Dean Smith: The original players-first coach

As I continue to rehab from my surgery of nearly a couple months ago, I had some time to think to myself this morning as I walked around the neighborhood. If you know nothing else about me by now, you know when I get some free time on my hands, it’s usually pretty dangerous because ideas start to pop in my head. When I have free time, my staff and the people around me are like, “Oh no, here we go again,” because they know I’m going to take those ideas and make them run with them.

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning wasn’t one of those mornings. This morning I decided to do a little something different and reflect. I decided to think about the different people around me who have made an impact on me throughout my life and who have given me an opportunity. I thought about the people who have had an impact on our profession.

The fathers of college basketball coaching were guys like James Naismith, Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen and Henry Iba. After their time, we had another wave of coaches spearheaded by the legendary John Wooden, who we all know was arguably the greatest our game has ever seen and an absolutely wonderful human being. But one guy I want to shed a little more light on today who had an immeasurable impact on our game and a guy who I think our fans need to know a little more about is Dean Smith.

When you think about what Dean Smith did – two national titles, 11 Final Fours and countless ACC championships – and you think about all the lives he touched while he was the coach at North Carolina, you can make a case that he’s one of our game’s top two or three coaches of all time.

I can remember thinking to myself as a young coach, “Will I ever be able to coach this team in an innovative way or will I always follow the pack?” When I went to Dean Smith’s basketball camp as a counselor and began to work for Larry Brown, who played and coached under Dean Smith, he gave me the vision to make it about the kids. He made everything he did about them.

It may seem crazy to think that something so logical as making it about the kids as innovative, but Dean Smith made it part of the foundation that we coach on today. You’ve heard me say many times that during the season it’s about our team but the minute it’s over it’s about each individual player. Well, I got that straight from Dean Smith. He spoke that way through the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and he inspired me to do the same.

Dean Smith was the original players-first coach. He was the original coach who developed players, yet built a team and let those players drag the program. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do now.

Larry Brown once told me that Coach Smith’s secretary was not to bother him with phone calls unless it was his players. If a call came through from one of his players, it did not matter who was in his office, what meeting he was in or what he was doing; she was to break in on the conversation and put him through to the player – who, by the way, may have played for him 20 years ago and just needed his advice on something.

Dean Smith never forgot a name, he never forgot a birthday, he never forgot a play, a game or a moment. He had an amazing memory for his players.

Coach Smith’s foundation for his program was innovation and his innovation was caring about kids. Everything he did – every innovation he had – was done so with his players at heart.

I’ll give you a few examples of just how ahead of his time he was.

Analytics have become the craze in basketball. With everything we chart, study and break down, analytics are helping revolutionize our game. I hate to break the news to everyone that the science of it isn’t all that new. Coach Smith wrote a book in the early 1970s that talked about analytics. He detailed offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and points per possession, and he wrote of the importance of evaluating tape and grading each player per possession.

On the basketball court, what he did with trapping, the way he did it, what he did with the point zone and how his teams attacked on the fast-break were truly ahead of what any other coach was doing at the time. His on-court success backs that up. I’d love to ask his early assistants what innovative things he did that he tried but failed. To me, those would be just as interesting as all the things he tried that worked. I know he wasn’t afraid to try if he thought it would help his players and his program.

And I don’t know if Dean Smith was the original coach who hired former players to join his staff, but no one has taken it to the level he did. His coaching tree, whose branches continue to spread into our game today, is absolutely ridiculous, and many of those coaches used to play for him.

Probably the biggest example I can come up with to show you how far ahead of his time he was how he promoted desegregation. He sat at one of the Woolworth counters with a black student and a pastor as they integrated a local Chapel Hill restaurant. He helped another black student at North Carolina buy a house in an all-white neighborhood. And of course, he recruited Charlie Scott as the university’s first black scholarship athlete.

I’d like to think that in today’s age we would have all done what Dean Smith did, but if you think about North Carolina at the time, Coach Smith put his job in jeopardy. He would not put his job ahead of the rights of human beings. He was not afraid to take a chance on what he believed was right over what was popular.

I could go on and on about everything Dean Smith stood for, but as I rehab this morning and I think about what we’re trying to do here, how we are trying to be the gold standard, it basically means being innovative like Coach Smith. We can’t be afraid to try new things whether it’s how we play basketball, how we treat our children or how we run this program.

Dean Smith was truly a great coach and it can be argued that he was the best at what he did. He is a great man that our fans – whether you like North Carolina or not – need to know and remember. He impacted our game and our program in so many ways and I can’t thank him enough for making such an impact on how we do things at the University of Kentucky.