Smith one for generations Coach: From Vietnam to LL Cool J, the North Carolina leader has changed -- a bit, anyway -- with the times, winning all the way.

March 12, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The scene was played out at the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday afternoon. There were the North Carolina players, celebrating their victory over North Carolina State in the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. And there was Dean Smith, at age 66, celebrating right along with them.

No, the legendary coach didn't hurl his body into the middle of his team's impromptu, midcourt slam dance moments after winning the tournament for the 13th time. But as he climbed on the ladder to take a last snip at the net, the Tar Heels started signaling for their coach to, as they call it, raise the roof.

So with palms open, fingers extended and smile wide, Smith started pushing his arms skyward.

It didn't surprise Phil Ford in the least.

"Here's a guy who recruited players afraid they were going to be drafted into the Vietnam War, and now he recruits players who listen to LL Cool J," said Ford, a North Carolina hero himself, who has gone from being perhaps the best point guard in ACC history to one of Smith's assistants.

That scene reinforced for Ford and others who have watched Smith over the course of his 36 years in Chapel Hill why he remains a force in college basketball and why, when the NCAA tournament begins tomorrow, Smith will be on the verge of making history.

With an expected victory by top seed North Carolina over No. 16 seed Fairfield in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., Smith will tie Adolph Rupp's record for all-time victories by a Division I coach at 876.

Smith could get the record Saturday, with his possible coaching opponent being Indiana's Bob Knight. The sense of history and drama in this possible matchup was lost on only a few.

As expected, one was Smith.

"My goal for this team and only this team is to win one game at a time," Smith said yesterday. "I'm worried about win No. 25 [for this season]."

Asked yesterday if the attention surrounding the record was becoming a distraction, Smith said: "Your question may be a distraction."

But a 12-game winning streak by the fourth-ranked Tar Heels has put much of the attention on Rupp's record. Even one who was part of Rupp's legacy at Kentucky is looking forward to Smith's going to the top of the list.

"I think it's great that it's going to be him," said Larry Conley, a member of "Rupp's Runts" teams of the mid-1960s and now an analyst for ESPN. "I don't think anyone has done more for college basketball in the last 30 years. He's a class act."

Bumpy start

And to think, it nearly never happened. It was during the 1964-65 season, Smith's fourth at North Carolina, that Tar Heels fans unhappy with the team's four-game losing streak hung Smith in effigy from a tree outside the campus gym as the team bus pulled up after a 22-point loss at Wake Forest. Billy Cunningham, the team's star, ripped it down.

The Tar Heels won three days later at Duke, wound up with nine wins in their last 12 games and finished second in the league, starting a streak of North Carolina teams coming in no worse than third. When the streak was in jeopardy earlier this season -- the Tar Heels started 0-3 in the ACC for the first time -- Smith didn't seem to care.

"I'm concerned about this year's team, not those other teams," Smith said at the time.

The numbers that include 17 ACC regular-season titles, 27 consecutive years with 20 or more victories and 14 NCAA Sweet 16 appearances in the past 16 years don't seem to concern Smith either.

Bill Guthridge first met Smith in 1952, when Smith was a junior playing for the legendary Phog Allen at Kansas on a national championship team and dating Guthridge's older sister, Joan. When Guthridge played for Kansas State a few years later, he met up again with Smith, by then an assistant under Frank McGuire at North Carolina.

"I think one of the keys for him has always been that he never gets too high or too low," said Guthridge, who joined Smith's staff in 1967, when Larry Brown went to the pros. "The records don't mean anything to him, because he believes the game is for the players. Not that he doesn't like to win. He's one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen."

Ask Maryland coach Gary Williams. He has an 8-11 record in eight seasons against Smith -- including a 22-point comeback win this year, the worst collapse ever by North Carolina -- but Williams got to see Smith's individual competitiveness close up while playing golf with him last summer in Chapel Hill.

"He intimidated me," Williams said. "He's really focused on the golf course. The way he plays, there are no gimmes. And the word mulligan isn't in his vocabulary."

Williams laughed.

"And he took some of my money," Williams said.

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