Dean Smith And The Brand of North Carolina Basketball

There are no things worth adding to the recent compliments of Dean Smith, one of the greatest games’ finest coaches, who is now deceased.

My memories of Smith bounce around through scattered moments in childhood. In Atlantic Coast Conference territory, a team had to be picked by a young basketball fan. I chose Carolina.

This alone is a tip of the hat to the man who won many games, coached in 11 Final Fours and brought us tales of Michael Jordan and Phil Ford, James Worthy and George Lynch. Many more are associated with the legendary boss on the sky blue bench.

He built a brand. In what used to be ACC country — before expansion — Carolina remained synonymous with basketball. To say “Carolina” meant the game’s name came next. If it wasn’t said, it was understood.

I would love nothing more than to type out a memory of one of Smith’s finest moments. Alas, I didn’t see them. I saw the career end, like a swirl of smoke, no different than the kind that used to rise out of the end of his famous cigarettes.

The end of life is worth the reflection one had when that being is as synonymous with greatness as Smith. Efforts to end segregation, his introduction of integration to the basketball conference, kindness and the ability to speak his mind on political issues will always be remembered. It’s fortunate we must remember them now.

This era is not Smith’s. Coaches will not be praised for political activism, as no one is anymore. He did what he did in a time when it was needed. There’s something to be said for promptness.

Carolina the brand remains. It’s a logo directly connected to success on the hardwood. Smith built much of that legacy. It lives on today.

A few years ago, my then-girlfriend and I spent a weekend in the western mountains of the Tar Heel State. We took a long weekend for my birthday, a retreat in the hills.

We could nearly hear the banjos with each turn into oblivion near the Great Smokey Mountains. Once we arrived, it became clear the area offered little in way of entertainment. We toured a local town I can’t remember much about except a tall historical marker colored in the same light blue my boyhood icons — Cota, Jamison, Carter, Stackhouse — once donned.

In my home state (or properly, commonwealth) of Virginia, the markers teach about the country’s history. There’s one down the road from my childhood home. It designates the very spot Abraham Lincoln relieved George B. McClellan of his duties as head General of the Army of the Potomac.

Others across the state dictate spots of presidential births, settlers’ towns and much more.

But here, in this Podunk town full of people who were very plainly mountain-folk, the baby-blue marker stood and declared something seemingly trivial.

In this town, near this marker, Roy Williams was born. A basketball coach, welcomed into the world.

Williams learned his trade under Smith. His teacher insisted the pupil get the head job at Kansas after another former student — Larry Brown — left the Lawrence campus.

Smith and Williams most notably matched wits in Indianapolis’ 1991 Final Four. Williams won; Smith was ejected.

When Matt Doherty was fired in 2003, it was Williams who came back to save the campus where he’d learned from Smith.

Without the Dean, there would be no marker.

This is the aura of a program built in “The Carolina Way,” where a made basket immediately prompted a point in the direction of the man with the assist. It’s not Camelot — nothing is — but of what we know, the program seemed to have been built on the right principles.

It’s still a brand, same as it was when Smith ran his show up and down Tobacco Road. The Carolina blue stands for something that’s supposed to be right.

We rarely see the brands built this way anymore, despite our ever-living need for them.

I can only hope in North Carolina’s next game, Marcus Paige and company start the game in the four corners as their coach calmly looks on.

The furthest boundary of the state stretches to those mountains where the marker stands in commemoration. It’s a corner all to its own.

It serves as a reminder that Smith’s still running the point. In North Carolina, he always will.

One Reply to “Dean Smith And The Brand of North Carolina Basketball”

  1. The brand was built by in icon. He took from the best. He used the recruiting style of John Wooden and the playbook of John McLendon (the original architect of the four corners) and merged it into his own style. He created a family atmosphere on tobacco road and he shall be remembered for his dedication and loyalty to the institution. Very rarely does one see the loyalty that he gave to that institution. He was a great coach, but an even better man.

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