Dean Smith And Me
My mom, a native New Yorker and not shy about voicing an acerbic opinion on any topic, jumped off the couch and pointed at our living room television screen.
“There! That man there, Dean Smith! Dean Smith is the luckiest son of a bitch in the world!” she cried out. “He always wins! They always get the breaks! Jesus Christ, that is one lucky son of a bitch!”
Indeed, the Tar Heels had done it again, somehow coming from behind late in the second half to break an enemy’s heart. But even to my 12-year-old mind, my mom’s comments made very little sense.
How was this possible? How were the Tar Heels, even in 1971, able to evoke such an emotional reaction from my champion-of-the-underdog mother? How did Carolina demonstrate such late-game precision? Why the grace under pressure? The improbable comebacks? Why did other teams seem to want to beat UNC so badly that they squeezed too hard and lost their grip on victory?
As I got older, I began to appreciate the foundation upon which that success was built, and I remain fascinated by the master psychologist who authored it all.
Dean Smith understood human nature. He comingled pride and humility better than any coach in any team sport. He comingled the strident belief in a system with an organic, evolutionary coaching style better than any coach in any team sport. And he instinctively knew when to build a player or team up and when to break them down.
Coach Smith also understood that scarcity breeds momentum. His players, coaches and managers were all part of an exclusive fraternity. If you covered the team, even if you traveled with them, you might be able to hear the music but you did not have a back-stage pass.
Talking with Coach Smith could be intimidating. His eyes didn’t just look at you, they X-rayed you, installing and running diagnostic software on your hard drive without you even knowing that you were sharing any files.
Once, at Pittsburgh, the Tar Heels fell behind early and were not boxing out on defense.
“11:48 remaining in the first half, the score is 22-11, Pittsburgh, and Woody, the Tar Heels are not doing a good job getting a body on Pitt Panther offensive rebounders,” said your humble color analyst on the Tar Heel Sports Network. “The Panthers have 6 offensive rebounds to just 1 for Carolina and unless the Tar Heels start boxing out, this will be a long night here in Pittsburgh.”
Uh oh. Our broadcast position was courtside, right beside the Carolina bench. Coach Smith was standing directly in front of me when I made those comments, and he glanced back at me for just a split second.
A few days later, I ran into him in the Smith Center stairwell.
“Ohhh, Coach Mixon,” he said. “Well, how many games have you won lately, Coach?”
And then, just like that, his point having been made with the skill of a diamond-cutter, he was gone, out to run practice, the way a real coach does.
One night soon after he retired, his black BMW sedan pulled up right beside me in the Smith Center’s back parking lot. The driver’s side window rolled down.
“Ohhh Mick, ahh, one of your journalism students interviewed me the other day, and he was very enthusiastic about your class,” Coach Smith said.
Thanks, Coach. I appreciate that, and yes, Parker Melvin is a fine student. His paper was excellent.
“Well, Parker said he really enjoys your class,” Coach continued. “It looks like you might have found your niche.”
And vroom, he was gone.
Standing there alone in the parking lot, a cloud of BMW exhaust still around me, I contemplated this exchange. So, does the winningest basketball coach in the history and the most powerful man in the state of North Carolina think that the primary focus of my professional life, sports announcing, ISN’T my niche?
I wasn’t in his inner circle, but I am in Chansky’s, and that occasionally got me on the golf course with the hyper-competitive Coach Smith.
One spring afternoon, Coach Smith and I were partners in a $5 Nassau against Chansky and Jim Delany. On the 8th green, I faced about a 50 foot downhill birdie putt. Calculating that it will break about two feet from left to right, I stand over the ball and take aim.
“Ahhh, Mick,” my partner said, tending the pin. “This putt breaks to the left. You are lined up wrong.”
Coach! There is high ground to my left, low ground to the right, and it’s obvious that water runs off the green in that direction. This putt breaks right.
“Ohhh no. No it doesn’t.” came his nasal twang. “Aim out here to the right. It breaks to the left.”
I back off the putt and take another look from behind it, but the real issue here isn’t topography, it’s control. Do I stand on my own two legs and putt what I see with my own two eyes? Do I think for myself, or do I mindlessly take the advice of a 70-something-year-old man, just because the ball has gone through the net a lot under his auspices?
No, dang it. I’m not marching in step. I’m a grown man. I know how to read putts.
So I re-take my stance and brush the ball gently down the slope. As soon as it leaves my putter blade, Coach Smith’s voice stabs the air.
“Ohhh, you went YOUR way, I see.”
Yes, I did, and the putt stayed perfectly straight. It did not take his break, nor did it take mine. It straddled the line almost as if an impartial force of nature was officiating this little skirmish, and the ball stopped, hole high, about two feet above the cup on the left. I made the par putt and we won the hole.
“Ahhh, nice par,” Coach said with a smile as he replaced the pin. “But Mick, I see you are not very coachable.”
Perhaps not, Coach. But like so many that you touched, even from a distance, I learned a lot from you just the same.