SI Vault
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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Those of us who have watched him over the years each have our "Michael moment"—that point at which we realized he was not your ordinary basketball player. When did you know ?

Preseason, sophomore year. I couldn't believe the improvement since the end of his freshman season. Every time he did a drill with the Blue Team, the Blues would win. Every time he did one with the White Team, the Whites would win. The staff started saying to one another, "What's going on here?" He hadn't been on any preseason All-America teams, but he'd grown two inches, had worked hard over the summer to improve his ball handling and shooting, and he had so much confidence. He started the season with a cast on his left wrist, and still he won a game for us against Tulane. He scored, then intercepted a pass, and we won in overtime.

You've become so identified with North Carolina, it's hard to imagine that the 1957 triple-overtime NCAA championship game—in which the Tar Heels beat Kansas for perhaps their greatest victory ever—left you devastated .

I was assisting Bob Spear at Air Force at the time, and Bob was good friends with Frank McGuire, who was then the coach at North Carolina, and we were all sharing a hotel suite at the Final Four in Kansas City. I was only four years out of college at the time, and I had coached three of the Kansas seniors—Gene El-stun, Maurice King and Johnny Parker—as freshmen in 1954.

After the game Frank brought his team by our hotel. I told them, "Congratulations, you guys. And that's all I have to say." Frank asked me to recommend a restaurant where they could celebrate. I suggested the most expensive place in town, Eddie's, where they had to pay something like $48 for the roquefort dressing. I even made the reservations. I wanted to stick it to 'em.

What are you going to miss about the game ?

There's very little that feels as good as a conference win on the road, of meeting that challenge. Over the past 18 years, I think we've won 11 over at Duke, and that's a hard place to win. And we won three out of four in Lexington.

Why does winning make you feel so good, when you've been so articulate in suggesting that it shouldn't be so important ?

My first goal was to keep my job. Then I wanted to win. It was when I got more mature that I said, What's most important is that we play well. Then I started to ask myself, Why do I feel good when we don't play well and win? I've struggled with the dichotomy of winning versus playing well ever since 1981, when I got a 20-year contract and said to myself, O.K., from now on I'm going to judge us according to how we play, not on whether we win. Even in scrimmages we've tried to apply that standard. If a player took a bad fadeaway jump shot, I'd tell the manager, "Score that a zero." If he got a layup, it would be plus three. We'd only have to score it that way a few times before the guys would realize what we were after.

Your sister, Joan, gave you a copy of Catherine Marshall's book "Beyond Our Selves" in the aftermath of that Wake Forest game in 1965, when you were hung in effigy. How did it help you ?

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