Volume 90, Issue 96

Wednesday, March 26, 1997

red, white and blue


Column: Dean of hoops

By Dan Gladman
Gazette Staff

College basketball broadcaster Dick Vitale calls Dean Smith the Michelangelo of college coaches.


No nickname can more aptly describe a career drenched in victories, championships, class and classes.

With the North Carolina Tar Heels' second round victory over Colorado in the NCAA tournament, Smith became the coach with the most victories in the history of the association. All of them have come at North Carolina, a basketball program which has seen zero punishments for wrongdoing in the corrupt world of recruiting. A program which graduates a high majority of its players, way above NCAA averages. A program which, when it doesn't graduate its players, launches its students into the National Basketball Association. Just ask Joe Wolf, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, James Worthy, Kenny Smith, Sam Perkins and Rick Fox. Oh, and Michael Jordan too.

Until a second round loss to Boston College in the 1994 tournament, the Tar Heels had made the Sweet Sixteen in 10 consecutive years, an NCAA record.

Smith has 65 NCAA tournament wins under his belt – a record.

This Saturday, his Tar Heel team will face Arizona and tip off Smith's 11th trip to The Final Four. Only the Wizard of Westwood, former UCLA coach John Wooden, took his squad to more (12).

Perhaps the most telling number is this record. Smith is the only coach in NCAA history to lead his team to multiple Final Four appearances in four decades. The Tar Heels went three times in the '60s, twice in the '70s, twice in the '80s and, perhaps most miraculously, four times now in the '90s.

Despite this neverending record of success, Smith has faced pressure. It began in 1986, when Atlantic Coast Conference and state rival Duke played in the NCAA championship game, losing to Louisville. It was the Blue Devils' first of seven Final Four appearances to come in nine years. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's coach and Smith's younger rival, would bring his university championships in 1991 and 1992. It was the first repeat championship since UCLA under Wooden. North Carolina hadn't won since Jordan hit a jump shot in the Louisiana Superdome in 1982.

More importantly, Krzyzewski, playing by the rules, was beating Smith in the recruiting game. By 1990, Duke was the darling choice of aspiring high school hoopsters. UNC had long held that title in the state but Duke was signing Christian Laettner out of Buffalo, NY, Bobby Hurley out of New Jersey and Grant Hill out of Virginia.

The game was passing Smith by his critics chanted. Get someone younger at the helm students yelled as another ACC championship slipped by.

But a championship in 1993 silenced the critics. The team, which beat Michigan's Fab Five, was unheralded. Guard Donald Williams was the tourney MVP.

A Final Four appearance in 1995 ended prematurely, the Tar Heels losing to defending champion Arkansas, who would lose in the final to Jim Harrick's UCLA squad.

When the Tar Heels opened their 1997 ACC schedule with three consecutive losses, the impatient critics were out again. Again they said the game was passing Smith by.

College basketball has not left Dean Smith behind. Thirty-six years at North Carolina and 11 Final Fours. The numbers speak for themselves.

In short... My NCAA predictions thus far have been atrocious. But, one last fearless prognostication. Kentucky over North Carolina in a battle of two of the most prestigious and storied programs in basketball.

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Copyright The Gazette 1997