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."
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."
"And he took some of my money," Williams said.
Smith has had his share of run-ins with some ACC rivals over the years. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was with N.C. State's Norm Sloan. Later, it was with Virginia's Terry Holland, who reportedly named the family dog after Smith. There was the verbal jousting with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski when the Blue Devils won back-to-back national titles in the early 1990s. And there was the famous near-physical confrontation with Clemson's Rick Barnes during an ACC tournament game two years ago.
But Krzyzewski summed up the feelings of his fellow ACC coaches in talking about Smith's victory total.
"It's very difficult to identify with it," said Krzyzewski. "It's such a tremendous accomplishment. People might say he's been at North Carolina and he's had great players and has been there for such a long time. But in this situation, the praise for him rises way above what people are going to say."
Give players the credit
After Smith had passed Allen's 746 victories for fifth place on the all-time list, Ford recalled congratulating him. "He just said he was lucky to coach for a long time and have great players," Ford said Sunday. "Then he began listing some of the great players he had."
The list is one that starts with the game's greatest player, Michael Jordan, and goes from there. But just as Smith has been criticized for not winning more championships with the players he's had -- North Carolina has won two NCAA titles, in 1982 and 1993 -- Ford said that he has an even greater impact on their lives.
"I can't put into words what he has meant to me," said Ford, whose off-court troubles after he left Chapel Hill contributed to shortening his pro career. "He means so much to me, not only as a basketball coach, but away from basketball. He's a good man. He's one of my true friends."
John Lotz, a former assistant coach under Smith who later became head coach at Florida, recalled a reunion of the teams that played at North Carolina in the late 1960s. It was a turbulent time in the country, when authority figures -- such as coaches -- often were under fire.
"To a man, they said he had more of an impact as a person than as a coach," Lotz, now an assistant athletic director at North Carolina, said yesterday. "There's the public side that people see because of the media, and then there's a private side. He's a very intelligent man, a very religious man, a great teacher. And it's legitimate that he's not concerned with his record."
Lotz said that the respect grows from the way Smith treats his players, that he makes future stars follow the same rules as walk-ons, like the way he used to make Jordan carry the team projector to practice. Current players Vince Carter and Charlie McNairy can testify to that.
McNairy, a former walk-on who is on an academic scholarship, said: "He's kind of like the military, with all the rules we have to follow. As a freshman, you're sort of at the bottom of the nTC hierarchy. But by the time you're ready to graduate, he's like your best friend."
Said Carter, one of the most talented players ever to come to North Carolina: "He's shown me more about life and basketball ** than I could ever learn. Whatever he says, you have to believe, because you know you're going to become a better person for it."
Not that Smith has had this sort of relationship with all his players. J. R. Reid, who was the No. 1 player in high school when he came to Chapel Hill, was encouraged to leave after his sophomore year after not buying into Smith's system. Others, such as Clifford Rozier, have transferred.
But it is his ability to change with the times, and the players he recruits, that has led to his recent success. Two years after winning the national championship four years ago, Smith's depth was diminished so he stopped using the trapping defense his teams had played from 1961.
Starting with the team that included, but not featured, freshmen Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace three years ago, Smith also has been a little less restrictive in allowing his players to show their personalities on the court.
"He has a philosophy about the way the game should be played, but there's a difference between having a philosophy and saying, 'You have to do it this way,' " said Ford.
No end in sight
How long Smith will keep coaching could be a hot topic on the call-in shows throughout the state if he breaks the record and wins the national championship. His contract runs out in 2001, and those who know him well believe he plans to honor it and, perhaps, go even longer.
"He has said, 'I just can't go play golf,' " said Woody Durham, who has been the team's radio voice for the past 26 years and has known Smith since Durham was a student at North Carolina in the early 1960s. "I haven't seen a whole lot of change in his interest [to retire]. I'd like to think he could go on forever."
He won't, of course, but in a way he will.
It will be for the record that he hates to talk about.
"It's a record we'll all stand in awe of for a long, long time," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. "It's a record that, given the nature of our business today, will never be broken."
North Carolina's Dean Smith not only is about to tie the all-time record for most Division I wins, but he also took the shortest time to get there (school reflects longest tenure):
Adolph Rupp, Kentucky 876
Dean Smith, N. Carolina 875
Henry Iba, Okla. St. 767
Ed Diddle, W. Ky. 759
Phog Allen, Kansas 746
Dean Smith, N. Carolina 36
Adolph Rupp, Kentucky 41
Ed Diddle, W. Ky. 42
Henry Iba, Okla St. 47
Phog Allen, Kansas 48
Pub Date: 3/12/97