Dean Smith’s gift: ‘He made you feel special,’ rival coaches say

Surrounded by decades of former North Carolina players, UNC coach Dean Smith acknowledges a standing ovation from the crowd after being honored during the Celebration of a Century on Feb. 12, 2010, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. A public memorial for Smith, who died this month, will be held there Sunday.

It was halftime, and Les Robinson’s East Tennessee State team was getting drilled by the North Carolina Tar Heels, slogging its way to a 118-65 loss and a 7-21 season in 1987. A frustrated Robinson exited the locker room to find Dean Smith in the hallway, smoking his usual halftime cigarette.

“Les,” the legendary UNC coach said, “I’m sorry about this. Is there anything I can do?”

As a matter of fact, there was. Robinson asked Smith if he could call off the Tar Heels’ press and switch to a zone defense.

“Gotcha,” Smith said.

“It didn’t affect the score at all,” Robinson recalled. “But I wanted to be able to go in the huddle and say to my guys, ‘OK, in this situation, they like to play zone.’ And when they did, my players thought, ‘Maybe our coach knows what he’s talking about.’ ”

Gestures of kindness such as that one were typical of Smith, who died Feb. 7 at the age of 83, say some of the Lowcountry coaches who fought against him in the ACC.

Robinson, former Citadel coach and athletic director, played and coached against Smith’s UNC teams when he was at North Carolina State, The Citadel and East Tennessee State. Former College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins took his Georgia Tech team to an ACC Tournament championship game victory over Smith’s Tar Heels in 1993. And Citadel coach Chuck Driesell played for his father, Lefty, at Maryland, as the Terps and Tar Heels staged memorable duels.

Robinson, Cremins and Lefty Driesell all plan to attend a public memorial for Smith on Sunday in Chapel Hill. All had begun years ago to mourn Smith, who suffered for the last seven years from dementia that robbed him of his memory.

Cremins, who coached at Georgia Tech from 1981-2000, said he really got to know Smith well through golf outings after the coach retired from North Carolina in 1997.

“By the end, I had to give up trying to talk to him,” Cremins said. “And that was really a bummer for me. I really enjoyed his company and we had a great time on the golf course. It was just terrible for that disease to hit a man with a mind like that.”

The elder Driesell, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., is the same age as Smith and always tried to call his former rival every couple of weeks.

“I had just called his office on Feb. 2, and I got a letter from his secretary thanking me for calling,” Lefty Driesell said. “I really tried to keep up with him, but after a while, it got so that you really couldn’t talk to him. I will miss him.”

Smith was beloved by former players because he treated them as family even after they left UNC.

Away from the heat of battle, that kindness extended even to other coaches, Robinson said.

Hired as The Citadel’s coach in 1974, Robinson struggled in his first four seasons, never winning more than 10 games. Then came a fateful talk with Smith at a coaching clinic. Smith asked him who his biggest rival was, and Robinson replied, “Furman.”

“Well, Furman out-recruits you, they are better at every position,” Smith said, and Robinson agreed.

“Then he said, ‘I want to show you an offense, and I want you to run this,’ Robinson said. “And he taught me how to run the motion offense. And in a couple of years, we beat Furman and Clemson (in 1978-79) and won 20 games, the best record ever at The Citadel. And it was all because of Dean Smith teaching me that offense.”

Of course, it was different in the ACC. In the early 1980s, Cremins, N.C. State’s Jim Valvano and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski were the young upstarts in the league, challenging the venerable Smith.

“At first, we were in awe of him,” Cremins said. “But he made us better coaches. We had to work harder, recruit better because he set a standard that was hard to meet. The only way we could be successful was to meet that standard.”

Smith wasn’t above gamesmanship. At ACC coaches meetings, he’d habitually arrive late, as if to remind the younger coaches of who was in charge.

“He was trying to antagonize us,” Cremins said. “So one year, Valvano grabbed Mike and me and gave a bellhop $10 and told him to tell us when Dean Smith arrived. We’re in the men’s room waiting and finally the guy comes to get us. Jimmy walks in the room and says, ‘Hey, Coach, how you doing tonight?’”

In turn, Smith’s fondness for Cremins would run out when the younger coach asked too many questions.

“Dean used to say, ‘Bobby, Les will explain it to you later,’” Robinson recalled.

Smith had a dry sense of humor, and The Citadel’s Chuck Driesell found himself on the wrong end of it during his playing career at Maryland. During a 1982-83 game, the younger Driesell had a potentially game-winning shot blocked by one Michael Jordan.

“I’ve heard of having confidence in your son,” Smith said after the game. “But that might have been taking it to extreme.”

The elder Driesell said he became closer to Smith after they both had retired.

“It’s like the CEO of General Motors and the CEO of Ford,” Driesell said. “I’m sure they’re friendly, but they ain’t buddies. I wanted to beat him and he wanted to beat me. He was tough to beat on the court and in recruiting.

“I always told Chuck, if you want to emulate somebody, emulate Dean Smith and not me. I talked too much and always stuck my foot in my mouth, but Dean was always very careful with what he said.”

One of Smith’s chief rivals was the late Frank McGuire, who preceded Smith at UNC and coached against him at South Carolina, where McGuire coached Cremins.

“Coach Smith was really loyal to Frank McGuire, even though they competed so hard against each other,” Cremins said. “They had some battles. But when Coach McGuire’s house burned down, Dean was right there for him. And when Frank got sick, Dean Smith was right there for him. I really respected that of Dean.”

Smith’s ability to recall names and details was remarkable.

Robinson recalled an incident when he was coaching at The Citadel, after the Bulldogs had won a game at Stetson. The next day, Robinson drove to Clemson to scout the Tigers against North Carolina.

“I come in the back door and there’s Dean, just a few minutes before game time,” Robinson said. “He turns around and sees me and says, ‘Great win at Stetson.’ There ain’t a coach in America that would have come up with that just before a game, that would have known that The Citadel beat Stetson the night before.

“But that was Dean Smith. He did something like that every day with somebody. He made you feel special.”