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More OSU Basketball Coverage

Dean Smith Coaching Tree

By Jason Perry

June 29th

A Tree Grows




Legend has it that University of North Carolina founding father William Richardson Davie, while resting under a giant poplar on what is today the northern edge of the Chapel Hill campus, deemed this to be the perfect spot to build the nation’s first public institution of higher learning.  Almost one hundred years later the tree was deemed the “Davie Poplar,” and it was decreed that as long as it stood, the university would survive and thrive.  Though a charming story, it is little more than that, embellished over the years to further enhance the magic and mythology of Chapel Hill.  To the south, on the opposite end of campus, another university legend spent the final years of his illustrious career teaching his students the values of hard work, teamwork, and sacrifice, all in the building named after him.  Dean Smith, whose reputation on and off the court remains the gold standard in the coaching profession, retired almost seven years ago with 879 victories, the most in college basketball history.  Yet his influence on the game remains as strong as ever.  Smith was coached at Kansas by Forrest “Phog” Allen, who in turn served as a player under Jayhawks head man (and the inventor of basketball) James Naismith.  That’s called roots.  The coaching tree that has since blossomed under Smith represents some of the biggest names in the game-Larry Brown, Roy Williams-as well as future stars like Jeff Lebo.  The values espoused and demonstrated by Dean Smith continue to be reflected in the disciples that absorbed his courtside lessons.  The Dean Smith coaching tree, like its counterpart the “Davie Poplar,” is a living, breathing entity, linking the past to the present.  And it continues to grow.


The Right Way


Following the Detroit Pistons’ Game 2 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in this year’s NBA Finals, Larry Brown received a phone call from his mentor and friend, ‘Coach Smith.’  Brown’s former boss, the ultimate “people person,” knew his friend could use a word of encouragement.  He’s always there when you need him, Smith’s former players say to a man.  Fortunately for Brown, no other consoling calls were necessary, as the Pistons roared past the Lakers to surprise the basketball world.  Yet Brown eschewed the spotlight.  “It’s about the players,” he said.  Brown’s Pistons took an alternate route to NBA glory-they shared the ball, stressing team over individual.  They played tenacious defense, forcing the Lakers’ offense out of its comfort zone.  They played smart.  And they had fun.  In short, they “played the right way,” as Brown is fond of saying.  They respected the game.  They applied many of the lessons Larry Brown learned from Dean Smith over forty years earlier.  And surely the coach in Chapel Hill couldn’t help but smile.


Much more could be written about Brown.  About how he’s the only coach to win an NBA title and an NCAA championship (The Kansas Jayhawks, led by Danny Manning, cut down the nets in 1988.).  About how his teams have appeared in five ABA, NCAA, or NBA finals.  About how he twice took the Los Angeles Clippers (the Clippers!) to the playoffs, one of his multiple coaching stops (“He may not stay forever, but he’ll win while he’s there,” Smith once told Kansas athletics director Monte Johnson.).  About how he’s inherited Smith’s mantle as the best coach in the business.  But there are several other branches left on the family tree.


‘Play hard.  Play smart.  Play in March.’


Over thirty years later, Roy Williams still has the notes he took while watching North Carolina’s freshman and varsity teams practice.  He wasn’t talented enough to make the varsity-he had played for Bill Guthridge on the freshman team-but Smith and Guthridge allowed Williams to watch practices, a rare honor for most.  While a high school coach in his native North Carolina mountains, Williams spent his summers working Carolina’s summer basketball camp.  The camp staff’s more veteran members were usually assigned the head position in a gym.  Roy Williams filled that role after a single summer.  Clearly Smith and Guthridge sensed something unique in Williams.  And clearly they were right once again.


