Monday, February 9, 2015

Dean Smith And The Confusing Legacy He Leaves For Kansas Basketball

Smith visits Kansas and Williams around 1998
As a University of Kansas graduate I have mixed feelings about fellow my KU alum, former North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, who passed away Saturday night at the age of 83. He was a Kansas native and learned a lot about the game as a player and assistant coach while playing for the great Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, who got a Fieldhouse named after him at Kansas, just like Dean did at North Carolina. Dean also is an incredibly important part of the basketball chain. Dr. James Naismith invented the game and was KU’s first coach. He coached Dr. Allen at Kansas, who coached Smith at Kansas, who coached Michael Jordan (and thousands of others) at North Carolina. Jordan to Naismith in three short steps. Coach Smith is worthy of all praise for what he did for the game.

But Coach Smith is also responsible for one of the more gut-wrenching episodes in Kansas basketball history, when Roy Williams- a long-time assistant for Smith before taking the Kansas job in 1988- departed for Tar Heel country in 2003 after 15 years on The Hill.

I am not complaining at all about how things have turned out since Williams departed back for his home state. Bill Self has done nothing short of a remarkable job in Lawrence, adapting to the changing climate of college basketball recruiting and putting out championship-caliber teams year after year after year.

The issue, and I’ve said this privately since Williams left for North Carolina, is how Smith treated his alma mater when this all went down a dozen years ago. For those of you who have forgotten the details, Roy Williams initially turned down the Carolina job to stay at Kansas when Bill Gutheridge, Smith’s long-time assistant and successor, retired in 2000. Spurned by Williams, the Heels turned to long-time Williams assistant and former Smith player Matt Dougherty, who played on the 1982 UNC championship team with that Jordan fellow, who was then a freshman. Dougherty’s three years coaching at Carolina were notable mostly for a quick decline in fortunes, including Carolina’s first losing record since 1961-62, Smith’s first year as head coach.

When Dougherty was fired just before the 2003 Final Four, speculation turned again to Williams. This was horrible timing on North Carolina’s part. Kansas was playing in that Final Four, and were still coached by Williams. Carolina brass- of which Smith was a part- knew that Williams and his players would get hounded by “do you think your coach is leaving?” questions everywhere they went in New Orleans that week. Smith had to have known that the decision would distract Williams from his game preparation. An over-thinker and preparer himself, Smith could have suggested that Carolina hold off on the firing of Dougherty and courting of Williams until after the tournament.

Yet he didn’t.

Not only did Smith not show any compassion for his alma mater and star pupil, he personally tugged at Roy’s heartstrings to go home with phone calls and in-person meetings, putting the Carolina burden right on Williams. During Final Four week. As Roy was trying to win his very first NCAA championship as head coach.

I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m pretty certain that sometime before tipoff, Roy told the Jayhawks that the championship game was the last time he would coach a game from the Kansas sideline. And I’m sure that the entire team pressed even harder to try and make him go out a winner. Because they did not play like the team that breezed past Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the semifinals. And that, more than Carmelo Anthony, is why Syracuse won the title that year. I’m convinced of that and not even the two KU keys for that run, Nick Collison or Kirk Hinrich, could ever prove to me otherwise. I imagine they'd agree with me, actually.

If Roy had won that final game, I would have let him go to Carolina with a smile on my face. But Dean Smith leaned on Roy that week- and leaned on him hard- to make a decision to leave Kansas before the championship game. That affected Roy, it affected his preparation, and it affected his players. It certainly affected him after the game.

When Coach Williams was still at Kansas I used to say, “Kansas gave North Carolina Dean Smith, and in return, Kansas got Roy Williams. That’s a pretty good trade.” Except Dean Smith canceled the trade and in doing so cost his alma mater and home state a national championship.

Dean Smith was a tremendous coach, innovator and an important man in basketball who inspired many people willing to do whatever it took to make him happy. I have sympathy for those close to Smith. He will be honored, rightfully so, across the nation and especially in Kansas and North Carolina. But it appears that he forgot where he came from at a crucial time, and that’s something Dean Smith told his players and coaches never to do. A large reason so many people are loyal to KU basketball is because of the work Coach Smith did as a player and a coach in continuing the line begun by Naismith, which makes his betrayal that week- there’s no other word for it- even more confusing to comprehend, even today.  

As Phog Allen coaches, Dean absorbs everything.
photos courtesy:,

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