Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith announced his retirement 20 years ago, on Oct. 9, 1997. Here’s a look back at what happened that day.
This story was published in The News & Observer in October 1997.
Dean Smith to step down Guthridge to succeed legendary UNC coach
By Steve Elling
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Dean Smith, the coach with more NCAA Division I basketball victories than any other, has abruptly hung up his whistle.
The University of North Carolina coach, after 36 heady seasons and two national championships, will announce in a news conference at 2 p.m. today that he is retiring.
Smith, 66, led the Tar Heels to a record of 879-254 and was the architect of a nationally recognized program that in 1996-97 had more players in the NBA than any other college.
Smith will be succeeded by longtime sidekick Bill Guthridge, who has served as his assistant for 30 years. The rest of the staff, including Phil Ford, will remain in place. It was not known Wednesday night whether this would be an interim arrangement while a search is carried out for a permanent replacement.
Last season, as Smith neared the record for victories held by Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, Guthridge stated categorically that he was not interested in replacing Smith.
Smith’s decision marks a change of heart. Within the past month he told insiders that he planned to honor his contract, which runs through 2001. There was no immediate indication of why he changed his mind.
He long has maintained that when his inner fire waned as a season approached, he would call it quits. The timing of this announcement would fit that scenario.
Smith could not be reached at his home in Chapel Hill on Wednesday night, but he told sports author Art Chansky in a school parking lot Wednesday afternoon that he planned to attend the news conference. Cagey to the end, Smith didn’t volunteer much.
“I guess I have to be there, it’s about basketball,” he told Chansky, who reported the conversation on a web page dedicated to Tar Heel sports.
As the word spread in Chapel Hill, students and townspeople reacted with surprise and disappointment. Patrons at the Four Corners restaurant and bar grew quiet to watch TV reports, then raised their glasses in tribute to the coach.
Smith’s final game came March 29 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. After advancing to the Final Four for the 11th time, the Tar Heels were knocked off in the national semifinals by eventual national champion Arizona, 66-58. The team finished 28-7, rallying for 16 straight victories after a program-worst 0-3 start in ACC play.
Smith was in the midst of a promising recruiting season. Last week, he received a verbal commitment from one of the nation’s top recruits, Jason Capel of St. John’s of Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md. Capel was the second highly regarded prep player to make a verbal commitment to UNC this fall.
Calls to the Chapel Hill home of first-year athletics director Dick Baddour went unreturned Wednesday night. Players and their families seemed in the dark about Smith’s plans.
“I don’t know what’s going on. Students have been coming up to me asking me questions about it,” senior guard Shammond Williams said. “I’d like to know where the rumor started.”
Williams would not confirm whether the players had met Wednesday to discuss the decision.
“Will I be surprised?” Williams said. “The man is like a father to me. I’d be hurt.”
An incoming recruit, Kris Lang of Gastonia, confirmed that Smith had called him with the news.
“He just came out and told me he was retiring,” Lang said. “He said he hoped I understood, and I said I did.”
Parents of other players were shocked at the news of Smith’s impending resignation. Many had not yet heard from their sons.
“I’m here shaking my feet, twiddling my thumbs, hoping it’s not true,” said Kathy Jamison of Charlotte, the mother of junior All-America forward Antawn Jamison.
“I hope it’s not true. Antawn really loves Dean Smith. [Antawn] hasn’t called me yet. I would hope that if it’s true, that Antawn would call me.”
John Brooker of Sandersville, Ga., whose son, Michael, is a redshirt freshman, hadn’t heard anything from his son as of late Wednesday, either. Still, the scenario didn’t sound improbable based on what Smith said during the recruitment of his son two years ago.
“He always said that if he wasn’t excited about coaching, he’d just up and call it quits,” John Brooker said. “I asked several times during the recruiting process how long he planned to coach, and he wouldn’t promise me anything.”
After the Tar Heels struggled early in the conference schedule last season, Smith went out in a blaze of glory.
In a historic moment that Smith characteristically downplayed, he broke Rupp’s mark of 876 NCAA career wins March 15 with a 73-56 victory over Colorado in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Winston-Salem.
After the momentous win, Smith preferred to talk about the legion of former players who showed up for the event. For weeks, as the inevitable date with history steadily approached, he had declined to talk about Rupp and the record.
“All the players and fans share in it,” Smith said after the game. “Breaking the record was never a goal. I’m not goal-oriented in that way.”
Smith’s teams have compiled an NCAA-record 27 consecutive 20-victory seasons.
Smith did more than break records; he broke down barriers. He was among the first major-college coaches in the South to recruit a black player – Charlie Scott – and his coaching schemes were copied internationally. Among his innovations were the four corners offense, the “scramble” defense and foul-line player huddles.
“We need more Dean Smiths in college basketball,” former UCLA coach John Wooden said Wednesday night.
Smith’s teams were known for furious last-minute rallies that resulted in bitter heartbreak for more than a few opposing players and coaches. There probably will be more of the same today in Chapel Hill.
Staff writers Steve Politi and Rick Dorsey and The Associated Press contributed to this report.