Following the death of former North Carolina men's basketball coach Dean Smith on Sunday, many of his former players as well as members of the college basketball community have been at a loss for words.
The editors and senior writers for The Daily Tar Heel's sports desk spent most of Sunday reaching out to these people for interviews, but not all of the material from these interviews fit in Monday's paper. This blog post includes some extra quotes and anecdotes about the legendary coach.
Jay Bilas, former Duke men's basketball player and current college basketball analyst for ESPN.
What are your general thoughts? What was your initial reaction?
Profoundly sad. Dean Smith was one of the great coaches in the history of American sport, but also one of the great people, a true gentleman, in the history of American sport. I think anyone who has had the privilege of meeting him and knowing him would agree with that. Anyone who has talked to one of his former players or assistants and listened to them speak of him would certainly understand that. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man and an amazing coach.
Woody Durham, play-by-play announcer for UNC football and men's basketball for 40 years.
On Coach Smith's legacy:
He was an outstanding coach, and a lot of people can remember that, but what you need to know is what an outstanding person he was, and what he did for society and things of that type. If you can share that with your children, then you probably can go ahead and tell them that we need more people in the world like that.
J.R. Reid, former UNC men's basketball player from 1986-89 and first-round pick in the 1989 NBA Draft.
What was your initial reaction to Coach Smith's death?
It’s a very sad day for not only Carolina basketball players and the Carolina family but for fans all around the world. He’s just a man who meant so much to basketball. But those of us who really know him know it was much bigger than just basketball. It was just evolving as a human and trying to do the right thing in life, that’s my message I got from Coach Smith. It’s just so sad for everyone right now, but I think Coach Smith would want us all to console each other briefly but to continue life and try to go on to do good and help wherever needed.
Can you remember the first time you met Coach Smith?
I was coming to Carolina basketball camp. My dad wanted to get me to a camp, and we wanted to go to the best one. In the late 70s, early 80s, Carolina was one of the best ones.
We went there and I was playing, and back then, they put you by your age. I got to camp, and Coach Williams saw me sitting in this group with the kids my age. He said, ‘Son, how old are you?’ I told him, and he sent me over to the other coaches and put me in another group. Shortly after that, Coach Smith came over in that group, and of course, everybody is always silent when Coach Smith enters the gym. He always continued to carry that aura. Even though he really necessarily didn’t want it, he realized it came with the territory. But he was always such a humble man, shedded the limelight and always put it on his players.
What was your relationship like with him while you were at UNC as well as after you left UNC?
Coach Smith is the closest thing to a second father that I have. He took me in and we planned on being there for four years, it just worked out that I got to stay there three. I remember when it was time, Coach Smith called me in his office and said, ‘There’s a lot of talk about the NBA, and I’ve checked around.’ We always said that if I was a high lottery, it was time to go.
Coach pulled me in and said, ‘Hey, it might be that time.’
He told me, ‘If you were my son and I had to give you the correct advice, I would tell you it’s time to go. You can always come back and get your degree at Carolina.’
Coach Smith made sure that I had clauses. When I left my junior year, I think I needed 12 hours to graduate. Coach Smith made sure that he had clauses with a pretty nice bonus in my contract, to make sure that I would get that easy money for finishing just a few hours of class. He looked out for us every way possible.
The more people you talk to, you’ll hear all the stories about Coach Smith and how great his memory was, and how everyone’s time was important.
He tried to make you feel like it was all about you. Your time was just as important as his was. That’s what I take away from Coach Smith is always having time for others.
What's your fondest memory about Coach Smith?
It seemed like everything we’d work on in practices, at one time or another, would pop up in the game. I remember in tough situations when we needed a last-second shot or the fans were yelling in the huddle and we couldn’t hear, Coach Smith would always lean over and have to reach up and snap that Rolex watch he wore. He hated that watch — he thought it was too gaudy — but it would always snap off when he would get mad and clap his hands. So he’d always have to readjust it in the huddle. He would tell us in those tight games, ‘Isn’t this what you came to Carolina for? Isn’t this fun?’ That’s how he was in every huddle. He used those as an opportunity for us to showcase our skills and what we had learned and worked on throughout the year in practice.
When was the last time you saw or spoke to Coach Smith?
I came down to the office and saw him five or six months ago. I came in there, he still had his office hours and I still came in there and ate lunch... We sat and talked. Coach Smith was there at the table. We looked through picture books and talked about old times. It was a lot of fun. I think he liked that a lot. Between all of the lies he’d say to his former players, I think he didn’t have a day where a former player wasn’t coming in to spend some time with Coach Smith. He had a lot of people who cared about him.
What's Coach Smith's legacy? How will his legacy continue to last?
That legacy is so much bigger than basketball. We all know about the things he did with Charlie Scott as the first African-American in the ACC and helped in breaking the color barrier that survived in Chapel Hill. With Coach Smith, his whole thing was living right, doing the right thing all of the time. It takes just as much effort to do the right thing as it does the wrong, and that’s how he saw life. In college basketball, you can make a selfish play, but with the same minutes you made to make that special play, you can make the same play that wasn’t an unselfish play and make us a better basketball team… It’s about learning from your mistakes and trying not to make those same mistakes again.
Buzz Peterson, former UNC men's basketball player from 1981-85 who has been the head coach at Appalachian State, Tulsa, Tennessee, Coastal Carolina and UNC-Wilmington.
What are your general thoughts about Coach Smith's death? What was your initial reaction?
