Former UNC players remember Dean Smith as greater man than coach

BY foxsports • February 8, 2015

Even back in 2011, Dean Smith's former players knew what was coming. It was well-known that their former head coach was suffering from dementia, and that it was only going to get worse. It was only a matter of time.

When being interviewed for various projects, they'd agree -- but only if they weren't going to be asked about Smith's illness. And many of them couldn't even bear to mention it without letting their voices break.

It was a fate too cruel for their former head coach, mentor, father figure and, eventually, friend. A man who remembered everything -- their children's names, their parents' names, their wives and girlfriends and sisters and brothers -- would one day remember almost nothing. That was the case not long before his death. The idea of it alone, that was something that his players could not possibly comprehend.

"He would know who my children were. He would know what was going on with me. He would ask by name, that sort of thing, so I knew that he had an interest. He would make sure that he was always ready to talk to an ex-player, welcoming his presence anytime," Don Eggleston (1969-71) said in 2011. "You knew that. That was nice. It was a resource. I knew it was a resource if you needed it but even if you never had to call it, it was somewhat of a comfort to know that resource was there."

Ed Geth ('92-'96) remembered his former head coach, who passed away on Saturday night at the age of 83, encouraging him to lose weight after basketball, giving him some things he'd found worked for him in the past. Geth had often struggled with that. He asked for pictures of Geth and his family, "for the secretaries," he would say.

"That's a little bit of the macho in him trying to make me feel like it's just for the secretaries but deep down, I think he enjoyed it," Geth said in 2010. "I think he enjoyed seeing what the young men in his program produced, how they went on later in life. He called every single person that ever played for him at least once a year. Ten years after I finished playing for him, I would be riding on a summer day and my cell phone would ring and he'd say, 'Hey, it's Coach Smith,' and I'd be like, 'Hey, Coach!' He just called to check on me, see how I was doing.

"That was the gentleman side of Coach because at that point, what more could I do for him as far as basketball? I wasn't going to win him any more games so he doesn't really have to do that. That made me think, 'Wow, he doesn't have to do it, but he cares enough to do it.'"

He didn't just check in, either. His players often would often seek his guidance on anything from whether or not to go to graduate school, which career opportunity would be best or, of course, how to get into coaching.

"He helped me immeasurably early on in my career. I thought I wanted to coach, so I coached Chapel Hill High School for a season and then I went to Virginia Commonwealth. He was very much involved in helping me get the job," Dick Grubar ('67-'69) said in 2011. "Then I went to Florida for another job and he had his fingerprints all over it.

"Even when I got out of coaching, getting back into North Carolina, he got me hooked up with some people to get into business. So he was always there. He never stepped away and he had his fingerprints all over my career."

It's one of the biggest reasons his former players, to this day, still adore him as much as they do. He showed them loyalty and love from the moment they stepped on campus until the moment he could no longer do so, because his mind had betrayed him.

One thing you often hear about Smith is that he was a great coach and basketball mind -- and he was -- but that he was an even better person. No doubt Smith had at least some semblance of an ego buried down in the depths of his midwestern sensibilities, one that wanted to take credit for being as brilliant as he was as a basketball coach.

His former players nearly always say that in spite of his desire to following a certain process and a way regardless of wins or losses, or his general unassuming nature, don't be fooled -- a competitive fire burned as brightly or brighter within him as it did other great coaches.

But the part about him being a great man? The part about him integrating a local Chapel Hill restaurant in the early 1960s, or signing North Carolina's first black scholarship athlete in Charlie Scott (one of the first to play in the ACC, as well)? Even of that, he always credited his father, saying he had a black player on his team back in the 1930s and was the real reformer. He was just following his example.

"He used to tell us after a ballgame, he'd say there's 10 million people in China that don't know we played a ballgame tonight," Al Wood ('78-'81) said in 2011. "That was one way of telling us the ballgame is important, but it isn't that important in terms of life. That's putting the game of basketball into proper perspective. We would give it all that we have when we're on that court, but it's not life and death, and that's perspective."

