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The Case for Dean Smith

Without a doubt, Dean Smith is on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches along with John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, and probably Bobby Knight. But which of those four are the greatest basketball coach ever? Here is the case for Dean Smith.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The past few weeks have brought us Mike Krzyzewski’s 1000th win and the passing of Dean Smith, both of which are monumental in the world of college basketball. Milestones like those also cause us to revisit the contributions of two of the best college basketball coaches ever, ultimately leading to the question of who is the greatest basketball coach of all time. But what makes someone the greatest of all time? Records? Superlatives? Championships? Impact? The recent conversation about Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win (to go with four NCAA titles) leaves no doubt that he is on the Mt. Rushmore of college basketball coaches. John Wooden’s ten NCAA championships are on another level entirely. He is on Mt. Rushmore as well. But the greatest of all time? I am admittedly biased, but for me that would be one Dean Edwards Smith.

If championships are your measure, then John Wooden would have no equal. Wooden not only won 10 NCAA titles at UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s, he won those 10 in 12 years. Those numbers are simply untouchable and will never be surpassed. If total wins are your measure, then clearly Krzyzewski is head and shoulders above the rest. Coach K has blown past 1,000 wins and shows no signs of slowing down at age 68. Again this is a number that may never be challenged. A coach would have to average 25 wins per year for 40 years to even make 1,000 wins. Either of these coaches earn consideration for the title of best college coach of all time based on these figures alone.

But what sets Dean Smith apart is his contributions to the sport both on and off the court. In addition to being a master tactician and teacher of the game, Smith defined coaching in an incredible time of transition in college basketball. He assumed his post at North Carolina in 1961 in the era of freshman ineligibility and segregation, and went to the Final Four in his final season in 1997, as the era of early NBA defections was just taking off. Along the way he only hastened desegregation both in the ACC and in Chapel Hill, restored USA Olympic basketball after its historic first defeat, and left an impact and legacy on the college game that can still be seen today, nearly two decades after he retired.

From a strict numbers standpoint, Smith’s career statistics are certainly impressive. He coached for 36 years at UNC and won 879 games, which was the most-ever at the time he retired. He won two NCAA titles and went to 11 Final Fours while notching 13 ACC tournament titles. He also won an NIT title at a time when the NIT was still a highly-regarded tournament. Following the 1972 Olympic basketball controversy, Smith was named the coach of the 1976 Olympic team and took some heat for populating it with a number of Tar Heels. But the USA team quickly and effectively took care of business in Montreal and restored USA basketball to the top of the Olympic mountain.

Perhaps more impressive were two streaks Smith and his Tar Heels maintained: first, for over 30 years, UNC never finished any worse than 3rd in the ACC regular-season standings. Carolina persevered while Duke, Maryland, NC State, Virginia, and Duke again all rose and fell as challengers to UNC’s dominance. Even more remarkable was Smith’s teams winning 20 games or more for 27 straight seasons, many of them at a time when teams only played 30-32 games per season instead of the 36-40 games now.

It is important to remember also that Smith went out on top of his game. Smith surpassed Adolph Rupp’s all-time record on the way to the Final Four in 1997. Four of Smith’s last seven teams went to the Final Four, and he walked away from the 1998 team that also made the Final Four, as did the 2000 team which were the last of his recruits. Smith had just turned 66 when he retired at 879 wins. One more season would have put him well over 900 wins; had he coached until he was 71 (as Rupp did) he would have likely made it to 1,000 wins almost 15 years before Krzyzewski.

Smith’s tactical moves were incomparable. He created the Four Corners offense, just one of many strategic innovations. Also, Carolina was never out of a game with Smith on the sidelines, as UNC hoarded timeouts for end-game situations and Smith’s late-game comebacks were legendary. Whether it was the 8-points-in 17-seconds comeback against Duke in the 1970s or the 21-point come-from-behind win over Florida State in the 1990s, or the two title game wins over favored opponents, Smith established himself as one of the game’s premiere Xs and Os masters.

If you watch a college basketball game today, however, you see Smith’s influence in the game nearly 20 years after he retired. When you see players huddle at the foul line before a free throw or during a quick break in the action, that’s a Dean Smith thing. The point zone. The secondary break. Bench players standing when a player comes off the court. Rushing to help up a player who took a charge. Calling time out after a made basket to extend the game. Pointing to the passer to acknowledge an assist. Flashing a tired signal to the bench to ask to come out of the game. All Dean Smith innovations.

An often overlooked contribution of Smith to the game is the use of advanced analytics. Long before Ken Pomeroy made tempo-free stats the language of basketball stat-geeks, Smith and his staff charted all kinds of stats that are commonplace today. For example, Smith’s book Multiple Offense and Defense, published in the early 1980s, mentions his use of points per possession, which is a metric often used in analysis today.

Smith’s stance on civil rights has been well-recounted in the tributes to the trailblazing coach over the past few days. Smith brought to Chapel Hill Charles Scott (yes, Coach Smith always called him Charles, not Charlie), the first African American scholarship athlete at UNC. Scott was not the first black player in the ACC, but the fact that he became a prolific star on the best team in the ACC at that time knocked down the color barrier and opened the door for many players to follow. Smith also famously but quietly pushed acceptance of African Americans in restaurants and around town. He was the embodiment of the Theodore Roosevelt maxim to speak softly and carry a big stick, as his quiet Midwestern demeanor was the face of his enormous influence. No one dared say no to Dean Smith in Chapel Hill and before long black citizens were being served along whites all over town.

The other piece that has been revealed in the outpouring of sentiment over the passing of Coach Smith is what a spectacular person he was. He was a mentor and a father figure to his players, and he had a personal touch for anyone and everyone he seemed to come across. So many people have a story about the time they met Dean Smith. He was the godfather of the Carolina basketball family and an icon both inside the UNC community as well as throughout the state and beyond.

The combination of excellence on the court, lasting contributions to basketball, and how he treated people off the court are what make Smith the greatest of all time. Wooden’s championships will never be surpassed, but what else about Wooden (other than his famous pyramid of success) lives beyond those numbers? And it’s not Krzyzewski’s fault that the civil rights battles that Smith fought are not battles we fight today. Coach K’s 1,000+ wins, four NCAA titles, and two Olympic gold medals certainly make him the standard-bearer of the modern coaching era. Yet taking into account the totality of his career and the fact that almost two decades after he coached his last game many of the innovations are still prevalent, it makes clear that Dean Smith wears the crown of greatest of all time.