Dean Smith was a legendary basketball coach who spent 36 seasons as the head man at the University of North Carolina. For most of his career, Smith had the Tar Heels as a perennial powerhouse. When he retired in 1997, he left as the winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball history. Not only was Smith one heck of a coach, but he was also a very thoughtful man. Just ask the 180 lettermen he bought dinner for after he died.
Dean Smith’s coaching career
Dean Smith began his coaching career as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Kansas. He was a reserve guard as a junior on the basketball team that won the national title in 1952 and then lost in the championship game in 1953. He also played baseball at Kansas after accepting an academic scholarship.
After three years as an assistant at Kansas and then four as an assistant at Air Force, Smith became an assistant at North Carolina in 1958 under Frank McGuire. McGuire was let go after the school was placed on probation for rules violations and Smith took over in 1961. When he took over during the 1961-62 season, he finished with an 8-9 overall record. It was the only losing season Smith ever had as a head coach.
Smith is a two-time national champion and an eight-time ACC Coach of the Year. He finished with 17 ACC titles and made 11 trips to the Final Four. Smith finished his career with a record of 879-254 and a 77.6 winning percentage. He also collected 13 ACC tourney titles. He retired after the 1996-97 season.
Smith was clearly a players coach
Dean Smith knew the game of basketball. He knew how to recruit. Smith was a legend when it came to basketball, but he was way more than just a basketball coach. In his autobiography, A Coach’s Life, Smith mentions every single player he coached at North Carolina.
“It’s not just the great ones I remember,” Smith wrote. “I remember each of them, and not just as ballplayers.” One of those players, Eddie Fogler, who later went on and coached under Smith, had nothing but praise for Smith the coach and Smith the person. “(Smith) is the best person I have ever known and no one else is even a close second,” according to ESPN.
It wasn’t even just players who played under Smith who respected him. Players who played for rival schools, such as Duke University, had nothing for respect for Smith. Jay Bilas, a former Blue Devil, paid Smith a very high compliment by saying, “He’s cast a very long shadow over the game of basketball. And if basketball had a Mount Rushmore, Dean Smith’s face would be on it.”
After his death, Smith buys his players dinner
Dean Smith didn’t just move on from his players once their North Carolina days were over. He was a coach who genuinely cared about the well-being of his players. It didn’t matter if he was a star or a role player. Smith cared about the success and well-being of his players well after they graduated and moved on from UNC.
That became evident when Smith passed away on Feb. 7, 2015. According to ESPN, Smith, in his will, directed his trust to send $200 to every letterman who played for him in his 36 years at North Carolina. Dante Calabria’s letter from Smith’s trust made its way on social media. Calabria played on the 1993 championship team and his letter read in part, “enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith.”
Former player Serge Zwikker said, “My wife opened the letter and handed it to me. At first, I didn’t know what it was, but when it hit me, it put a tear in my eye. Even after he passed, he was still all about his players.”