Twenty years ago, Carolina Basketball changed forever.
In 1997, we saw the first full day the Tar Heel basketball program was no longer led by Dean Smith, the only UNC coach hundreds of thousands of fans had ever known.
I remember the hastily called press conference the prior afternoon, when students held up signs on long poles that could be seen through the high windows of the old Bowles Hall beneath Koury Natatorium. One sign read, “Don’t Leave!” Another said, “We love you, Dean!”
Smith choked back tears when he spoke of his teams over the past three-and-half decades. He talked of how much he loved his players and how much respect he had received from them. He actually did not want to have a press conference, thinking UNC could just release a statement that its hall of fame basketball coach, the major college coach with the most wins in the history of the sport, was stepping down.
Thankfully, they talked him into a press conference, and media rushed to Chapel Hill from across the nation. They weren’t told exactly what was happening, but they knew a press conference about Carolina Basketball on October 9 could mean only one thing. After all, speculation had been rampant for years about how much longer Dean Smith would coach.
There was virtually no transition, no upheaval in the program, just as Smith wanted it, insisted on it and planned. Long-time chief assistant Bill Guthridge was elevated to the head chair, Phil Ford and Dave Hanners remained on the staff and Pat Sullivan was promoted to full-time assistant.
The 1997-98 Tar Heels, with four starters returning from a Final Four team, carried the No. 1 national ranking for much of the new season and made it back to the Final Four. It seemed like nothing had changed, except the legendary face of Dean Smith was no longer on the bench, always in control.
He kept an office in the basketball suite, but rarely attended games unless he took part in a ceremony. He watched on TV from home and later confided that he indeed might have quit too early. He was 66 on that day. His protégé, Roy Williams, turned 67 on August 1 and is still going strong.