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I've been lucky enough to have been around great coaches all my life. Growing up, I watched my father coach football, baseball, basketball, and track at Emporia High School in Kansas.
From an early age I hung around his practices and traveled with his teams to many road games. I developed a love for athletic competition and also took in the enjoyment and fulfillment my father derived from being a teacher and coach. I saw that he respected the sports he coached-he took the rules very seriously-and he took an interest in the lives of his players that extended beyond the playing field. He was very competitive, but he never let a yearning to win trump sportsmanship or a need for team discipline. He wasn't afraid to stand up for what he thought was right-in sports and in more important matters of social justice-even if it was unpopular with many and threatened to hurt his career. He was a man of courage and goodwill. His influence on me was such that I knew from the time I started school that I wanted to grow up to be a coach and a teacher.
I confess I was a much more demanding coach than my father. I assume that I inherited that from my mother. She was a teacher, and she ran her classrooms with a firm hand. She was also good at making sure things were kept in perspective. There's naturally a lot of excitement and anticipation surrounding games in a coaching household, and she had a knack for settling us down and putting things in proper order. The games were fine with her; in fact she enjoyed them. But academics came first. Any neglect of schoolwork, no matter how slight, meant there would be no sports for me until the problem was corrected. It was a simple rule, strictly enforced. I knew from day one that she meant business and that she was right. Aside from my Kansas upbringing, I was greatly influenced by the coaches for whom I played in high school and college and for whom I later worked. I played basketball at the University of Kansas for Dr. Forrest ("Phog") Allen and his talented assistant coach, Dick Harp. Dr. Allen was a terrific motivator, and Coach Harp was a brilliant strategist and teacher. They formed a powerful coaching tandem. I was fortunate to stay on after graduation as an assistant coach while waiting for my orders to report for duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. I worked with Coach Harp in coaching the freshman team and then tried to assist him and Dr. Allen with the varsity practice. I was in Germany with the Air Force when I was asked by Bob Spear to join him as his assistant coach at the brand-new Air Force Academy, starting with the first class in 1955. It turned out to be a great opportunity for me. Our players at the academy were smart, tough, and dedicated. They learned quickly, and that was good because our practice time was limited as the result of the academic and training demands made on them. The cadets weren't as big or quite as quick or athletic as the players we competed against, so Bob and I did a lot of tinkering and experimenting in searching of ways to level the playing court. He allowed me to put in some of the pressure defense we ran at Kansas, and we came up with a matchup zone that I later took with me to North Carolina. We ran a ball control offense, which included much cutting, screening, and intricate passing, but we also ran the fast break at every available opportunity. It was a basketball laboratory-and great fun. The Air Force Academy under Bob Spear upset many nationally prominent teams. Bob always encouraged me to go to basketball clinics to learn what other great coaches were teaching. I spent an entire afternoon in 1956 talking with Oklahoma State coaching great Henry Iba. After I asked him a question, he said he remembered me from playing at Kansas and invited me to his room to talk basketball. When that session ended, my notebook was full of notes about Mr. Iba's excellent, sagging man-to-man defense and his ball control offense. While we later preferred the opposite approach at North Carolina-pressure defense and a fast-paced offense-Mr. Iba's style was highly successful. Later, when I was Frank McGuire's assistant at North Carolina, I was privileged to know Long Island University's legendary coach Clair Bee, who taught me some basketball as well as invited me to contribute to the basketball book he was writing for his close friend Coach McGuire. After I left the Air Force Academy in 1958 to become the assistant coach at North Carolina, Frank McGuire was my head coach for three seasons. He was very much into the psychology of athletics and was quite adept at motivating his players. He had never studied psychology; it just came naturally to him. He also had a keen eye for judging talent, one reason he was such an accomplished recruiter. Of course my coaching philosophy probably has been most influenced by the men who were my assistant coaches during my thirty-six-year tenure as head coach at North Carolina. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours together watching tapes, planning practices, working on the practice floor, and just talking basketball. I took a little bit from all these people and others as well. So what does it all amount to, everything I took away and everything I added? Like most people, I never gave much thought to defining my personal philosophy, but I admit I was stubborn about what I believed to be right. Basketball is a beautiful game, and I had a vision of how it should be played and how our program should be run. That vision involved our coming together as a team, putting team ahead of self, first and foremost, and being smart and hardworking. We were tough on our freshmen, as you'll read in a later chapter on recruiting. We believed we had to take them out of the bad habits they had formed in high school, often with their coaches' blessing. It was understandable because the young men we're talking about were almost always the best players on their high school teams. In ridding them of bad habits, we tore them down in order to build them back up. Unlike business offices, where the same staffs might be together for several years or longer, college basketball teams change each year. In my thirty-six years as North Carolina's head coach we never had the same team return. The addition or subtraction of just one player can have an enormous impact on a team's chemistry, not to mention its ability. With input from my assistant coaches, I decided what offense, defense, and overall plan we would try to use with each particular team. We made adjustments each year, depending on our personnel, and an annual goal was to disguise our team's weaknesses and accentuate its strengths. For instance, our 1996 team was extremely young. Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, with my full blessing, had decided to sign lucrative NBA contracts after they completed their sophomore seasons in 1995. (Jerry has since earned his college degree, while Rasheed is still working on his.) It was a wise decision for Jerry and Rasheed. Nevertheless, their departure left us with a lot of holes. We had three freshmen in our top six players. We decided that our best approach for that particular team was to simplify things. We didn't put in our complicated defensive traps and presses until much later in the season, and not all of them even then. Offensively we generally believed in a freelance approach, by which I do not just mean going one-on-one. Our freelance offense had few rules, but it was not easy for young players to grasp because it involved much moving without the ball and screening. It may seem counterintuitive, but for this young team, we put in a more structured offense. Our coaches and players preferred to pressure and trap on defense and to push the ball on offense. The style was fun to teach and play. But when the personnel wasn't suited for that style, we didn't hesitate to change to something the players could do better, although we always looked to fast break for easy baskets. That was one of our staples. We didn't fear change even in the midst of the season. When your goal is to put your players in the best position possible for them to be successful, there's a time to be stubborn and a time to be flexible. In teaching our players, I tried to concentrate on the process rather than the result. I think it's the best way to teach. If a coach starts out on the first day of practice talking about winning, that approach can actually get in the way of winning. Building a team takes patience and planning. We went through the process step by step, no shortcuts. We repeated drills until good habits were established. We stressed sound fundamentals. We drove home the point that basketball is a team game and the team members need to depend on one another. We talked about the soundness of putting the team first. We taught the players not to dwell on the consequences of failure. We valued each possession, and I encouraged the players not to look at the scoreboard until it became smart to do so with a few minutes left, although that was difficult for them to do. We went to great lengths to reward unselfish behavior, and we profusely praised those acts that we wanted to see repeated. Of course confidence helps, no matter what you're trying to accomplish, but false confidence and hubris don't pay off. I've seen basketball players strut around and act cocky when in reality they are scared out of their wits. I wanted our players to be quietly confident. False praise as a weapon to build confidence? I didn't believe in it. Certainly I wasn't going to tell a poor rebounder that he was doing a good job rebounding. That is more manipulation than effective teaching. A person isn't going to wake up one morning and suddenly become confident. It's not that easy. Words aren't going to do the trick. Confidence must be earned. It takes time, work, dedication-on the part of the teacher and the pupil. A former college player told me his college coach had belittled his shooting for four years, admonishing him, "Don't shoot unless you have a layup because you're the worst shooter I've ever coached." During the player's senior season his team was down one point to a conference opponent with one second to play, and he was on the foul line to shoot a one-and-one that would decide the game's outcome. During a time-out called by the opposing bench the player's coach suddenly told him a different story: "You're the best shooter I've ever seen. There's no doubt in my mind you're going to knock these shots in. Just go out there and be confident." The player took his place on the foul line and looked over at his bench. He saw his coach slumped over in his chair, eyes closed, fingers on both hands crossed. The player burst out laughing. His first shot was so hard that it bounced off the backboard and into the basket. He also made the second shot to help his team win by one point. In practice the next day the coach said, "Nice going last night, but I still don't want you shooting anything but layups." Confidence can be as fragile as an eggshell. Coaches can't talk players into being confident, although praising players when praise is deserved can help them become more confident. But they can do the reverse if they tear players down with criticism. Then self-confidence may never bloom. It's entirely possible that I was too critical, especially early in my coaching career. I was too much of a perfectionist. At some point I realized that our execution wasn't going to be perfect. Basketball is not a game of perfection. Mistakes are part of it. Thorough preparation does wonders for anyone's confidence. We tried to put our players through every situation in practice that they might experience in a game. For instance, we would give our second team a fifteen-point lead with five minutes on the clock to see if our starters could go to their "hurry-up" offense and overcome it. The first team pressed and gambled on defense, shot three-pointers on offense, and if it missed, it fouled the defensive rebounder. (A team's best rebounders usually are not its best foul shooters.) When a situation came up like this in a game, I could say to them, "We've done this before in practice. Let's go out and repeat it now." In such a situation, players can gain confidence from their coach because they have been prepared to face it. Hard work that results in success equals confidence. That's the only formula I have. I know of no other way. That's why bad practices really got me down. I never really learned how to handle them. "What did I do wrong to make us go backward the way we did today?" I would ask myself. Basketball was extremely important to the young men who played it at North Carolina. It had to be in order for them to have worked and practiced as hard as they had over their early years to reach the level of excellence that resulted in scholarships to a great university and basketball program. I tried to impress on them, however, that they couldn't make basketball their entire lives. Some perspective was called for. They all knew their academics came first, even though at times basketball seemed more important. There was much more to their lives than basketball, and we tried to emphasize that. I wanted them to be actively involved in the student body and to have friends who were nonathletes. My staff and I worked hard to give the players their best chance to succeed. The by-product of this is loyalty, which early on became a cornerstone of our program. Players and coaches, managers and secretaries. We all looked out for one another. We depended on one another. There was a trust there that no one wanted to violate. The feeling of not wanting to let your teammate down is a powerful one. It's an important part of building a team.
This manifested itself in every game, but especially on the road. Of the thousands of people in the building-and we usually played before capacity crowds-only the ones with "North Carolina" printed on their blue jerseys wanted us to be successful. The fact that we won so often made us the big game on the schedule of just about every team we played, especially those in our own league, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). North Carolina was everybody's rival. Getting to the top is difficult; staying there, or near there, for many years running is even harder. It takes a special group of players to handle that pressure. We prepared for that pressure by the way we practiced. We were greatly concerned about how we would play and much less concerned about what our opponent would do. If we did what we were supposed to do, the end result usually pleased us. There was no substitute for this hard work. There wasn't going to be any magic five minutes just before the game, no spellbinding pep talk from me that would catapult us to victory.
Excerpted from The Carolina Way by Dean Smith Copyright © 2005 by Dean Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 22, 2014
In this book, humble and dedicated leader Dean Smith and Carolina Basketball serve as guidance for living, working, and leading. 36 years of coaching wisdom are summarized with help from UNC graduates to show the values of cooperation and hard work. Chapters summarize playing hard and fair as a team, showing respect for each other and collegiate work. Developing teamwork was a multiyear project that has been successful for UNC hoops and influenced generations of Carolinians and people everywhere. Thanks Coach!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.