It’s a sad day, really. It’s one of those things you thought about and knew it was going to come at a time since he’d been sick and everything. Just a remarkable life, that’s all I can say. It was a remarkable life he had. Somebody asked me to sum it up in one word, and I said humble. Very humble person, never wanted credit for anything. When a guy scored a basket, he wanted you to point at the guy who gave an assist. Just stuff like that. The little things were so important to him. That’s why we were so good in late-game situations. We were just so prepared for everything in late games. He always said, ‘I’ll never put you guys in a situation in a game that I haven’t prepared you for in practice. If I have to coach you real hard in the game, then I haven’t done my job.’ I can always say we were really well prepared. We were also well conditioned, I know that.
What was your relationship like with Coach Smith while you were at UNC as well as after you left UNC?
While you’re there, he’d challenge you. He instills confidence in you. I would say he’d break you down, and he’d build you back up with some confidence. That can be as far as conditioning. That can be as far as your mentality and mental toughness. He gave you that confidence to be successful on the court. I’ll never forget the meeting I had with him. I graduated, I was done and you’re at that point where you’re like, ‘Oh, God, what do I do now? I’m not going to play professional basketball. Where am I going?’ And he says, ‘Buzz, you worked hard for us here for four years. Now it’s time for us to go work for you. What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to coach.’ And in the next 50 minutes, he tried to talk me out of it. You don’t want to do this, and all of that. I end up getting into it. He was concerned about your past after you graduated. Not a lot of people can say that. Not a lot of people can say my coach had care and concern for me after my playing days were over. But he did. That made it like a family. You always felt like you were very welcome to come back.
How did he influence you to become a coach? What sort of advice did he give you?
I’ll tell you what intrigued me — because I never wanted to coach as I was playing — just the things we did in practice, how we got into a game, how we worked and how that led us to our wins, that was so appealing to me. I just thought that was pretty neat. We’d run this on defense, and it would take the other team out of its offense. We’d run this offense, and they couldn’t stop it. He’d always calculate three of four minutes ahead in the game. At the end of game situation, he was always really good. When I first got my head job in 1996 at App State, I had called and asked for his help to get the job. I said, ‘Alright, Coach, thank you so much. I believe I’ve got it.’ I was like, ‘What do I do?’ And he was like, ‘Buzz, what you learn here?’ I said, ‘Discipline. You taught us in discipline on and off the floor.’ He says, ‘You do the same thing. You pay attention to details, little things. That’s very important.’ He always said be well prepared. The saying was always play hard, play smart, play together. I carried that along the way the whole time.
What’s your fondest memory about Coach Smith?
When I was coaching at Tulsa, Bill Self left a bunch of great players there and I just had the benefit from it. We lost to Hawaii in the finals of the WAC tournament in 2001. Coach calls me the next morning, ‘Get your head up. You’re going to win the NIT championship. I’m going to send you four pages of notes. I want you to look that over, and I want you to run those. Call me when you get them, and let’s talk about them.’ The next day I got them, and we talked about them. We play Cal Irvine the next day, and I didn’t have time to show them to my team. But I had almost five days after that before we played Minnesota, and we pretty much changed our offense after that off those four pages of notes. And what he saw in my team at Tulsa, we would play taller opponents. I didn’t have many big guys, maybe one or two. The other team had two or four. And what we did is we spaced it out, created off the dribble-drives and everything. When it was all over, we won at Minnesota and Mississippi State. In New York, we beat Alabama and Memphis. When we won the whole thing, I had my staff in there and I said, ‘We changed our offense a lot.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, why did you do that?’ I said, ‘Well, here’s four pages of notes from Coach Smith. Why can’t you dummies think of this? Might have to have somebody across the country to figure this out for us.’ He didn’t have to do that, but that’s Coach Smith. He took pride in his pupils, and he wanted to see us be successful. There was literally four legal pages of notes.
How would you define Coach Smith’s legacy? How do you see that legacy lasting?
Everybody always talks about how Perkins, Worthy and Jordan were the players on that 1982 team. But we had a leader in Jimmy Black who was crucial in us winning that. Jimmy was just an extension off Coach Smith. If you were a point guard, he challenged you a little bit. He had you thinking all of the time, because you were an extension of him out here. I remember Jimmy in our meetings as a team, he’d always say, ‘Hey, we’re winning this. I’m tired of people saying he can’t win the big ones. We’re going to win it for him. Every man in this room is going to win it for him.’ We had that sense of pride we were going to. We’re going to win it for him.
He leaves behind a coach that cared so much for his players afterwards when they were done. When you had meetings with him, it wasn’t much so basketball as it was you as a person, your family, academics and then basketball was last. When I think of Coach Smith, I think of what a humble, humble man he was and what a tremendous impact he made on so many guys lives in a positive way.
Any other memories?
I was at East Tennessee State in 1989 and ‘90, and Coach Les Robinson got the N.C. State job. Les offered me the opportunity to go to N.C. State. He said, ‘But Buzz, before you do anything, you’ve got to make that phone call.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can make it.’ I was thinking, ‘I can’t call Coach Smith and tell him I’ve been offered the opportunity to go to N.C. State and coach.’ I had to think about it a little bit. But when I called him, he was so for it, saying, ‘That’s a great opportunity for you as a young coach to be an assistant in the ACC. You just make sure you stay loyal to N.C. State and work hard for Les.’ Not a lot of people would do that.
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