Other than both leaving the profession in 1997, Dean Smith and Dale Brown seemingly were markedly dissimilar in their coaching styles — the usually low-key Smith, who died Saturday night, vs. the often bombastic Brown.
But they shared a trait that’s a rarity in their profession: a true passion for social issues, even if it was not always the most popular thing to do.
“I received an e-mail from (social activist/scholar) Harry Edwards today saying he knew that I was grieving, especially because, besides our love of basketball, Dean and I had so much in common otherwise,” Brown said Sunday. “That’s some very good company to be a part of. Dean Smith was just a good overall human being and the ideal servant-leader.”
Brown’s LSU teams faced Smith’s North Carolina teams five times. The Tar Heels won them all, the last in 1994 in the Superdome, a Brown-engineered game designed to raise awareness of organ donation.
Of course, it was in the Superdome that Smith had his greatest triumphs — North Carolina’s winning the NCAA title in 1982 and ’93.
In fact, Smith’s teams were unbeaten in New Orleans, winning the four Final Four games, plus two more in the Sugar Bowl tournament and three at Tulane, most memorably a 113-106 four-overtime thriller in 1976.
No matter that the two title games are most remembered by last-minute gaffes by the opponents — Georgetown’s Michael Brown and his errant toss to James Worthy, and Michigan’s Chris Webber calling a timeout when his team had none left — that decided things.
When you’ve made nine other trips for the Final Four, leaving you tied with Mike Krzyzewski and one behind John Wooden for the most ever, you are entitled to a break or two.
And, as talented as his 1982 title team might have been — Worthy, Sam Perkins and a freshman named Michael Jordan, who made the game-winning shot — the ’93 group had no big stars but managed to beat the Fab Five.
Besides, as Brown pointed out, Smith’s teams were about more than winning, even though when he retired Smith had the most victories (879) in Division I history, a mark since surpassed by Bob Knight and Krzyzewski.
“More than anything else, he enjoyed teaching,” Brown said. “One we were both speaking at a clinic in Birmingham, and Dean spoke first. I was sitting in the front row, and he stopped and said, ‘I’m really nervous now because I know Dale Brown’s following me.’ Imagine that.”
Indeed, Smith was so ill at ease about talking about things outside of basketball that he never cashed in the motivational speaking circuit.
And despite being a longtime supporter of causes such as a nuclear weapons freeze, opposition to both the Vietnam and later Iraq wars and opposition to the death penalty and, during his early days at North Carolina, a strong advocate for desegregation, Smith always resisted running for public office.
“My wife pointed out that two things I hate are cocktail parties and public speaking,” Smith said. “And then she said, if I ran for anything, that’s what I’d have to do.”
Until dementia cruelly took away his ability to do so in the past few years, Smith’s reading tastes ran toward works by philosophers and theologians.
But he never abandoned basketball, especially when there were opportunities to aid his extensive family of former players and coaches, including Pelicans assistant Dave Hanners, who played and coached under Smith.
“Coach Smith is the only guy I know with 200 kids and only four of them are girls,” said Phil Ford, Smith’s three-time All-America guard and later an assistant.
To Brown, that’s an admirable quality, especially in an era of the best players staying for only one or two years.
“Coaches today don’t get as much of a chance to become the influence on others that they did in the past,” he said. “And it seems that you have more jumping around from job to job, so there’s less of an opportunity to build loyalty in that way as well.”
There’s one other accomplishment of Smith that Brown envies: the rare opportunity to go out own your own terms.
Brown likes to cite that 20 coaches who have been voted national coach of the year (including himself) at least once eventually were fired from that job or the next one, and that 10 coaches of national championship teams were fired as well.
“Dean Smith was a gracious man who bowed out graciously,” Brown said. “He was a giant of a coach and a giant of a man. There’s no question about that.”