Dean Smith wasn’t always beloved in Chapel Hill. In fact, there once was a time when an awful lot of folks didn’t care too much for him at all. And on January 6th, 1965, some of them felt strongly enough to put on one of the most embarrassing and shameful displays in the history of North Carolina. And then they were well and truly schooled by Mr. Dean Edwards Smith.
To understand the significance of this moment, we need to understand what Carolina had become. The victorious reign of Frank McGuire, which had produced the legendary 1957 title winners, had come crashing down at the start of the 1960s. A recruiting scandal had put the school on probation for a year. The following year brought a point shaving scandal.
Chancellor William Aycock instructed McGuire to clean up his program or face consequences. In response, McGuire informed he was leaving to go coach Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Waiting in McGuire’s car for the meeting to end was 30-year-old assistant Dean Smith. Aycock called him in and hired him on the spot.
The first few seasons were bumpy: UNC shortened Dean’s first regular season as a result of the scandal, and the following seasons were mediocre. By Dean’s fourth year, fans wanted results and weren’t getting them: The team had struggled to a 6-6 record and constant lineup changes were frustrating the players, even senior star Billy Cunningham and talented sophomore Bob Lewis.
After the Tar Heels’ fourth loss in a row, a humiliating 107-85 defeat to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, the team bus return to Woollen Gym to find a crowd of students waiting for them. Hanging from a nearby tree was a dummy: Dean later said that he knew it was him from the big nose it sported. “We want Smith!” the crowd hollered. Dean instructed his players to stay on the bus so he could face the crowd alone. But before he could, Billy Cunningham stormed off the bus, marched over to the tree, and ripped the dummy down.
Three days later, the Tar Heels faced off against the sixth-ranked Duke Blue Devils in Cameron. Vic Bubas’ squad were the rulers of the ACC, in the middle of a four-year run of four straight conference titles and three Final Fours. Led by stars Jack Marin and Bob Verga, they were expected to drop the Tar Heels easily.
But Dean’s squad, rallying on behalf of their coach, gave a fantastic defensive effort, holding a Blue Devil team that averaged 92 points a game to just 62 in their own barn. The Tar Heels prevailed, 65-62. The win would resuscitate their season: They won 9 of their last 11 games and ended the regular season on a seven-game win streak.
When the victorious Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill, they found another crowd waiting for them. There was no dummy hanging, but the chant was the same: “We want Smith!” The same students who had hung their coach in effigy just three days earlier now wanted him to come out and bask in his victory.
Dean wouldn’t speak to them: “I’ve got something tight around my throat,” he said. “It makes it hard to talk.”