As good as they are, Smith and Fisher hear yappers NCAA TOURNAMENT

April 05, 1993|By Ron Green | Ron Green,Charlotte Observer

NEW ORLEANS -- Critics bark at eminent men, wrote the philosopher, the way little dogs bark at strangers. A more modern, more street-wise philosopher, Al McGuire, understands that. Which is why, after North Carolina won the NCAA championship in 1982, here in the Big Easy, McGuire told Dean Smith, "Now you've got a problem."

Why, asked Smith.

"Because," quoth McGuire, "now everybody will try to figure out what you haven't done."

Yesterday, hours before his Tar Heels meet Michigan's Fab Five tonight for the big beignet, Smith said, "I think Al's street smarts are pretty good."

Smith is back in the Final Four for the ninth time, back in the championship game for the fifth time, but he has won it only once, and in critics' minds, that's a big-league choke job or evidence of a flaw in Smith's coaching style. Bark! Bark!

The graying coach rarely goes directly to the bull's-eye in answering questions about such matters, preferring instead to treat them with a certain amount of disdain and just graze them, but in a recent departure, he asked, "Which other ones should we have won?"

The 1967, '68 or '69 finals, won by UCLA and Lew Alcindor? The '72 final, won by UCLA and Bill Walton? The '77 final, with Olympian Tommy LaGarde on crutches and Walter Davis and Phil Ford playing hurt? The '81 final, won by Indiana and Isiah Thomas? The '91 final, won by Duke with Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley?

Good question.

When Smith gets weary of the questions, when all the NCAA Tournament records his teams hold are ignored and that big one is thrown at his feet one time too many, he will say North Carolina might have won more had he not encouraged Bob McAdoo, Michael Jordan, James Worthy and J.R. Reid to turn pro before their senior seasons. Had they stayed on in Chapel Hill, there might have been a couple more banners in the rafters of the Smith Center.

Still, Coach, they say you can't win the big ones.

Smith smiles. "To me, the big one was the gold medal [he coached the U.S. team to the Olympic championship in 1976]. You talk about big.

"After we won the NCAA title here in 1982, [assistant coaches] Bill Guthridge, Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams were just going crazy, pounding me. They thought it had bothered me that we hadn't won the championship before that.

"I knew people were saying that. But we had won so many big games."

Steve Fisher, who will be down at the other end of the court tonight directing the Wolverines, knows all about criticism in the face of success. With him, it's a perceived absence of structure in the team's style, failure to control his showy Fab Five.

Walton calls these Wolverines the biggest underachievers he's ever seen. Mike Lupica has said of Fisher on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" that the guy can't coach. All season, media frowners have portrayed Fisher as a tweedy little twerp who just tried to stay out of the way. Never mind that Fisher's in his third NCAA final in five years, his second in a row.

So Fisher knows about barking dogs. And he says, "Most people with a working knowledge of basketball know you have to be good and lucky to win a national championship.

"Dean Smith is one of the greatest coaches ever. His players graduate; they want to come back there; they talk about North Carolina being the most positive experience in their lives. That's what we're all trying to do. He's done it better than maybe anybody in the game."

Still, Smith needs to win this one tonight, to put all of this behind him, to silence the little dogs. Do it twice and the questions can be packed away with the trophy.

And he might. The Tar Heels are playing extremely well. But so is Michigan. The Fab Five showed against Kentucky on Saturday night what they can do when they put their minds to it. And they will put their minds to it tonight.

It's a tough game for these two. But as Smith himself said, "When you get to this stage of the season, they're supposed to be tough."

And he knows.

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