For us as NC State fans, for most of our lives, Dean Smith was the Man We Hated The Most, and the guy who caused us more grief than just about anyone. But the years have taken their toll on the former coach, and he is now slipping fast into one of the worst kinds of old age – the kind where Alzheimer’s takes away the mind, leaving little behind. Even for an old enemy, that’s sad to watch.
People close to the coach say his famous memory is slipping. On some days he doesn’t recognize people he has known for years.
“That’s really the painful thing to absorb when you’re around him,” said Woody Durham, the radio voice of the Tar Heels since 1971. “Because his mind for so many years, not only in basketball but in remembering names and faces from everyday life, was like a steel trap. Now to see him losing that capability is truly sad.”
Those near the UNC program say Smith has good days and bad days. On the good days, he is his cheerful, unassuming self, friendly and engaging and surprising people with his memory of little details about their lives.
But on the bad days, they say, Smith has great difficulty even remembering people he has worked with and around for years.
- Dan Wiederer
When Dean Smith inevitably passes, an era of the ACC passes with him. Smith, ever the coach blessed with great players, was a dominant conference coach when the ACC had real parity, in a time when it was a matter of fact that on any night any ACC team could beat any other. His battles with Lefty Driesell, Norm Sloan, Terry Holland and others were legendary, as they should be. While UNC came out on top far too often for their rival’s tastes, the games themselves were rarely blowouts. Even in the halcyon days of Thompson and Towe at NC State — a duo that led the Wolfpack to six straight wins over the hated Tar Heels — the games themselves were usually nailbiting affairs not decided until the last. Beating them – the team that never said die, that never seemed to run out of miracles – was the sweetest experience an ACC fan could have. That alone serves as a testament to the kind of Coach that Dean Smith once was. Love or hate him, it’s impossible to say that Dean Smith was not a great coach.
Coach Smith often struggled when it came time to win the national championship until he claimed his first of two national titles in 1982 after Georgetown’s Fred Brown inexplicably passed the ball to a UNC player in the waning moments of a tense national title game. In 1993, he was again the benefactor when Michigan’s Chris Webber called timeout in the closing moments of that Title Game. Problem was Michigan was out of timeouts and the resulting technical foul assessed Webber put Carolina up for good. Some may say that those titles were “given” to him, but the fact is, any close title game is decided by a tip here, a missed shot there or a break somewhere in between. It is irrelevant when they happen, though all too often we recall the ones that come at the very end of a tough battle. Smith won two titles, and he and his players deserved both of them.
One place he did not struggle was in setting the record was in 1976 when he coached the US Olympic Men’s team to a Gold Medal in Montreal. In 1972, the Soviet Team had beaten the highly favored American team on a controversial play that some insist to this day was rigged. The American team, hungry for revenge, stormed back to take what was rightfully theirs, and during that Olympiad, even the most die-hard red-clad Wolfpack fan, the kind who might swear he’d not slow his car down if he saw Smith crossing the street, was right behind him pulling for Dean Smith and his American team.
Truth is, while it almost natural for a Wolfpacker may automatically think something negative when Dean Smith’s name comes up in a conversation, one should also keep in mind that it’s just sports, and that Coach Smith has friends and family that love him and care a great deal for him, and for them, watching him go away in slow motion is an incredibly difficult and painful thing to watch. For Dean himself, it must be incredibly frustrating and painful to not know the faces whom he could once recall without a second’s hesitation, for time to have passed him by and for the quiet that surrounds a man accustomed to the din of arenas filled with friends or foes. As a Christian, my thoughts and prayers go out to Coach Smith, to his family and even to his former players and colleagues. While I may never have cheered for the Tar Heel blue to win much of anything while Dean Smith ran their bench, I do feel for his situation. Be well, Coach.