His viewpoints on various social issues were well-known. He was anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons, and just generally progressive -- and very liberal -- politically.

Smith never talked to his players, they said, about how they should feel about social issues.

"He encouraged us to think. He encouraged us to ask how and why. At that age, I think some people are very impressionable and get caught up with certain waves of -- I don't know what the 70's was all about, but they seemed to get caught up with whatever is popular at the time," Craig Corson ('70-'72) said in 2011. "Coach Smith was a person who said, 'Let's sit back and look at this and ask how is it going to get done, why is it going to get done,' to open it up and make it a broader picture, not just a focused, flash-in-the-pan type of issue."

Even if his players were getting involved in supporting issues he believed in, Smith always wanted to make sure that they knew why they were doing it.

Geth remembers when the students were making a push for a freestanding Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History (the only one in existence at that time was a part of the student union). He wanted to participate in a march to urge the university to build it.

Smith didn't offer his opinion during the entire conversation, Geth said. He did ask Geth how much he knew about it. Geth said, "Only from what somebody has told me."

"He said, 'Well, it sounds like you need to do more research on it. If you're going to stand for something, you need to know all the elements about it.' That stood out -- don't always just take someone else's word. Do your own research," Geth said. "That's a special memory I have is that for that one particular day, it wasn't about basketball. he felt concern as to what was going on. That wasn't too often, but it was enough to where you knew he cared about you a little more than just as a basketball player - a lot more, really."

Richard Vinroot ('62-'63) eventually became a Republican governor of North Carolina. Smith, in spite of his own opposite political leanings, saw loyalty to a former player win out as he endorsed him.

But Vinroot felt a special closeness to his former coach. He consulted him about going into the army during the Vietnam War, even though his height made him ineligible for the draft. Smith was staunchly against the war, but Vinroot felt like it was his duty. He was racked with guilt when friends died overseas serving and he was back home.

"He made it clear to me how he felt about the war, but he also made it clear to me that me living with myself was far more important in the long run," Vinroot said in 2011. "He wanted me to be happy about my life. So it wasn't so much dealing with a political issue as it was a personal crisis."

Smith himself served right after college in the US Air Force, eventually becoming an assistant coach for their men's basketball team before being hired by Frank McGuire at North Carolina. So he saw the value in that. He even implored Vinroot to maybe join the National Guard instead. That didn't work, Vinroot said, so he enlisted.

And once he was overseas, he got letters every week from three people, he said -- his wife, his mother and Smith.

"Here's a guy who sat on the bench and contributed virtually nothing to his program, other than just being another body," Vinroot said. "But he treated me like I was Michael Jordan in terms of his communications with me and his concern for me."

The letters were mostly updates about the team, and he even included tapes of games for Vinroot to listen to. Around that time, North Carolina had arrived under Smith and would go to three straight Final Fours from 1967-69. He doesn't remember much Smith said in his letters specifically, except: "Richard, you're 6-8. Keep your head down, boy. Keep your head down, and I'm praying for you."

When Charlie Scott got to campus, Smith didn't talk to his team about how to act.

He didn't make a big production out of it at all, in fact.

"He expected us to get along and respect each other, and we did. I don't recall there ever being an ethnic issue on our team," Eggleston said. "Between ourselves, we experienced some things that angered us all, some of the abuse that we saw Charlie take and some that we saw in relation to black/white issues. Our coaching staff were always consistent about that. They found it offensive, and we did. But we didn't hold seminars on that in our team meetings. It just didn't happen. It wasn't necessary."

It was a tumultuous time in history, back when Scott first got to campus in the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging and social change was in the air. Smith had his own points of view, and at times spoke out against certain things when he was off the court. But he never told his players what to think or how to feel.

In a lot of ways, what he wanted to teach his players transcended politics anyway.

"I don't remember him ever having a conversation with me or in my presence about some specific social issue. But he lived by example," Eggleston said. "We knew how he treated us and we knew what principles -- life principles and basketball principles -- that, at least at that time, intermeshed a lot, what his attitude about those were, the interpersonal relationship principles and how we were to carry ourselves and present ourselves and treat each other and treat other people. Those were rules we had, and that did its own teaching."

