Smith was known for running a clean program and having a high graduation rate, with 96.6% of his athletes receiving their degrees. While at North Carolina, Smith helped promote desegregation by recruiting the university's first African-American scholarship basketball player, Charlie Scott, and pushing for equal treatment for African Americans by local businesses. Smith coached and worked with numerous people at North Carolina who achieved notable success in basketball, as players, coaches, or both. Smith retired in 1997, saying that he was not able to give the team the same level of enthusiasm that he had given it for years. After retiring, Smith used his influence to help various charitable ventures and liberal political activities, but in his latter years he suffered from advanced dementia and ceased most public activities.
Dean Smith was born in Emporia, Kansas, on February 28, 1931. Both of his parents were public school teachers. Smith's father, Alfred, coached the Emporia High Spartans basketball team to the 1934 state title in Kansas. This 1934 team was notable for having the first African American basketball player in Kansas tournament history. While at Topeka High School, Smith lettered in basketball all four years and was named all-state in basketball as a senior. Smith's interest in sports was not limited only to basketball. Smith also played quarterback for his high school football team and catcher for the high school baseball team.
After graduating from high school, Smith attended the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship where he majored in mathematics and joined Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. While at Kansas, Smith continued his interest in sports by playing varsity basketball, varsity baseball, and freshman football, and was a member of the Air Force ROTC detachment. During his time on the varsity basketball team, Kansas won the national championship in 1952 and were NCAA tournament finalists in 1953. Smith's basketball coach during his time at Kansas was Phog Allen, who had been coached at the University of Kansas by the inventor of basketball, James Naismith. After graduation, Smith served as assistant coach at Kansas in the 1953–54 season.
Smith next served a stint in the United States Air Force in Germany, later working as a head coach of United States Air Force Academy's baseball and golf teams. Yet, Smith's big break would come in the United States. In 1958, North Carolina coach Frank McGuire asked Smith to join his staff as an assistant coach. Smith served under McGuire for three years until 1961, when McGuire was forced to resign by Chancellor William Aycock in the wake of a major recruiting scandal, and consequently, an NCAA mandated probation. Aycock told WNCN that McGuire told him he was leaving on a Saturday, and Aycock called in Smith and hired him later on that day.
Smith's elevation occurred amid rumors of a point shaving scandal involving UNC players. Smith was told that wins and losses didn't matter as much as running a clean program and representing the university well.
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) had canceled the Dixie Classic, an annual basketball tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, due to a national point-shaving scandal including a North Carolina player (Lou Brown). As a result of the scandal, North Carolina de-emphasized basketball by cutting their regular-season schedule. In Smith's first season, North Carolina played only 17 games and went 8-9. This was the only losing season he endured during his career. In 1965, he was famously hanged in effigy on the university campus following a disappointing loss to Wake Forest. After that game, UNC would win nine of their last eleven games, and Smith would subsequently go on to turn the program into a consistent success. From 1965-66 onward, Smith's teams never finished worse than tied for third in the ACC. For the first 21 of those years, they did not finish worse than a tie for second. By comparison, during that time the ACC's other charter members each finished last at least once.
His first major successes came in the late 1960s, when his teams won consecutive regular-season and ACC tournament championships, and went to three straight Final Fours. However, this run occurred in the middle of UCLA's stretch of 10 titles in 12 years, and in fact Smith lost to UCLA's John Wooden in the 1968 title game.
First national championship
Smith's first national championship occurred with his 1981–82 team, which was composed of future NBA players such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. After winning the NCAA Tournament, North Carolina had a record of 32-2. The other teams that advanced with North Carolina were Georgetown, Houston and Louisville. The Tar Heels actually finished in a tie for first in the ACC regular season with the Ralph Sampson-led Virginia Cavaliers. In the semifinals, North Carolina defeated Houston 68-63 in New Orleans, while Georgetown defeated Louisville 50-46.
The national title game against Georgetown was evenly matched throughout. However, with 17 seconds left on the clock, and the Tar Heels behind by 1 point, Jordan made what ended up being the game-winning shot to put the Tar Heels up 63-62. On Georgetown's ensuing possession, Hoya guard Fred Brown mistakenly passed the ball to Worthy. Worthy attempted to dribble out the clock, but was fouled with 2 seconds left. He missed both free throws, but Georgetown had no timeouts left. The Hoyas missed a halfcourt shot as time expired, giving Smith his first national championship in his seventh appearance in the Final Four.
