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UNC Basketball: The October Surprise in Print

The sudden retirement of Coach Dean Smith led to an interesting preseason magazine for the 1997-98 season.

University of North Carolina Coach Dean Smith Retires

For longtime UNC partisans, John Kilgo provided much needed Carolina content in the days before the explosion of sports media in the Internet age.

With a friendship kindled early in Dean Smith’s career at UNC, Kilgo supplemented his existing media career by hosting the weekly Carolina basketball radio and television programs, and later by producing UNC newsletters and the Carolina Blue magazines.

When going through some boxes recently, I found a copy of John Kilgo’s Carolina Basketball, previewing the 1997-98 season:

The publication was a well-researched and in-depth look at the North Carolina Tar Heels. The interviews with the players and the assessments of performance and outlook are standards to which modern publications should aim.

As one era of Carolina basketball in transition, it was interesting to look back at another season of change.

But this edition of Carolina Basketball was not the retrospective you may have expected after Smith’s 36-year career at the helm of the Tar Heels.

Even with their close relationship, it is apparent Kilgo was not aware of Smith’s announcement that shook the college basketball world on October 9, 1997.

Notice the cover: a scene from Smith’s 878th win in the East Regional Semifinal against Cal, and an Antawn Jamison dunk.

In the top corner, “Dean Smith hands off to Guthridge” in a smaller and different font than the rest of the cover. A seemingly hasty addition.

On the first page, there is a section on the questions for this year. Looking back, a major question was missing:

How will the 1997-98 Tar Heels do without Serge Zwikker in the middle? Can Makhtar Ndiaye regain his confidence and become a force at center? Who will provide depth off the bench? Are any of the freshmen ready to contribute? What kind of defense will Dean Smith pull out of his bag of tricks this season? Read and enjoy.

Throughout the season and player previews, the language is one looking towards Smith’s 37th season as head coach of the Tar Heels. The roster on page 67 even lists Smith as head coach.

“Before Smith can even think seriously about returning to a pressure defensive scheme, some players who have yet to prove themselves at this level must step up and produce some depth.”

“As always with Dean Smith’s Carolina teams, he makes a schedule that makes his team better for tournament basketball, not one that guarantees a bunch of wins against cupcakes.”

After the player profiles, the record book, a section on Carmichael Classics, and an interview with Dick Vitale, the coaches section wraps up the 128-page magazine.

In this section, Bill Guthridge is introduced as Smith’s replacement. There is quality content on this change, including quotes from Guthridge. Some were before the announcement, and some after October 9.

Absent from the content was Guthridge’s new assistant coach and present-day UNC basketball Director of Recruiting Pat Sullivan.

The final section is dedicated to Smith’s career. It focused on the perspectives of the current team and quotes from lettermen.

The section, in large font, boldly declares “His records will never be broken.”

Today, this seems like a proclamation of Nostradamic proportions. But in 1997, with this giant simply walking away from the game after a season in which the Tar Heels won 16 straight games to capture an ACC title and reach the Final Four, it seemed accurate.

But records were broken. Even Smith’s most successful collegiate coaching mentee passed him on the all-time wins list that the magazine said, “from now on, this record will be known as Dean Smith’s record.”

With Carolina basketball, you can always find a way to connect the past to the present. The enormity of the moment in 1997 was felt in the same manner as that April Fools’ Day announcement just a couple months ago.

At the end of the section on Smith, there is an editor's note:

John Kilgo’s 1997-98 Carolina Basketball was written and printed before Dean Smith’s resignation on Oct. 9, 1997. Obviously, some of the stories in the book will talk about Smith in his previous role as head coach. However, the chapters on Bill Guthridge and Dean Smith were rewritten and reprinted after Smith’s resignation was announced and Guthridge was named head coach. We hope you enjoy this magazine on the Tar Heels, which should one day be a collector’s item.

If not in monetary worth, this magazine provides unique value for the UNC fan. The duality of a season preview with Smith as head coach and the tribute to his career is a peculiar, yet special view on one of the defining moments in program history.

A collector’s item, indeed.