. In fact, I lost several arguments.”
Nevertheless, Smith became the target of critics who claimed that he stacked the team with his own players. He was blasted for cutting Marquette big man Bo Ellis, who actually quit during the second lap of Smith’s required mile run, while keeping his own Tommy LaGarde, a big man who had played second fiddle to UNC’s Mitch Kupchak during the 1975 season.
People generally forget that following the 1972 loss to the USSR in Munich, USA Basketball was at a crossroads. Yes, the Soviets basically cheated and there was no way time should have been put back on the clock. However, the loss stung nonetheless and did not sit well with the American public. For one, the loss in Munich had all sorts of Cold War resentment surrounding it. Beyond that, basketball was invented in and dominated by the United States. We basically owned it and for the most part Americans saw the United States as being vastly superior in the sport which meant there was no excuse for losing. When Team USA started sputtering in the early part of this decade on the international stage I am not sure anyone was surprised. While the United States can still boast producing the best basketball players in the world, the parity is better because many foreign teams have NBA stars on them and they also tend to play a more team oriented style of basketball. Yes, Krzyzewski gets credit for having his players on the same page and redeeming the Team USA on the Olympic stage in 2008. However, in 1976 the stakes were much higher. The American public was demanding a gold medal victory to fully redeem the debacle in 1972. In other words, the pressure to win when you are expected to win can be much greater than the hope you win playing against a set of comparable opponents. That is nature of what Dean dealt with in putting together the 1976 team and winning in Montreal. So for all the laud and praise that is heaped upon Mike Krzyzewski for returning Team USA to the gold medal position, let us not forget that it was Dean Smith who was first tasked with the job of restoring American Olympic glory in basketball, a job he did in impressive fashion under far more stress.
As a side note, one of the huge debates that has cropped up is whether Mike Krzyzewski has damaged the Duke program by doing this stint as coach of Team USA. Duke has suffered in recent years, and their slide below UNC as coincided with Krzyzewski's work with USA Basketball. Are the two related? It is difficult to say, mainly because the fact the 2005 recruiting class was such an abject failure has a lot to do with Duke's issues than anything else though one could argue that had Krzyzewski been focused on all things Duke from 2006-2008 he could have acted to prevent Duke's slide. It is noteworthy that following Dean's Olympic stint UNC went to the 1977 NCAA title game with a senior laden team but did not win an NCAA Tournament game again until 1981. Was Dean's Olympic stint(which included chief assistant Bill Gurthridge) partly to blame for UNC suffering a slight downturn or in both cases is it correlation without causation?