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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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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.

Your successor, Bill Guthridge, says he'd love to see you as czar of intercollegiate athletics. If you suddenly had the power to make changes by executive fiat, what's the first thing you'd do ?

I was against freshman eligibility when it was instituted in 1972, and I'd still like to see all freshmen ineligible in the high-profile sports like football and basketball. Whether he plays sports or not, a freshman has to learn to live away from home, function in a more demanding academic environment and adapt to a new social setting. How can it be in his best interests to be distracted from those things by team meetings, film sessions, media interviews and practice, not to mention the travel that causes missed class time?

There would be a number of side benefits if freshmen were ineligible. Recruiting intensity would diminish along with the whole quick-fix mentality many coaches have. And colleges would attract young men who are serious about school as well as athletics, because those who want to go pro after one season wouldn't have the patience to wait around. There's no evidence that sitting out a varsity season hurts a player's prospects as a professional. It did nothing to harm the development of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and a whole generation of great NBA players. In fact, practices for freshmen allow coaches to teach individual fundamentals instead of rushing first-year players into five-on-five game situations.

There's another great benefit as well. When scholarship freshmen play on a jayvee team with eight or nine regular students, the scholarship players have an easier transition into becoming a part of the student body. And it wouldn't be expensive to do. Our jayvee team plays 16 games a season and costs less than $7,000 a year.

With freshmen sitting out anyway, would you scrap initial eligibility requirements like Proposition 48 ?

If a freshman met certain academic standards—more than just a score on the college boards, which I believe are culturally biased—then he could practice with the varsity, or practice and compete on a freshman team. He would receive full financial aid as long as he was making satisfactory progress toward graduation. That way we'd be saying, You're here as a student first. Once you've shown us your ability as a student, we'd be pleased to have you as an athlete, too.

Yet you're someone for whom a freshman won an NCAA title, if I correctly recall a certain night in New Orleans in 1982 .

I can't think of another nationally ranked program that has benefited more from freshman eligibility than ours. But I have no doubt that they would have been better off if they had been ineligible for a season, even though 95 percent went on to get their degrees.

Those opposed to freshman ineligibility always point out that a change will cost money. But that's all they say. Division I football and basketball generate billions of dollars, and only a small part of that revenue could keep every freshman athlete on scholarship, even as he sat out. If freshman ineligibility saved athletic directors thousands of dollars a year—instead of costing them that much—they'd be in favor of it. What's best for the student-athlete simply isn't being factored into the equation.

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