Dean Smith became a legendary college basketball coach. He rose in the ranks far quicker than most major NCAA coaches. He was actually coaching the Air Force’s baseball and golf teams when Frank McGuire of UNC hired him as an assistant in 1959, and Smith served in that capacity until three years later when McGuire had to leave the university in light of NCAA rules violations. Smith was tapped as the new coach. He remained at UNC throughout the coaching stints of Vic Bubas, Bucky Waters, Bill Foster, and about 17 years into Mike Krzyzewski’s career at Duke.
When you are a successful NCAA basketball coach for several decades, it isn’t terribly difficult to imagine yourself invulnerable to defeat, to scrutiny, to opposition. You begin to throw your weight around simply because you can. After a number of years at UNC, some called Dean Smith Saint Dean for acting sometimes like he was above it all, when he was sometimes behind the scenes trying to manipulate players, refs, commissioners, and even fans.
Smith came across as humble, self-effacing, certainly not a braggart, but many people sensed behind the bowed head and subdued words a distinct ‘we’re-still-better-than-you’ feeling. Some also felt Smith performed against the spirit of a fair, hard-fought game with his four-corners, his stalls, his excessive fouling, stretching the last five minutes into twenty-five…
Over the years, Lefty Driesell had a few choice words for Smith. He often referred to Smith in private as “that hook-nosed little sucker.” He once wrote a letter to Smith ordering him to never shake hands with him after a game again. The next year, when Smith approached him to shake hands, Driesell waved him away. A fight between the two coaching staffs almost ensued.
Coaches mumbled about how Dean verbally backhanded other teams as if it was unintentional, how he cleverly baited the refs, how he planted seeds regarding teams or players that he thought played dirty. Virginia’s Terry Holland once made the comment that Smith was not as much of a gentleman as he appeared to be. He said this primarily because of an incident occurring during the 1977 ACC championship game: at halftime Smith cornered Virginia’s Marc Iavaroni and accused him of dirty play. Holland was furious and he didn’t forget it. Duke’s Dan Meagher was another player Smith accused of using illegal tactics. And it made Meagher play just that much harder whenever Duke faced UNC.
When Mike Krzyzewski took the helm at Duke in 1980, Smith had already been at UNC almost twenty years. As far as Dean was concerned, Krzyzewski was just some nobody from Army. Coach K had a 17-13 record his first year, mainly because of exceptional players he inherited from Bill Foster. In 1981-82 his record was 10-17 and ‘82-‘83 was about the same: 11-17.
In 1983-84 Duke had several nice winning streaks. They also had losing streaks—one of four in a row, another of three. North Carolina had arguably one of their best teams ever that year: Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and Brad Daugherty. When they faced UNC in Cameron on January 21, 1984 it was a close game. Duke was leading 67-64 late in the game. Dean sent a sub to the scorer’s table but the horn didn’t sound at the next break so the refs didn’t wave the sub in. Dean went nuts. He ran down to the table and lunged for the horn. Instead he smacked the scoring button and 20 extra points for UNC popped up on the board. Krzyzewski objected strenuously and Duke fans began screaming in protest. But no ref would call a technical on Smith and they acted almost apologetic that his feathers had been ruffled. Then to top it off, Krzyzewski was called for a technical with a few minutes remaining in the game. Duke lost 78-73.
After the game, Coach K was steaming. He said, “When you come in here and start talking about how Duke has no class, you’d better start getting your stories straight—because our students had class and our team had class. There was not a person on our bench who was pointing a finger at the officials or banging on the scorer’s table. You can’t allow people to go around pointing at officials and yelling at them without technicals being called. That is just not allowed. So, let’s get some things straight around here and quit the double standard that exists in this league, all right?”
Duke faced UNC on March 3, 1984 for the second regular season game. Mark Alarie converted a three-point play with 20 seconds to go which put Duke ahead by two. The Tar Heels then missed a jumper. With seven seconds left Dan Meagher went to the foul line with a chance to confirm the win. He missed the front half of a one-and-one. Matt Doherty took the inbounds pass the length of the court and hit a 15-footer with one second remaining to force overtime. Duke contained UNC during the first overtime and at the buzzer it was 79-79. Jordan and Perkins dominated the second overtime and Duke lost 83-96. The Monday after the game, Meagher found a brick in his mail box, courtesy of one of Duke’s assistant coaches. He just grinned and said he’d consider it a motivator.
You know fate would decide that the Blue Devils had to face the Tar Heels a third time in the ACC Tourney. UNC was ranked number one in the nation and had just completed a perfect 14-0 ACC regular season. Dawkins and Amaker sparked Duke to a 40-32 halftime lead. UNC opened the second half with a 12-2 run and suddenly it was tied 44-44. It was nip and tuck after that. David Henderson hit four late free throws to keep Duke barely in the lead, but Michael Jordan closed that gap to 77-75. Doherty fouled Henderson again with four seconds left and Henderson missed the front half of a one-and-one. The Tar Heels regained possession with three seconds left, but Matt Doherty threw an errant inbounds pass and it was over.
Duke had finally proven to themselves that they could beat even a great Tar Heels team. From that point, the team respected North Carolina but no longer feared them. The Dean Smith mystique had been squelched.