For the next 36 years, it proved to be a historic decision for both parties.
Throughout the 1970s, the Tar Heels gained national recognition. Names like Phil Ford, Bob McAdoo and many other future NBA players excelled at running Smith’s four-corners offense that emphasized back-door cuts and smart shot selection.
Entering the 1981-82 season, Smith’s Tar Heels had been to six Final Fours and played for the title three times. Despite these accomplishments, Smith hadn't achieved college basketball's greatest coaching feat: winning a national championship. The 1980-81 team, led by future top-five NBA draft picks James Worthy and Sam Perkins, reached the title game, but its defeat left the Tar Heels looking for someone to get them over the hump.
By way of Wilmington, North Carolina, a first-year named Michael Jordan gave them their answer.
Averaging 13.5 points during his rookie season, Jordan helped the Tar Heels reach the national championship once again. In the waning seconds of the game, Jordan found himself open on the left wing and drilled a jumper to give UNC the title.
The proverbial monkey was finally lifted from Smith’s back.
Jordan used his collegiate spotlight to jumpstart arguably the greatest basketball career that anyone has ever seen. Along with his six NBA titles and five most valuable player awards, his multi-billion-dollar brand has become synonymous with UNC’s athletic culture.
Over the next 15 seasons, the Tar Heels reached four more Final Fours and won another title in 1993, but just weeks before the 1997-98 season, Smith decided it was time to call it a career. Along with two national titles, he retired with 13 ACC Tournament championships and 879 victories, the most in Division 1 men’s basketball history at the time of his retirement.
In 2003, the Tar Heels knew they needed to find the heir to Smith’s throne. They believed that Roy Williams, a former Smith assistant, would match that description.
After inheriting a team that went 9-21 two years before his hiring, Williams took the Tar Heels to the mountaintop of college hoops once again. With players like Sean May and Raymond Felton leading the way, the Tar Heels won the NCAA title in 2005.
The following season, the Tyler Hansbrough era began.
An instant contributor, Hansbrough was named an All-American four times, and graduated as the school’s all-time leader in points and rebounds. After losing in the Final Four in 2008, Hansbrough, along with future NBA players Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, ended their redemption tour with a title victory in 2009.
Fast-forward seven seasons to 2016, when North Carolina had a chance to hang another banner.
After four-year starter Marcus Paige sent the crowd into a frenzy with an acrobatic jumper to tie the game, Villanova's Kris Jenkins responded with a game-winning three from well beyond the arc as time expired. Confetti covered the floor, but it wasn’t for the Tar Heels.
The Tar Heels carried the defeat with them throughout the offseason, where they vowed the next season would result in hanging a sixth title banner in the Smith Center.
Reaching the final once again, the Tar Heels finished the job by defeating Gonzaga. ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson and the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Joel Berry II, were two standouts who led UNC to the 2017 title.
Now, UNC is preparing to enter the 2020-21 campaign coming off of the program's first losing season in nearly 20 years.
UNC has now won six NCAA titles, and Roy Williams has surpassed Dean Smith with 885 wins and counting.
Throughout this 60-year story, UNC's success has ignited passion in its fan base, as thousands of Tar Heel faithful gather in the Dean Dome for every home game to watch their team follow Smith’s orders: “Play hard, play smart and play together.”
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