To a man, it seemed, the thing they treasured the most about Smith was his consistent presence in all of their lives after basketball. He helped Bobby Jones ('72-'74) get hooked up with a doctor at Duke to get treatment for a mild case of epilepsy that allowed him to keep playing professional basketball.

When it was time to turn pro, if an agent crossed one of his players even once, he would make sure none of his players ever signed with him again. And Smith vetted plenty of agents himself. And Smith never discouraged his players from leaving early -- the most famous example of this is Michael Jordan, who at first told Smith he wanted to return for his senior year. Smith told him there was no way he could to that, and that he could get his degree later. He did, and obviously Smith was right.

But he made sure his players in the NBA heard from him regularly.

"He had seen so many horror stories of guys who had squandered their earnings. Probably the first 4-5 years, all my portfolios, they were sending them to him as well as to me because he wanted to keep track of what was going on with that. He'd ask, 'Are you watching your spending? Are you saving?'" Jerry Stackhouse ('94-'95) said in 2011.

"Random times during the year I'd hear, 'I saw you play last night. You passed the ball well.' He never talked about me scoring. He always talked about when I passed the ball or rebounded well, or my defense. I would say, 'Coach, I had 35 last night.' None of that meant anything to him."

And it wasn't just the future professionals. Eric Kenny ('79-'81) said moments after North Carolina lost the national title game to Indiana in 1981, he said his head coach approached him and said, "We need to talk about your future." In that moment, a painful one for Smith -- who still didn't have a national title at that time -- he was still thinking about Kenny's future first, and that's something that stayed with him years later.

Another walk-on recalled that he asked Smith to write a letter to his mother after she'd had a bad stroke, and he hadn't talked to Smith in a while. He was almost embarrassed to ask him, but he got one mere days later. Former walk-on Michael Norwood ('86-'87) found out his 2 1/2-year-old daughter Nell had cancer in 2001. She was being treated at Duke, and the family would stop by the basketball offices in Chapel Hill to watch a practice as much as they could.

"If she felt up to it, sometimes I'd take her over to basketball and we'd watch a practice but we'd always stop by Coach's office down in the basement. No matter what he was doing, he would always take time. He'd talk with Nell or sign her hat. Even if we stopped by for just a couple minutes, he was always available to sit and talk to us," Norwood said.

She died a year later, and Smith sent long-time secretary Linda Woods to the funeral, who couldn't stop apologizing for Smith's absence (he was attending the funeral of a lifelong friend the same day).

"It meant something to me because Miss Woods were there. We live 2 1/2 hours away. Even during all that, he'd call and check how I was doing. It was a tough year and it meant a lot," Norwood said.

Wood said players developed a trust and love for Smith during their time in school such that they would do anything he asked them to do. He didn't treat everyone the same, but he treated everyone fairly. He made freshmen earn their way to certain privileges, and seniors got more, obviously.

"The number one thing that I always remember is he was so consistent with his players. He didn't waver. You knew what you were going to get from him. When you know that, it instilled a bond and it instilled such a trust that he was willing to do anything for any individual," Wood said.

"I knew what I was going to get from him. I knew what he expected of me. I knew what I was going to get. I wasn't going to have to worry about him one day having a bad day and treating me like you would have a bad day, going to go home and kick the dog. That wasn't going to be the situation. He was going to be consistent in his relationship with all of us."

The relationship developed deeper and deeper after he left college, Wood said.

It's often jokingly said that Smith was the only person on earth capable of holding Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player ever, under 20 points a game. He never averaged more than that at North Carolina, and though his pro career was superior to his collegiate one, he was still one of the better players in ACC history.

Yet he often credits Smith for where he is today, as do most of his players.

"To me personally, he was just such -- I don't throw the word 'great' around too often. But in my opinion, he was an absolutely great man," Wood said. "Just the way he handled not only me, but so many other teammates that I've seen him deal with.

"I always say this about Coach Smith, because many people know Michael Jordan and Coach Smith, and I always say Michael Jordan is famous, but Coach Smith is great."

share story