Dean Smith: Ties That Bind

This is the difference. Right here. If you want to know the difference between Dean Smith and every other college coach, look at this picture.

Look at it and imagine what the 56-year old coach looked like 70, 80 steps down the hallway of the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Compare that to his expression here with his players. That’s the difference. The place where he was and the place where he is now, that’s what makes Dean Smith special.

At the other end of that hallway are Dean Smith’s basketball demons. Well, that’s probably too dramatic. Those are the shadows of his career. The feelings of inadequacy and failure. The words of detractors and a scoreboard that proves they might be right.

But during that walk, something interesting happens. The unrelenting microscope that was burning a hole in his pride is turned outward and changes its focus as he nears his men. The disappointment of a season-ending loss melts away and he welcomes a different state of mind: Interest in other people. Care. Compassion. Family. It’s the opposite of where he was those 70, 80 steps before. It’s the light creeping into the be-all end-all cave of college basketball coaching and revealing a real man who enjoys the company of friends and family without worrying about the fact that he just finished another basketball season one, two, three games too early.

This is something you don’t often see in wildly successful people like Smith. The ability to disconnect and then reconnect in a different way. To value things outside of the prevailing definition of success. To not be possessed by his craft but instead by meaningful relationships with those you care about.

“Certainly he was a great competitor and he didn’t like to lose but I think it always helped to see those former players to come back and knowing that we were there to support him,” Jeff Wolf said. “It goes back to that family atmosphere that after those tough losses, be it in life or on the basketball court, you could look to family to bring you out of that disappointment and sense of failure.”

This is what some people don’t get about Smith and what he built at North Carolina. This is what makes some people angry about it. How can he be the man competitive enough to build one of the most successful college basketball programs ever but also someone who can turn turn his back on that need to win? It’s not legit. It can’t be.

Wolf, who is standing to Smith’s right in the picture, has a hard time placing this image when he first sees it. He’s been back to see Carolina play countless times and has spoken with Smith afterward on almost as many instances. There are a lot of hallways that look like this one, from Greensboro to Chapel Hill to Winston Salem to New Jersey, and this grouping isn’t unique. He and O’Koren were roommates and are still close. Matt Doherty and Jimmy Black were often around. The photo could’ve taken place after any number of games.

What’s funny is Wolf’s first guess is that this was after one of Smith’s historic wins. He thinks maybe win 400. That he and his former roommate, O’Koren, had come back to pay tribute to the coach. Jeff and Mike often come to games together so this would’ve made sense. Then again, 400 might have come while he was actually on the team.

O’Koren is equally confused. His guess was after a formal event—maybe at the Carolina Inn—honoring the coach, but he immediately realizes he would’ve been wearing a coat himself if that were the case.

This isn’t what happened at all though. This was actually after one of Smith’s most painful losses—a 79-75 loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight in 1987. It was the end of a 32-4 season when a lot more was expected of the Heels. Led by guys like Kenny Smith, Joe Wolf, Dave Popson, Jeff Lebo, Scott Williams, Steve Bucknall, J.R. Reid, this team was stacked with future NBA players and very, very good. This was a team that didn't lose often and only barely when it did, with its first three losses of the season coming by a total of eight points.

If you look through Hugh Morton’s photo archives you’ll find a lot of photos of players in the locker room after this game in deep thought, distraught, despondent. This was a hard loss. This isn’t one of those photos, though it had every right to be. When Smith made it to the end of the hallway he could’ve let the last 40 minutes ooze out onto everyone else but the same “Coach” you got after his 400th win was the one you got after Syracuse. Smith didn’t care about basketball right now. Instead he was checking on his former players to make sure they were doing OK. How is their job going? How is their family? How is that one random friend who happened to be around during that recruiting trip he was on?

"I always was amazed even after a tough, bitter loss against a good team, he was always classy," O'Koren said. "It's not that he accepted losing but he took it in a great way. He didn't show all the stress on him. He understood. He was ready to see some of the old guys that came back to see the game. He gave us a lot of time in the back afterward. You didn't know what might have been going on inside, the pain or the stress he had. He was always welcoming to us to come back and talk to him."

That’s the difference. That was Dean.

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If it were possible for an accent to tell the story of your disposition, Mike O'Koren's would. His thick New Jersey cadence unfurls sentences in a way that lets you know he doesn't get worried by much and frankly doesn't get why others would.

This can all change quickly, however. One voicemail from Dean Smith or a meeting with him in the hallway after a game and O'Koren tightens up. It's hard to explain the why here because this isn’t something Smith tries to put out there, instead it’s a byproduct of his presence and who he is. It's like a father-son relationship, only if your dad was the best ever at what he did and you wanted to make him proud.

O'Koren, now an assistant coach at Rutgers, knew Smith would be proud of him no matter what he did, but he wanted him to be right in doing so. He wanted the man who invested so much time into him to feel good about that investment.