Second national championship
Dean Smith's 1992–93 squad featured George Lynch, Eric Montross, Brian Reese, Donald Williams, and Derrick Phelps. The Tar Heels started out with an 8-0 record and were ranked #5 in the country when they met #6 Michigan in the semi-finals of the Rainbow Classic. The Wolverines, led by the Fab Five in their sophomore season, won 79-78 on a last-second shot. North Carolina bounced back with nine straight wins before losing back-to-back road games against unranked Wake Forest and #5 Duke. After seven more straight wins, the Tar Heels were ranked #1 heading into the last week of the regular season (their first #1 ranking since the start of the 1987–88 season). North Carolina beat #14 Wake Forest and #6 Duke to close out the regular season and clinch the top seed in the ACC tournament. North Carolina reached the tournament final, but they lost 77-75 to Georgia Tech without Derrick Phelps, who was injured. Nonetheless, North Carolina was awarded the top seed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, defeating #16-seed East Carolina (85-65), #8-seed Rhode Island (112-67), #4-seed Arkansas (80-74) and #2-seed Cincinnati (75-68) to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.
In the National Semifinals, Smith's Tar Heels defeated his alma mater Kansas (coached by future North Carolina coach Roy Williams) 78-68, setting up a rematch with #3-ranked Michigan in the Finals.
The national title game was a see-saw battle throughout, but is remembered best for Chris Webber calling a time-out that Michigan didn't have with seconds left. Michigan was assessed a technical foul and North Carolina ended up winning 77-71, giving Smith his second national championship due to an unforced error by the opposing team.
Smith announced his retirement on October 9, 1997. He had said that if he ever felt he could not give his team the same enthusiasm he had given it for years, he would retire. His announcement was unexpected, as he had given little warning that he was considering retirement. Smith had been the only coach that a generation of Tar Heel fans had ever known. Bill Guthridge, his assistant for 30 years, succeeded him as head coach.
During his retirement, Smith had a large influence on the North Carolina basketball program. In 2003 Smith talked to Roy Williams regarding his decision about whether or not to replace a struggling Matt Doherty as head coach. Williams had previously declined the head coaching position three years earlier when Guthridge retired.
In July 2010, John Feinstein disclosed that he had planned to write a biography of Smith, but had to shelve it due to Smith's deteriorating memory. Shortly after, Smith's family released a letter on July 17, 2010, stating that he had a "progressive neurocognitive disorder", which has not been publicly disclosed as Alzheimer's or anything else. He had trouble remembering the names of some of his players, the letter said, but he could not forget what his relationships with those players meant. He also remembered words to hymns and jazz standards, but did not go to concerts. He had difficulty with traveling but continued to watch his former team on TV. Williams said, "He does have his good days and bad."
Smith-coached teams varied in style, depending on the players Smith had available. But they generally featured a fast-break style, a half-court offense that emphasized the passing game, and an aggressive trapping defense that produced turnovers and easy baskets. From 1970 until his retirement, his teams featured an impressive shooting percentage of over 50% in all but four years.
Smith was credited with creating or popularizing the following basketball techniques: The "tired signal," in which a player would use a hand signal (originally a raised fist) to indicate that he needed to come out for a rest, huddling at the free throw line before a foul shot, encouraging players who scored a basket to point a finger at the teammate who passed them the ball, in honor of the passer's selflessness, instituting a variety of defensive sets in one game, having the point guard call out the defense set for the team, and creating a number of defensive sets, including the point zone, the run-and-jump, and double-teaming the screen-and-roll.
But strategically, Smith was most associated with his implementation of John McLendon's four corners offense, a strategy for stalling with a lead near the end of the game. Smith's teams executed the four corners set so effectively that in 1985 the NCAA instituted a shot clock to speed up play and minimize ball-control offense. Although fellow Kansas alum John McLendon actually invented the four corners offense, Smith got credit for utilizing it in games. Smith was also the author of Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense, which is the best-selling technical basketball book in history.
Smith also instituted the practice of starting all his team's seniors on the last home game of the season ("Senior Day") as a way of honoring the contributions of the subs as well as the stars. In a season when the team included six seniors, he put all six on the floor at the beginning of the game – drawing a technical foul – rather than leave one of them out.
