Dean Smith's last game as a college basketball coach was in 1997 when his North Carolina team fell to eventual national champion Arizona in the Final Four.
But even though it's been more than 17 years since Smith was the coach of record in any contest, his influence on the modern game is so prevalent it's like he's been an assistant for most of the top programs in the nation.
From current UNC coach Roy Williams, who has referred to his former boss as "one of the great mentors," to any number of Division I coaches who learned under him, to even longtime rival Mike Kryzewski at Duke, Smith is regarded with the kind of adoration and adulation that legendary UCLA coach John Wooden received.
And rightfully so.
From 1961 to 1997 Smith collected 879 victories, all with the Tar Heels, winning two national championships (1982 and 1993) and reaching the Final Four 11 times. The time span between his first and last Final Four is an astounding 30 years, during which time the tournament expanded from 23 to 64 teams.
Yet for as much credit as he gets for the wins and titles, what continues to keep Smith relevant and keeps him impacting the game so long after retirement has very little to do with his famous Four Corners offense or anything on the court. Instead, it's how his relationships with players and coaches away from the gym served as a backbone for how some of today's best coaches handle their interactions with both superstars and walk-ons.
It may seem crazy to think that something so logical as making it about the kids as innovative, but Dean Smith made it part of the foundation that we coach on today. You’ve heard me say many times that during the season it’s about our team but the minute it’s over it’s about each individual player. Well, I got that straight from Dean Smith. He spoke that way through the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and he inspired me to do the same. Dean Smith was the original players-first coach.
Calipari and Smith never faced each other in a game as head coaches, but that didn't mean Smith didn't influence the career of one of today's most successful program leaders. Calipari's blog talks of learning how Smith never let anything get in the way of his interaction with his players: a laundry list of talent that ranged from Michael Jordan to Jerry Stackhouse to Rasheed Wallace. And this wasn't just when they were in the program, but after, as Calipari recalls working at a UNC camp one summer when he learned how dedicated Smith was to his players:
If a call came through from one of his players, it did not matter who was in his office, what meeting he was in or what he was doing; she (Smith's secretary) was to break in on the conversation and put him through to the player – who, by the way, may have played for him 20 years ago and just needed his advice on something.
Smith recently turned 83 years old, and in November he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. It might have been one of his last coherent memories, as the Hall of Fame coach is suffering from dementia, according to the Washington Post's John Feinstein.
Feinstein wrote back in February that Smith hasn't had his wits about him for some time, which is something the writer first noticed almost a decade earlier. As heartbreaking as that sounds, though, he ended his piece on Smith with the most fitting of disclaimers, noting that "Dean Smith can no longer remember all the lives he touched. But he should be remembered every single day—on his birthday, today and forever."
Smith had an arena named after him while he was still coaching, but his legacy will live on far beyond the on-campus Dean E. Smith Center that UNC packs for every home game. He'll be remembered in every situation where a basketball coach takes the time to think about his players before worrying about the scoreboard or the stat sheet.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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