I grew up listening to the voice of Woody Durham, the University of North Carolina’s iconic radio announcer.
If the game wasn’t on television, which was often the case through my childhood, the radio was on and Durham was giving our family the low down. My father was a UNC graduate and a diehard Tar Heels fan. He passed his love of Carolina down to his children.
The radio scenario was the same for football or basketball, but basketball was the king. Carolina’s men’s basketball team had the late Coach Dean Smith at the helm, and all was right with the world.
Smith’s unwavering dedication to teamwork, intelligent play and ceaseless effort on and off the court brought excellence and amazing success to the Tar Heel men’s basketball program from the 1960s through the end of the 1990s. Beyond that, he and his players never tarnished the university’s reputation with a scandal of any variety, and his young men had a 96 percent graduation rate.
Very few coaches at that level ever held that distinction.
Dementia took away the great coach’s memories prior to his death nearly five years ago, a sad fact for a man whose remarkable recall of facts, people and circumstances was a hallmark of his life.
The intensity and excellence of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball provided just the right incubator for Smith when, at only 30 years of age, he took the helm at Carolina in 1961. Smith suffered his only losing record with the 1961-62 team.
His first five teams still weren’t terribly successful. In today’s college basketball world, where success is valued above everything (and driven by money), I wager Smith would have been fired before his teams ever took off.
One night in 1965, after losing to Wake Forest in a blowout, Smith and his players got off the team bus to find that students had hanged the coach in effigy. Point guard Billy Cunningham, who came to be known as the “Kangaroo Kid,” confronted the hostile group of students and tore down the offending dummy that was hanging from a rope.
That turned out to be a pivotal moment for Smith and the Tar Heels. The coach finished out the 1960s with three consecutive Final Four appearances and multiple ACC championships.
Smith, and the ACC as a whole, really grabbed the national stage during the 1970s. The rivalry between Smith’s Heels and Stormin’ Norman Sloan’s wonderful N.C. State teams was genuinely fierce.
Into the 1980s, the ACC competition only increased in intensity, with the fiery Lefty Driesell coaching at Maryland, Carl Tacy at Wake Forest, Jim Valvano at N.C. State, Terry Holland at Virginia, Bobby Crimmins at Georgia Tech and, of course, an unproven youngster named Mike Krzyzewski over at Duke. No one at that point could have imagined that Coach K would someday be the best there ever was.
In other words, Smith’s Tar Heels faced truly talented opposition every time they took the floor against an ACC opponent. I had the opportunity to watch more great games than I could possibly remember. In many ways, his tenure at Carolina spanned what could be seen as the golden age of ACC basketball.
Smith’s teams, though obviously not winning every game, seemed to always be there at the end. The crafty coach had a way of using timeouts to stretch the clock and provide his players with a path to victory. There were so many amazing, nail biting finishes to games.
The Duke/Carolina rivalry that blazed through the 1980s and 1990s was a product of the close proximity of the two universities and the greatness of Smith and Coach K. From coast-to-coast, Americans got to know about that feud down on Tobacco Road. Both coaches were men of unquestionable integrity who preached teamwork, dedication and effort.
Though they weren’t close while coaching against one another, the formal rivals became very good friends after Smith retired in the fall of 1997. They remained so until Smith’s death.