After graduation Smith served his alma mater briefly as an assistant coach, then his country with the Air Force in Germany. Lieutenant Smith coached his base team to an 11-0 record and hoped to find a high school job Stateside when his hitch was up. But in 1955, at a service tournament in France, Smith met Bob Spear, who had just been named coach at the Air Force Academy. Spear later offered him a job as an assistant, and Smith accepted. Three years later North Carolina coach Frank McGuire hired him in the same role.
McGuire was an extravagant New Yorker whose so-called Underground Railroad had delivered to Chapel Hill a stream of big-city talent. But his lavish recruiting style also put the Tar Heels in contravention of NCAA rules. In 1961 the administration let McGuire go and named his 30-year-old assistant to replace him.
Smith's influence in Chapel Hill extended beyond the basketball arena. With his pastor and a visiting black theology student, he helped integrate a local restaurant. In his second season as head coach, North Carolina scored an astonishing victory at Kentucky, and his players began to believe in him. As his innovations started to take hold—including the delay game he and Spear had developed at Air Force, which would evolve into the Four Corners offense—belief morphed into a kind of faith.
But that faith didn't yet extend beyond the team. In January 1965, during Smith's fourth season, the Tar Heels returned to campus after a thumping at Wake Forest to find that students had hung their coach in effigy. Center Billy Cunningham bounded off the bus and angrily tore the likeness of Smith from the tree. If, as scuttlebutt had it, the university elders had hired a greenhorn because they wanted to scale back a basketball program run amok, they seemed to have gotten their wish.
WILLIAM AYCOCK, university chancellor, 1958-64
The idea that I wanted to de-emphasize basketball is ridiculous. When Frank McGuire got in trouble with the NCAA, he sent Dean to me to deal with the charges. Over a period of several months he and I worked on preparing a response, and I got to know him well. Frank wouldn't have hired him if Dean didn't know a lot about basketball. But I also discovered he was a person of great character. It took me about 15 minutes to decide to appoint him.
REVEREND ROBERT SEYMOUR, pastor, Binkley Baptist Church, 1959-88:
The Pines was a restaurant where the basketball team ate its meals. The management liked Dean and benefited financially from his bringing the team by. Dean had a vested interest in getting The Pines to open its doors, because he was recruiting a black player. Going there wasn't headline news, just responsible citizens making sure their community was complying with the law.
CHARLIE SHAFFER, guard, 1962-64:
When we won in Kentucky, it was the first time he ever coached against Adolph Rupp. We got there for the freshman game, and the place was already packed with 16,000 people. In the dressing room he said, "There are going to be a lot of people cheering for Kentucky. But when you look at that jersey, imagine it says Tennessee, not Kentucky. There's nothing special about that jersey."
We played a box-and-one, with Yogi Poteet, who was 6'1", guarding their best player, Cotton Nash, who was 6'5". Cotton literally couldn't get the ball. Afterward I told Coach Smith it was the best-coached game I'd ever seen. You could see his genius even then.
He had put in a play two or three days before the game. We called it the Kentucky play. Larry [Brown, Carolina's point guard] would bring the ball down the floor and take it into the middle, and the other four players would back out to the corners. Once, Larry drove to the foul line, and I slid in from the corner, and he dished it to me for a basket. That may have been the first Four Corners layup, though it didn't have that name at the time.
JOAN SMITH EWING:
After the Wake Forest game he called me with the score. Reverend Seymour called me, too—he had gone over and sat with Dean most of the night. I remember him searching, asking himself if he was doing the right thing with his life.