If a Mt. Rushmore existed to honor the coaches who brought college hoops to the national masses, Dean Smith’s stoic gaze would surely sit alongside Jerry Tarkanian’s sleepy-eyed, towel-chomping mug. Last Saturday in Chapel Hill, Smith passed away at the age of 83. On Wednesday, Tarkanian died at the age of 84.
Stanford’s gutsy but shorthanded mid-’80s clubs crossed paths with both icons at the height of their powers.
Stanford met UNLV on Christmas Eve of 1985 in Honolulu. The Rebels ran away with an 83-65 victory. Tark won a then-UNLV record 33 games in that campaign (he’d top the 30-win barrier three times in the next five seasons.) Smith went unbeaten against the Cardinal in five meetings between 1983 and 1995, winning by an average of nearly 19 points.
Stanford basketball’s ascent in the '90s saw trips to Alaska and Madison Square Garden replace the Cardinal’s annual invitational tournament In 1983, that event brought two of the game’s most legendary figures to The Farm. And while Art Lee beating St. John’s at the Garden moments after Ron Artest knocked him silly remains forever awesome, it doesn’t compare to when Dean Smith, Michael Jordan and No. 1 North Carolina won the Stanford Invitational.
“That was the highlight of my career,” remembered Stanford associate athletic director Earl Koberlein, who scored four points against the Tar Heels in the final. “You could definitely feel the energy on campus that week. I remember Dean Smith had such a presence. He was like a composer, a conductor orchestrating his team.”
In early December 1983, the same week Walter Mondale spoke in San Jose and Stanford football continued its search to replace the fired Paul Wiggin, the Heels showcased their firepower. The lineup featured Jordan and Perkins, in addition to Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith. A sellout crowd watched Carolina down Fordham in the opening round game.
A crowd of over 8,000, according to the Stanford Daily’s account, stretched Maples beyond its limits when the Heels faced Stanford in the championship. UNC held off the upstart Cardinal by an 88-75 score, resorting to its time-killing “four-corners” offense – college hoops was still two years away from instituting the shot clock – after Stanford closed the gap late.
A layup by center John Revelli brought the Cardinal within 72-66 with 7:09 remaining. Tasked to guard the other team’s inbounds passer in coach Tom Davis’ full-court press, Koberlein then noticed the slightest hesitation from his counterpart, Matt Doherty.
“Carolina was business-like, a reflection of their head coach,” he remembered. “But I remember Doherty had some fear in his eyes. You could tell they were a bit nervous, having to work against a team they probably thought they were going to blow out.”
Afterwards, Smith thanked Stanford for pushing his team. “They made us look slow,” he said. “I’m glad we played Stanford, because they showed us some of our weaknesses. They really made things happen. I kind of thought we were pretty good defensively, until tonight. I thought they made us look pretty foolish.”
Rare were the moments of foolishness for the Heels that season. They were supremely loaded even by the standards of Smith, whose win over Stanford marked the 500th of his career. He’d beat the Cardinal four more times en route to averaging 27 wins per year until his 1997 retirement.
The 1983-84 Tar Heels spent 16 of a possible 17 weeks ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Only a one-point loss to Arkansas prevented regular season perfection. Their unbeaten ACC record has since been equaled just twice (by the 1986-87 UNC edition and Duke’s 1998-99 NCAA runners-up.)
Think back to when your high school hosted a basketball tournament, with home fans gravitating towards a visiting team or player. So it went at the Stanford Invitational. Cardinal fans arriving early for the Saturday night final watched the Fordham Rams – coached by future Texas boss and ESPN analyst Tom Penders – face San Jose State in the consolation tilt. They formed an immediate link with Fordham guard Jerry Hobbie, who totaled 21 points against the Spartans and made all 13 free throws in his team’s two games. “Trans-fer! Trans-fer! Trans-fer!” chanted Stanford students.
These were the days when Cardinal hoops backers lived vicariously through others. The season ended with 19 wins, but the school’s first postseason trip since 1942 would have to wait another four years.***
Disappointment, the most shocking of Smith’s 36 seasons in Chapel Hill, ultimately found the Heels. Carolina put its season on the line in the Sweet 16 against Indiana. The Hoosiers’ 72-68 upset victory saw Smith take heat for sitting Jordan, with two early fouls, for 12 minutes in the first half. “Michael is going to be on the bench with two fouls,” the coach countered.
Smith surely remembered Jordan fouling out against Stanford, where he totaled fewer points (four) than fouls. But among his two baskets included a one-sided encounter with a Cardinal defender.
“Jordan just had the sickest dunk,” Koberlein said. “He’s coming through the lane, and Hans Wichary is there, feet stationary, hands over his crotch, ready to take the charge. Jordan jumps from the second block in the foul line, goes over Hans, and slams it. I remember he landed in the “A” in ‘STANFORD’ along the baseline.”
Some one-of-a-kind moments don’t happen at Madison Square Garden.