During the 1993 run for the national title, Smith used a method that was introduced to him at a conference in Switzerland. At the conference, Smith was presented a tape by a lecturer who used doctored images to achieve his goal of losing weight. The photos showed the lecturer what he would look like if he were thinner as motivation to reach his weight-loss goals. Smith took a picture of the scoreboard from the 1982 Championship, modified it to read 1993 and erased the name Georgetown, leaving that space blank. He proceeded to place copies of the doctored photo in all of the players' lockers.
Student athletes under Smith achieved a graduation rate of 96.6% at North Carolina, and he established a reputation for running a clean program. Although athletes benefited from academic improprieties at the university during Smith's reign, absolutely no evidence surfaced showing Smith knew about the subject.
Dean Smith married Ann Cleavinger in 1954, shortly before his deployment overseas with the United States Air Force. They had three children: daughters Sharon and Sandy, and son Scott. Smith and Cleavinger divorced in 1973. Smith married Linnea Weblemoe on May 21, 1976. They have two adult daughters, Kristen and Kelly.
Dean Smith died on the evening of February 7, 2015, twenty-one days before his 84th birthday, at his Chapel Hill home surrounded by his wife and five children. A private funeral was held on February 12 at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, with burial following at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on the UNC campus. A public memorial service was held at the Dean Smith Center on February 22.
He willed a $200 check to each of the former lettermen he coached during his 36 years at North Carolina, which included the message "Enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith."
Among the accomplishments of Smith:879 wins in 36 years of coaching, 4th most in men's college Division I basketball history behind Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Boeheim, and the most wins of any coach at the time of his retirement. In comparison, Adolph Rupp won 876 games in 41 years of coaching. Smith compiled a 77.6% winning percentage while coaching 1,133 games at an average of 31.5 games a season. Rupp coached 1069 games in 41 years at an average of 26 games a season with an 82.2% winning percentage.
77.6% winning percentage, which puts him 9th on highest winning percentage.
Fourth total number of college games coached with 1,133.
Most Division I 20-win seasons, with 27 consecutive 20-win seasons from 1970 to 1997 and 30 20-win seasons total.
22 seasons with at least 25 wins
35 consecutive seasons with a 50% or better record.
Two national championships (1982, 1993)
11 Final Fours (behind Krzyzewski and John Wooden's 12).
17 regular-season ACC titles, plus 33 straight years finishing in the conference's top three and 20 years in the top two
13 ACC tournament titles
27 NCAA tournament appearances, including 23 consecutive.
Recruited 26 All-Americans to play at North Carolina under him.
His players were often successful in the NBA. Five of Smith's players have been Rookie of the Year in either the NBA or ABA. Among Smith's most successful players in the NBA are Michael Jordan, Larry Brown, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Phil Ford, Bob McAdoo, Billy Cunningham, Kenny Smith, Walter Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Rick Fox, Vince Carter, Scott Williams and Rasheed Wallace. Smith coached 25 NBA first round draft picks. When Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he said, "There's no way you guys would have got a chance to see Michael Jordan play without Dean Smith."
In 1976, Smith coached the United States team to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Smith was one of only four coaches to have coached teams to an Olympic gold medal, an NIT championship and an NCAA championship. The others are Adolph Rupp, Pete Newell, and Bob Knight.
At the time of his retirement, Smith was one of only two people, along with Bob Knight, who had played on and coached a winning NCAA championship basketball team.
Smith received a number of personal honors during his coaching career. He was named the National Coach of the Year four times (1977, 1979, 1982, 1993) and ACC Coach of the Year eight times (1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1988, 1993). Smith was also inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on May 2, 1983, two years after being enshrined in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
Smith was the first recipient of the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement, given by the University of North Carolina Committee on Teaching Awards for "a broader range of teaching beyond the classroom." He has also been awarded honorary doctorates by Eastern University and Catawba College.
The basketball arena at North Carolina, the Dean Smith Center, was named for Smith. It is also widely referred to as the "Dean Dome". Smith coached the last 11.5 years of his career in the arena, making him one of the few college coaches to have coached in an arena or stadium named for him. In 1997, upon his retirement, Smith was named Sportsman of the Year by the magazine Sports Illustrated. ESPN named Smith one of the five all-time greatest American coaches of any sport. In 1998, he won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, presented at the annual ESPY Awards hosted by ESPN.
