Nobody likes a good story more than Les Robinson. For the past few days, he’s been telling plenty of them as they relate to University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who died Feb. 7.
They only coached against each other a dozen times, but they knew each other quite well. As a matter of fact, no other ACC coach had a better won/loss percentage against Smith than Robinson.
Robinson, 70, is retired and living on Sullivan’s Island. He coached at N.C. State after leaving The Citadel and East Tennessee State and had a record of five wins and seven losses against the Tar Heels.
OK, so that’s not even a winning record, but it’s very close to being .500 and when you were trying to beat Smith, that’s a significant accomplishment. It also leads to a lot of other stories and Robinson is always happy to share.
Since Smith’s death last weekend, tribute after tribute has been heaped upon the legendary coach, not so much for his successes on the court, but more for his humanity off it.
During Michael Jordan’s freshman year in 1982, he had scolded his most talented player by telling him in practice one day, “Michael, if you can’t pass, you can’t play.”
Yet, it was in the national championship game with the Heels down by one with 31 seconds left, when Smith drew up a play for Jordan to take the last shot. Jordan made it, giving Smith his first national title.
According to Smith’s biographers, the maddest he ever got was in Columbia while playing the Gamecocks. Smith was the first to recruit a black player. His name was Charlie Scott. When a fan started calling Scott names, assistant coaches were forced to restrain Smith from going into the stands after the foul-mouthed fan.
Scott now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where his own son plays for Ohio State. That son’s full name? Shannon Dean Scott.
Smith was legendary for remembering players’ names and writing them handwritten notes long after they left Chapel Hill.
He also made many phone calls on their behalf, suggesting they be hired as assistant coaches.
Robinson received those calls from Smith when hiring assistants such as Dave Hanners and Buzz Peterson.
Both Smith and Robinson attended Jim Valvano’s funeral after the popular former N.C. State coach died of cancer. Robinson was then the Wolfpack coach. After Valvano was buried, both coaches left the cemetery driving rental cars. Smith happened to be in a red car, Robinson was driving one that was baby blue. Smith pulls up to the traffic light, rolls down the window and says, “We need to switch cars, for both our sakes.”
Robinson is thinking of these stories as he prepares to attend Smith’s funeral.
Smith’s integrity and his innovative style of teaching basketball are still well known. Ever seen a player make a basket and then point to the player who passed the ball? That came from Smith. Ever noticed players on the bench stand up when a teammate came off the floor? That, too, was a Smith teaching moment.
Robinson still smiles when thinking about taking his Citadel team to Charlotte to face Smith and his Tar Heels in a North-South doubleheader. After warm-ups, Smith was escorted to the court by two North Carolina highway patrolmen.
Robinson looked at the ref and asked, “Where’s my protection?” The ref replied that Smith was more popular than the governor. Then, the impartial official smiled and said before the game even started, “You’re probably in for a long night.”
Those are just a few memories Robinson has of Smith. The next time you see him, he’ll be happy to tell you just a few more.
Reach Warren Peper at email@example.com.