News of Dean Smith's passing gave me pause to consider the weight of his contributions to college basketball. John Wooden may have been the game's greatest coach but Dean Smith must certainly rank second. He didn't as many national championships as he probably should have, but his teams were always in the hunt.
I take pride in the fact that Smith came from Kansas. He played basketball at the University of Kansas under the great Phog Allen. He was offered the Kansas job a couple of times in the 1980's and said no both times, resulting in two in hires of Larry Brown, a North Carolina grad and Roy Williams, who coached as an assistant under Smith.
The two schools, Kansas and North Carolina, owe much to each other. The coaching legacy between the schools is so intertwined between head coaches and assistants that only the hardcore fans see the links. What is important to remember is that Dean Smith but Kansas basketball back on the map. Larry Brown brought a luster back to the program that had slowly faded away under Ted Owens.
Larry escaped Lawrence after winning a miracle national championship in 1988 and after Dean said no to the job a second time, he recommended Roy Williams. As hard as it is to believe, Williams took Kansas basketball to even greater heights, even though he didn't win a national championship. Roy elevated K.U. back into the holy trinity of college basketball. He put it there with Kentucky and North Carolina and for that Jayhawk fans should always be grateful.
I only saw Dean Smith coach once in person. He brought a team that would go on to win his first national championship to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to play K.U. Much to my surprise the Jayhawks upset the Tarheels. Nothing about Smith or the game really stands out except for getting to see Michael Jordan play as a freshman.
I'm sad in a way that I didn't get to see Dean implement his famous 4-corners offensive scheme. It's a fixture of a bygone era, rendered almost useless by the shot clock. It still stings when I recall how a top-ranked Notre Dame used that same offense to hold off an upset minded Kansas in double overtime back in 1974. I don't know whether to blame Smith, Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, or Irish freshman sensation Adrian Dantley for that difficult loss.
It shows how Smith's influence stretched across basketball, not only through his great players and the outstanding coaches like Brown, Williams and George Karl that stem from his tree, but what he brought to other schools and the game as a whole.