"I don't know if we changed or he changed or the fact you were older it changed, all I remember is every time I spoke to him I always had a little nervousness in me," O'Koren said. "He was just that kind of guy. He was that kind of coach, that kind of man. You always wanted to do things the right way when you spoke to him. I don't know, he always brought the nerves out in me and I'm one of the looser guys I know. For me, he kept you on your toes and he didn't even try."

These postgame meetings were casual but, even as adults, there was a layer of reverence for Smith that sets the tone for the conversation. No matter how old he got or what he'd done in his life, O'Koren says he'd never talk to Smith like a colleague per se. You knew you could talk to Coach about anything but you wanted to treat him the way he deserved to be treated.

"That's how I always felt. That's the utmost respect you have for him," O'Koren said. "You always felt like you could pick his brain and gather some knowledge for what you were doing now in your life. No matter if it was coaching, playing, toll collector, whatever, it didn't matter. After you were done and your conversation was over, you always felt like you were a little smarter for it. You get a guy with his knowledge and you see his experience he's had over the years, whenever you get a chance to speak with him, it was always a quality conversation and you could always learn from it."

O'Koren and Wolf tried to make it back to as many games as they could. If there was a big game and they had the means to get there, they normally would. This particular game against Syracuse was close to O'Koren's home so Wolf stayed with him and they went to the game together. O'Koren was a few years into his NBA career and Wolf had just gotten back from playing in Japan and was working for Wachovia Bank in Durham.

O’Koren, Wolf, Doherty and Black weren’t alone in wanting to talk to Smith after the game. He had plenty of other obligations and people waiting on him, so no one person got much time with him but all parties made the most of it.

"He had the uncanny ability where if you spent three minutes with him, you felt like you spent three hours," O'Koren said. "He'd pop questions on you and make sure you were doing things the right way and if you were playing, keep working on your game. If you were coaching, keep watching tape. Check in with your family and friends. You'd spend three minutes with him and walk away thinking, 'Wow, I just spent an hour with Coach Smith after the game,' but it wasn't."

Wolf says Smith's legendary memory would pop up most frequently in these encounters.

“He would surprise you a lot of times by asking you, certainly he asked about my parents and my family because they’d gotten to know him very well through my recruitment and them coming down and watching me play," Wolf said. "But I remember one time distinctly, I saw him and he asked me about a high school teammate that he had met briefly, he asked me, ‘How’s Dan doing?’ And this had to be 10 or 15 years later and to think he had remembered my high school teammate’s name from that long ago through casual conversations, shows what kind of mind he had.”

And the last name of Dan? It takes Wolf a second to remember.

“It was a guy I’d grown up with… It was Dan Miller," Wolf says. "See, my memory isn’t as good as Coach’s.”

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Matt Doherty never played a single game with Wolf or O'Koren. Most of the players who form these small rings after Carolina games never played with each other. It didn't matter though. That didn't stop their ability to connect when they saw each other. They were all Tar Heels.

This was a byproduct of Smith, too. This was something else he wanted. He wanted his program to not be fragments of different classes but one seamless flowing unit. He wanted Tar Heels to be Tar Heels.

"I was recruited by Mitch Kupchak and then I recruited Matt Doherty," O'Koren said. "We were all part of it. Even though it was a 12-year span, we became friends and became part of that Carolina family. He oversaw that. He made sure that happened. It was always that family aspect and something he wanted to get across."

O'Koren recalls early in his pro career playing a game against Bobby Jones's team. He'd never met Jones but before the game started, he walked over to his side of the court to introduce himself, unsure of how it might go.

"He was as nice to me as anybody and I had never met him. That's how it really was," O'Koren said. "Then you do that with the younger guys who are coming up. I know Brian Reese and (Derrick) Phelps. I see them now and we talk and I am to them maybe what Bobby was to me. Shammond Williams down at Tulane is a guy I love. He's like a little brother to me. It's great. That's how it is and that's how it should be."

Wolf says the idea of passing it on to the next generation is what was expected of him when he was there. It’s something he tries to continue doing today and it’s something he’s proud of.

“I can’t overemphasize the sense of family,” Wolf says. “It doesn’t matter if you played at Carolina in the 1960s or the 1990s or 2010, we’re all interconnected and all part of that family and hopefully the young guys today still feel that because it’s a special feeling as players, we see those guys out there on the court representing North Carolina.”

Some 16 years after he coached his last game, the tune surrounding Dean Smith hasn't changed. There's no chink in the armor. The people who are convinced it couldn't be legit are still searching for a player unwilling to drop everything and spend a half-hour telling you why they were lucky to have played for Dean Smith. That’s the difference.

"People who have never been a part of it either don’t understand it or are jealous of how the Carolina basketball family is actually a family," Wolf said. "It all comes down to Coach Smith. Those of us who are lucky enough to play for him understand it and a lot of times other people can’t but that’s OK. We understand it and we’re proud of it. It’s one of the best decisions of my life to play for him and be part of this program.”



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This is an excerpt from the February 2015 Issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

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