You don’t have to go very far down the Dr. James Naismith coaching tree to find Dean Smith’s name. Coach Smith played for Dr. Phog Allen in the 50’s, as a sparsely used reserve on the 1952 and 1953 Final Four teams. They beat St. John’s for the title in 1952 and lost in 1953 to Indiana–incidentally it would be the St. John’s head coach, Frank McGuire who would change Smith’s life almost 10 years down the road, by hiring him as an assistant at Carolina.
I am hard pressed to think of a more sincere and heart warming memoir than the one I found in A Coach’s Life. It is rife with history and lessons, and none of it comes off as pompous or self serving (the exact opposite of what I imagine a Coach K memoir to be like). Dean Smith touched a lot of lives and thought of himself more as a teacher than just a coach.
His practices were notoriously just as precise as John Wooden’s, and there was nothing frivolous about the drills implemented into a 2 hour practice. Everything was mapped out by time of the drill, duration of the drill and the emphasis of the drill. Before practice even began Smith would lay out the “thought for the day” as well as an “emphasis for the day.” Smith and his players were well prepared before the game even tipped off, and were ready for any situation to occur during game time. In his retelling of the 1993 Championship game, Smith talks about scouting Michigan after defensive rebounds, and how they set Michigan to use all their time outs before Chris Webber would make his infamous mistake near the end of the game.
It is a great book that not only talks about events, but the reader gets some insight into coaching in the NCAA and how college basketball changed over time. Coach Smith doles out some free philosophy that doesn’t come off as advice or browbeating. You can tell he really cared about using the game to teach young men about life, and that he really cared about his players. Jerry West once remarked that former UNC players had an allegiance to Dean Smith that was almost scary.
There is a lot of wisdom to glean from this book, as the reader follows Smith from Emporia to Topeka to Lawrence, and eventually to Chapel Hill. Smith lead a long and fruitful life that inspired everyone he came across to be better people. You’ll be hard pressed to find any of your favorite players or coaches who in some way weren’t indirectly affected by some of Dean Smith’s caching innovations.
Smith popularized the run and jump trapping defense, the fist as a tired signal, the four corners offense, timeouts after baskets (in the college game), pointing at the player who gave the scorer an assist, and believe it or not, wrist bands. The reason we see players huddling up during dead balls, is because Coach Smith wanted his players to discuss the next defensive play call. Smith’s basketball philosophy was that basketball was a team sport and that if a player wanted individual recognition then he “should play golf, tennis, or run track.” Sometimes he would make players play 1 on 5 during practice just to prove his point.
Coach Smith was the ultimate coach’s son. His father was his high school basketball coach, and his mother was a teacher. Smith lettered in high school as a catcher, a point guard, and a quarterback, which seemed to only groom him to be a leader someday.
Although Dean Smith reached 11 Final Fours, including 2 national titles, 23 straight NCAA appearances, and 13 straight Sweet Sixteen visits, Smith is most proud of his players’ accomplishments, saying that “Players win games and coaches lose them.”
Smith was more invested in building relationships and molding men than his win-loss record. His memoir made me consider what it really means to have a successful season as there are three seasons in college basketball: the regular season including conference play, the conference tournament, and the national tournaments (NIT,NCAA). Considering that Smith’s initial post season runs intersected with Coach John Wooden and UCLA, it lends some serious perspective–not everyone can be the national champion, and each victory must be appreciated on its own merits.
While he was a coach, the UNC basketball team had a 95 % graduation rate, and 26 of his former players went on to be first round NBA selections in the draft (one of them being some guy named Michael Jordan). Even the players who went on to do other things in life besides play basketball, managed to become winners in life because of the time they spent learning from Dean Smith–becoming doctors, lawyers, and senators.
I checked out A Coach’s Life from the library, read it, returned it, and then went online an ordered a copy for my personal book collection. The book is an essential to anyone who one day wants to coach, or to anyone who just loves basketball. It is unquestionably a Who’s Who for the game, as anyone who was a student of the sport came across Dean Smith in some way or another. This book is easily an A +
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org