On November 17, 2006, Smith was recognized for his impact on college basketball as a member of the founding class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of five, along with Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, John Wooden and Dr. James Naismith, selected to represent the inaugural class. In 2007, he was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame.
On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dean Smith was one of the most prominent Democrats in North Carolina politics. Politically, he was best known for promoting desegregation. In 1964, Smith joined a local pastor and a black North Carolina theology student to integrate The Pines, a Chapel Hill restaurant. He also integrated the Tar Heels basketball team by recruiting Charlie Scott as the university's first black scholarship athlete. In 1965, Smith helped Howard Lee, a black graduate student at North Carolina, purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood. He opposed the Vietnam War and, in the early 1980s, famously recorded radio spots to promote a freeze on nuclear weapons. He has been a prominent opponent of the death penalty. In 1998, he appeared at a clemency hearing for a death-row inmate and pointed at then-Governor Jim Hunt: "You're a murderer. And I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers." As head coach, he periodically held North Carolina basketball practices in North Carolina prisons.
While coach, he was recruited by some in the Democratic Party to run for the United States Senate against incumbent Jesse Helms. He declined. But in retirement, he continued to speak out on issues such as the war in Iraq, death penalty and gay rights. Although a staunch Democrat, Smith did support one of his former players, Richard Vinroot, a Republican who ran for governor of North Carolina in 2000. In 2006, Smith became the spokesperson for Devout Democrats, an inter-faith, grassroots political action committee designed to convince religious Americans to vote for Democrats. Smith was featured in an ad that ran in newspapers across North Carolina and was featured in an Associated Press article. On October 13, 2008, he endorsed Senator Barack Obama's candidacy for President of the United States.
One hallmark of Dean Smith's tenure as coach was the concept of the "Carolina Family," the idea that anyone associated with the program was entitled to the support of others. Many of his former players and coaching staff became successful basketball coaches and executives. Smith's coaching tree includes:Larry Brown, a former Smith player; former coach of the Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Bobcats; winner of championships in both the NBA (Detroit Pistons) and college (Kansas)
Scott Cherry, former Smith player and former women's assistant coach at Middle Tennessee State University. Current head coach at High Point University, also former assistant coach at Western Kentucky University and South Carolina.
Billy Cunningham, coach of the 1983 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers
Hubert Davis, current assistant coach at North Carolina.
Matt Doherty, former Smith player. Former head coach at Notre Dame, North Carolina, Florida Atlantic University, and SMU; also a former assistant under Roy Williams at Kansas.
George "Butch" Estes, head coach at Palm Beach State College (Lake Worth, FL)
Eddie Fogler, National Coach of the Year at both Vanderbilt and South Carolina, also former head coach at Wichita State University
Phil Ford, former assistant coach of the Charlotte Bobcats
Bill Guthridge, former Dean Smith's assistant coach and former UNC Head Coach, National Coach of the year at UNC
Dave Hanners, former assistant coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. Currently assistant coach of the New Orleans Pelicans.
George Karl, a point guard under Smith, former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Real Madrid, Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings.
John Kuester, former head coach of the Detroit Pistons
Mitch Kupchak, former general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers
Jeff Lebo, head coach at East Carolina and former head coach at Tennessee Tech, Chattanooga, and Auburn
Doug Moe, former NBA coach (Denver Nuggets) and NBA Coach of the Year Award winner
Mike O'Koren, assistant head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers
Buzz Peterson, previously head coach at UNC Wilmington, Coastal Carolina, Tennessee, Tulsa and Appalachian State; and director of player personnel with the Charlotte Bobcats
Brian Reese, current head coach at Georgian Court University
King Rice, current head coach at Monmouth; former assistant at Oregon, Illinois State, Providence and Vanderbilt
Tony Shaver, head coach at the College of William & Mary
Jerry Stackhouse, assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors
Pat Sullivan, assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons
Roy Williams, former University of Kansas coach and North Carolina assistant, current North Carolina head coach
Ettore Messina, current assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, used to be Dean Smith’s interpreter in his basketball clinics in Italy.
Smith was part of the coaching tree of James Naismith, by way of playing under Phog Allen at Kansas.