Dean Smith passed away on Saturday night, February 7, 2015. For a huge percentage of today’s basketball players, that occurrence has little to no meaning. “Old” guys like me are supposed to mourn such a passage as the inevitable slipping away of our childhood, and perhaps there is an element of that feeling within me at this time, but I hope I can make a convincing argument that his passing contains elements that resonate far more deeply.
The plaudits emanating from the sports world, including former players and friends, speak far more eloquently to the character of the man than I can, but as a young man interested in basketball, I was as influenced in my thinking by Dean Smith as I was with those two other giants of the sport (at least in my mind), John Wooden and Sam Mandich. Though many others have focused on how committed Smith was to his players, his exceptional memory, his forward-looking racial policies, or how insightful he was about details of the game, I was most impressed by his ability to adapt his strategy to the talent he had on his current team.
Over the years, I watched in fascination as he changed offensive and defensive strategies to best utilize the players he had on his teams. I am sure that he had specific recruiting strategies, but it sometimes seemed as though any one team was vastly different from what he had had just a couple of seasons previous. Regardless, the teams were always well-drilled and completely disciplined to carry out the plan at that particular time. Far from being mechanical, it was a continuing lesson in basketball art. The loss I feel most greatly at Smith’s passing is the likelihood that that art is also slipping away.
As I have expressed in a previous journal, neither young players nor their coaches seem very interested in the art of basketball these days. Too many teams rely on sheer physical talent as opposed to developing the skills that the game requires. Athleticism, as it has in so many other sports, is taking precedence over skill, which in turn is leading to a decline in the game that may be irreversible. Shooting percentages continue to drop, even though slam dunks are more common at every level. In most cases, this also propagates a sloppiness that is beginning to render the game nearly unwatchable (except by those who know no better).
One of the flashpoints of criticism Coach Smith endured was when he installed his famous 4-Corners Offense. Designed to emphasize his team’s dribbling, passing, and discipline against opponents who were taller and more talented, it was a marvel to watch. The utter frustration of other teams’ players and coaches against what was seemingly a simple strategy was amazing to see. How could something so simple confuse the best athletes in the game and the smartest coaches in the country? The standard answer was, “It bored them to death.” The outcry was loud and anguished until, as one contemporary put it, “He forced them to put in the shot clock.”
Having coached the game for 30 years, I have seen numerous changes in the rules, most of which were constructed to remove strategies like the 4-Corners from the game. I firmly believe this to be a shame. One of the great elements of sports includes not only the test of physical skills played out by the competitors, but the test of mental skills between the coaches. For the players it is all about the moment – explosive, intelligent reaction to the athletes on the other team, albeit within a certain structure. For the coaches it goes much deeper – scouting, planning, practice drills, skill-matching, in-game adjustments, and the course of strategy that will make it all come together. Slowly but surely, changes in the rules have diminished the coaching side of that equation. Whether the motivation for those changes can be traced to fans, media, players, less competent coaches, or AAU is a debate for another day, but I strongly believe that the quality of the game has diminished as a result, and is unlikely to recover.
To me, the passing of Dean Smith is symbolic of the passing of a great era in the history of the game. Today’s coaches are certainly intelligent people, capable of innovations of their own, but hampered by a system that is more focused on creating a fast-paced, high-scoring game that diminishes the effects of good defense. When a team like our current Mountaineers plays an aggressive, full-court pressure, referees call fouls at a ridiculous rate. Shot clocks speed up the pace of play to the point that strategy is nearly pointless. The 3-point line results in every team bombing up shots from a range that is statistically less productive than the higher-percentage shots offenses used to work hard for. Interpretation of player-control fouls, traveling violations, 5-second violations, and offensive use of the arm-bar have all been liberalized to allow more “flow” (read: scoring) in the game. This may please wags like Jay Bilas, but those of us who love the entirety of the game must be dismayed.When Dean Smith retired he was the leading winner in college basketball history. He was renowned for adapting his coaching style and strategies to the changes in the game and the changes in young athletes. Today’s most successful coach may be a guy whose claim to fame is in recruiting the top 5 players each year, then overwhelming his opponents with sheer talent. I’m not sure Coach Smith could have been so successful had he just started coaching a few years ago. That to me would be the biggest loss of all. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, reminds us that success if often as much a result of timing as it is of talent. Dean Smith seems to have had the perfect timing. Rest well, Coach.