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Dean Smith Unplugged
Alexander Wolff
December 22, 1997
Though we didn't hear from him in the previous pages, Dean Smith does have something to say. He recently sat down with SI senior writer ALEXANDER WOLFF to share his reflections on nearly half a century in college sports. Paraphrasing Churchill and quoting Kierkegaard, Smith reminisced about a certain Chicago Bull and the long-ago NCAA final at which he cheered furiously against the Tar Heels. He mused about the current overemphasis on winning and about his careerlong struggle to keep victory in perspective. And he sounded off on what's wrong with college sports and how to fix it. Here are highlights from that conversation.
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December 22, 1997

Dean Smith Unplugged

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What's the biggest change in the game since your playing days ?

You mean besides the length of the uniform shorts? To me, the biggest change is in officiating. We once had a game of finesse. Now, to my chagrin, you can get away with anything away from the ball. I pushed for the addition of that third official so we could better watch for illegal screens off the ball, but that hasn't seemed to help. I think it's just human nature for an official not to make that call, because he knows it won't be replayed on television.

So officiating is still hard. What about coaching ?

Coaching is easier than it's ever been. Remember when only one team per conference could go to the NCAA tournament? Imagine going through a conference season knowing that even if you won the league, you'd have to win a three-game tournament just to go to the NCAAs. Also, in the old days you'd make unlimited visits to one recruit. One time we made 17 trips to recruit one player. Now they've limited the number of days you can be on the road. I remember jumping on a private plane after practice and spinning over to Lexington to scout Kentucky. All those trips are unnecessary now because you have everything on tape. So you can really just focus on coaching your team.

It took 21 seasons and six unsuccessful trips to the Final Four before you won a championship. What did you learn while falling short ?

Be grateful that you got there. I don't believe that "winning the big one" says all there is to say about you. You win big ones to get to the Final Four, or even just to get into the tournament. The method we have for picking a national champion—one loss and you're out—certainly creates a lot of interest. But you and I know that the NCAA tournament doesn't always produce the best team as its champion. Kansas was the best team in the country last year, but Arizona wound up as the NCAA champion. Both teams should be happy—though I'm sure Arizona is much happier. The fairest way is the NBAs, a seven-game series. Of course we can't do that in college. But we do create more interest in our game with our system.

Can you imagine the interest in the NBA playoffs if they played one loss and you're out? If the Chicago Bulls had lost their first playoff game last year, their season would have been over. That may have been unfair, but it sure would have created interest.

Can you remember the first time you saw Michael Jordan play ?

[My assistant] Bill [Guthridge] had seen Michael play in February of his junior season in high school and thought he might be an ACC player, because he was such a good athlete—6'3", quick, though at that time he played inside not outside. Then Michael came to our basketball camp that summer, and [assistants] Roy [Williams] and Eddie [Fogler] mentioned him to me: "Gosh, that Wilmington kid is really quick, and he's so dedicated." I came over and watched. His skills with the ball were raw, but his athleticism and competitiveness were so good, we decided to recruit him. And he made his decision in the fall.

Most people around Wilmington were predicting that if Michael went up to Chapel Hill, he wouldn't get to play. He said, "Coach Smith, I'm going to play up there." And I said, "Michael, that's why we're recruiting you. I think you will play." And he said, "I'm going to show them I can play." I think he's shown a few people.

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