D. Smith, Robinson leave lessons

December 05, 1997|By John Eisenberg

After a combined 93 years in coaching, Dean Smith and Eddie Robinson, the winningest coaches in college basketball and football, retired this fall less than 50 days apart.

Smith, the basketball coach at North Carolina for 36 years, retired on Oct. 10, five days before the start of practice for a new season.

Robinson, the football coach at Grambling for 57 years, coached his final game Saturday in New Orleans.

It was a coincidence, but the closeness of their retirements was an invitation to hold up their careers to the same light and study them for lessons, of which there are many.

As different as they are -- Robinson, 78, is a Louisiana sharecropper's son, and Smith, 66, is a Kansas native whose parents were teachers -- their styles and successes had much in common, offering a vivid lesson in how to win the right way.

Although their careers ended differently, their shared example is one that many of today's coaches could stand to heed.

The most striking characteristic they shared was their order of priorities. They wanted desperately to win, but they never forgot that, as college coaches, they were still in the business of sending youngsters out into a cold, hard, real world.

Some 94 perecent of Smith's players received their degrees, and, although many went on to play pro basketball, many more went on to lives as doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.

Smith could be petty and saccharine, but he was the opposite of a job-jumping, money-hungry self-promoter -- the '90s prototype. Smith never changed jobs, stranding players he had recruited. He gave equal attention to his scrubs and his stars, treating all with respect.

Asked in October how he wanted his career summed up, Smith said, "He loved his players and got loyalty in return."

So did Robinson, who, amazingly, touched almost 5,000 players in a career that began during World War II.

He became famous for sending dozens of players to the pros -- quite an accomplishment for a small, historically black college -- but he also graduated a sky-high percentage.

When I spent a day with him in 1985 and asked what he was proudest of, he talked about taking hundreds of players from rural and broken Southern homes and helping give them the knowledge and civility to succeed outside of sports.

He and Smith were alike in their humanist approach. Neither was a martinet. Robinson was more exuberant, Smith more scholarly, but both gave their players room to grow.

They also shared characteristics as tacticians, most notably their emphasis on the fundamentals.

That's not to say they didn't resort to fads or trickery -- Smith invented the four-corners stall, and Robinson's playbook was full of tricks -- but both won primarily because they emphasized basics.

Smith's Tar Heels took smart shots, made a high percentage, sweated on defense, did as they were instructed and rarely gave away games.

Robinson's Tigers? They blocked hard and tackled well. How else do you think Robinson turned so many of them into pros?

"I can teach blocking and tackling with anyone," Robinson told me.

Yet neither he nor Smith was so stuck in his ways that change was impossible. They were constantly adapting.

Robinson progressed from a single-wing offense to a wing-T to a pro set. "His flexibility is his greatest asset," longtime assistant Edwin Stevens once said. "Look at how he has related to kids of so many different generations."

Smith, meanwhile, threw out his conservative, low-scoring style when the college game underwent a revolution, turning up-tempo with a reliance on the three-point shot. Remember when Carolina came to Cole Field House last year and blew away a good Maryland team with a hail of fast breaks and jumpers? The four corners was dead and gone, brother.

Smith's and Robinson's careers weren't alike in every aspect. Smith coached at a major state school. He had much more to work with. Robinson had old equipment, little help and second-tier recruits. He even laid the lines on the field at times. Smith only had to survive a poor start, five years without a trip to the NCAA tournament.

The ends of their careers also were different. Robinson ran out of gas, clearly. His last three teams were losers. He had discipline problems. There were some minor violations of NCAA rules. Attendance fell. School officials tried to push him out a year ago.

In sum, he stayed too long.

Smith got out before that happened. He walked away after taking a team to the Final Four just last season, his coaching powers still intact. Is there a greater triumph than leaving in demand after 36 years?

There are still far more similarities than differences, though, when you consider the sweep of these two peerless careers. The respect for players, the reliance on fundamentals, the gracefulness through the years -- of such qualities were these two legends constructed, a combined 93 years in the making.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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