Near the end of fall quarter of my freshman year, I went to the Wooden Center to watch our Women's Volleyball team play an early round NCAA playoff match against LMU. The relatively few Bruin fans at the volleyball match were outnumbered by the LMU fans that night because right across Bruin Walk, our basketball team was hosting the North Carolina Tar Heels at Pauley. When I later expressed my frustration to a friend that went to the early season non-conference basketball game instead of the important NCAA Tourney WVB match, he was surprised that I was upset.
"It was North Carolina. That's a big deal".
He was right about that part.
U.C.L.A. Fans know a little something about basketball legends.
The college basketball world and the North Carolina Tar Heels in particular lost their own this past weekend when legendary coach Dean Smith passed away at the age of 83. From the UNC official site:
Former University of North Carolina head men's basketball coach Dean Smith died Saturday evening in Chapel Hill. He was 83 years old.
"Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children," the Smith family said in a statement. "We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public. Thank you
Dean Smith is synonymous with North Carolina basketball. His tenure included 36 seasons as head coach, 13 ACC titles, 11 Final Fours, and 2 national championships. His rosters included names like Walter Davis, Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, and Michael Jordan, and over 50 of Smith's players played professionally in the ABA and NBA. Smith led the US Olympic team to a gold medal in 1976. His coaching tree includes Larry Brown and Roy Williams.
But even more important than his impressive accomplishments on the court were his actions off the court. Smith was a leader in the racial integration of the ACC and the South in the late 50's. He is lauded by former players and opponents for his leadership and guidance. Michael Jordan called him "my mentor, my teacher, my second father". Most impressively, 95% of Coach Smith's players earned their college degree.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, perhaps Smith's greatest rival, had this to say on learning of Smith's passing.
"Obviously, I knew he'd been sick. I knew he was in tough shape, but for some reason I never thought about him dying." He paused. "Maybe that's because he's one of those people who you think is going to live forever." He paused again, and there was a catch in his voice when he continued. "Of course he will live forever. Not because of what he did but because of what he taught."
You can read more tributes to Coach Smith's life collected at the SB Nation site Tar Heel Blog here.
I know that U.C.L.A. fans can understand Carolina's reverence for Coach Smith. I have always admired UNC for its combination as an excellent public institution and its outstanding athletic tradition, and no sport typifies that more at UNC than basketball. I'm sure that many in our BN community have memories of battles with Smith's teams over the years. For us, there will only be one Coach, but Dean Smith was truly a special man and coach.
Our thoughts are with Dean Smith's loved ones and with all of the Tar Heel family as we mourn Smith's passing and celebrate his incredible life.