Kevin Luchansky writes about Chicago baseball and college sports for WARR.
The basketball community lost two giants last week with the deaths of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Nevada-Las Vegas head man Jerry Tarkanian. I refer to the basketball community, rather than simply the coaching one because these two legends were worth more to the game than simply what they gave to it in teaching young men its fundamentals.
That’s not to take anything away from both men’s best craft — coaching — but they need to be remembered and celebrated for providing so much more.
For starters, coaches Smith and Tark each had incredible roles in uniting communities, integrating men of all races in the programs they ran and both men had a knack for bringing out the best in people. Much like their coaching methods, they went about achieving goals in their own styles, but both impacted lives positively in many ways.
It’s hard to determine whether Smith’s greatest impact was on or off the court. Current UNC head coach and long-time Smith assistant, Roy Williams, once said, “(Smith) was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people.”
On the court, it’s pretty easy to measure his impact in his successes — two national championships at UNC, 11 final fours, 879 wins, a combined 30 ACC titles, four-time national coach of the year, an Olympic gold medal in 1976, and an induction to the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
The list goes on, but a list of accomplishments is just that, failing to touch upon his innovative coaching style, like his bleeding clock four corners offense that eventually led to the addition of the shot clock or his Carolina motion offense, the Cadillac of all motion offenses. The motion offense was fascinating to watch, but incredibly exhausting to execute, as I learned in a coaching class at Indiana University. The class was taught by Jerry Green, former Oregon and Tennessee head coach and assistant under Roy Williams at Kansas. Its pretty cool to be able to include yourself in a six degrees of Dean Smith story.
But Smith should also be remembered for the ways in which he was an activist, starting with the fact that he was responsible for recruiting and landing Charlie Scott in Chapel Hill, making him the first African-American scholarship athlete at UNC. Smith turned Scott into a star and treated him with the same respect the rest of his student-athletes received. In that day, in a southern community, that was REALLY something. Dean Smith was a man unafraid to battle social injustices.
Lest we not forget, too, the role he had as a second father-figure in the greatest basketball player of all times, Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Michael left the game of basketball to pursue his father’s love, baseball. But perhaps he never makes that second, triumphant return to the NBA without the advice and guidance of coach Smith. I’ve always thought Jordan to be light on compliments, but he gushes about the role of Dean Smith in his life. That’s saying something.
Jerry Tarkanian was described as a man who was not only color blind, but blind to troubled backgrounds, too. Tark took a different path to success — a road less traveled, if you will — but his the on-court accolades are comparable to coach Smith’s. Tark holds an astonishing overall record as a head coach of 706 wins and 198 losses, bringing four teams to the Final Four and cutting down the nets as champion in 1990.
His ’90 team really put the Runnin in Runnin’ Rebels, as they ran teams out of the gym with an electrifying, high octane offense that eclipsed 100 in the scoring column many a time. It certainly helped that five players from that team — most notably Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony — established themselves as NBA talents in the years that followed.
Like Smith, Tarkanian’s greatest accomplishments may have been in the way he coached and taught life lessons to the young men he brought into the program. Tark was famous for looking past former indiscretions and run-ins with the law, noting that every player, every person, deserves a second chance. Did he swing and miss on a few of those young players? Sure he did. But he gave hope to and second chances to those who had none.
My favorite story about Tark came from Dan Wetzel’s Yahoo piece last week, in which Wetzel detailed just a handful of the many crazy recruiting stories that the coach loved to tell. His tales of the recruiting trail were as bright as the lights of the Las Vegas strip. In a lot of ways, coach Tark personified the city he coached in.
In this particular story, Tark was able to land a future player an academic scholarship, on the grounds that he was valedictorian of his high school. He was a valedictorian, you see, but it took some greasing to get that paperwork cleared, since the player was not valedictorian of a high school class but of his GED program in a juvenile jail facility.
In the end, Tark never had to present his case and justify the scholarship to the school and NCAA board members since his recruit boosted a car before the season began and was sent back to jail. Read one story like that, and it’s easy to see why the NCAA and Tark often butted heads. It’s also pretty easy to see why he’d get an invite to my dinner table.
Just last night, the city of Las Vegas dimmed the lights on the strip in honor of coach Tark.
It was a classy move to honor a man that put Vegas basketball on the map and who represented the city as much as any of the outsized figures its ever produced. We can only hope that future waves of basketball coaches produce any two men as influential as the ones we’ve recently lost.
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