After ten years as a UNC assistant, Williams left, somewhat reluctantly, to become the head man at Kansas, another tradition-rich basketball program.  Through his own skill and intelligence and energy, Williams reshaped Kansas basketball in his own image and became a hero on the plains.  Players graduated, then left to spread Roy’s gospel.  They came back to visit and encourage the next generation of Jayhawks.  And the coach won big.  In his tenure at Kansas, his teams won over 80 percent of their games, went to the Final Four on four occasions, and won nine regular-season conference championships over his last 13 years.  “I was taught by Coach Smith, Bill Guthridge, and Eddie Fogler 90 percent of what I do.  I was taught to run a program, not just coach a team.  I took those lessons from those fellas,” Williams told Andrew Jones of Inside Carolina magazine.  He was certainly recognized for the complete program he ran in Lawrence.  The Big Eight conference (later expanded into the Big 12) named him Coach or Co-coach of the Year seven times.  He also earned National Coach of the Year honors in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1997.  Ol’ Roy, of course, is once again applying those lessons learned in Chapel Hill.  The not-so-secret mantra of his 2003-04 Tar Heels-‘Play hard.  Play smart.  Play in March-was of course a reference to Carolina’s two-year absence from the NCAA tournament.  The season was a roller coaster ride for Heels fans, ending in a second-round tournament loss to Texas.  But Williams laid the foundation for what promises to be a bright future.


Deep South Roots


Dean Smith, of course, burnished his legacy in the intensely competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.  Two of his younger protégés, Jeff Lebo and Buzz Peterson, now find themselves on opposite sidelines in the Southeastern Conference.  Lebo, recently named the head coach at Auburn, has garnered a reputation as a program-builder in his brief career.  After serving as an assistant under fellow UNC man Eddie Fogler at Vanderbilt and South Carolina, in 1998 Lebo inherited a Tennesse Tech team that had only one winning record in the previous five seasons.  In his four years there, Tennessee Tech won two Ohio Valley Conference championships and compiled a 27-7 record in 2001-02.  The previous season the team won twenty games, the first time that had happened in 54 years.  He posted a 40-20 record at Tennessee-Chattanooga in two seasons, guiding the Moccasins to a 21-9 record in 2002-03 with no returning starters from the previous year.  Now Lebo moves to a place where interest in spring football practice exceeds interest in mid-winter basketball games.  But his knowledge, poise, and unpretentious nature make Lebo a rising star in the coaching profession and a good bet to turn around Auburn basketball’s fortunes.  “Jeff was an Academic All-ACC selection as a student.  His commitment to the ideal of student-athletes make him the right person for our program,” said Auburn Interim President Ed Richardson.


Buzz Peterson, a freshman on UNC’s 1982 national championship team, recently completed his third season as head coach at Tennessee.  He previously led Appalachian State to a 79-39 record over four seasons, including an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2000, his last year there.  After coaching Tulsa to an NIT title in 2001, Peterson moves to Knoxville.  While guiding the Volunteers to two post-season appearances, the Asheville, NC native has worked to foster an environment based on building relationships.  “I am big on team unity; you’ve got to be one big family,” Peterson told sportswriter Dan Wetzel upon accepting the job.  In 2003 the team was honored as Tennessee’s men’s Community Service Team of the Year.


Jeff Lebo and Buzz Peterson serve not just as coaches but as counselors to their players-two more strong branches on the family coaching tree.


The Next Generation


Given Dean Smith’s lengthy career in college basketball, it’s certainly not surprising that his former players-turned-coaches are now producing coaches of their own.  As one might expect, Larry Brown’s many coaching positions have made him the most prolific in this regard.  His assistants have included:  former Indiana Pacers President (and UNC teammate) Donnie Walsh, San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, University of Memphis coach John Calipari, current Kansas head man Bill Self, Iowa coach (and, of course, Duke grad Quin Snyder, Philadelphia 76ers GM Billy King (another Dukie), and Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks.  Former NBA coaches Randy Ayers, Bob Hill, and Alvin Gentry have also served under Brown.  Much like Coach Smith, Brown doesn’t hesitate to help a friend in need.  When Calipari, who first worked with Brown at Kansas, was fired by the New Jersey Nets in 1999, he got a call from his former boss.  “He tries to make it like, ‘John, I really need you in Philly(where Brown was then coaching).’  He didn’t need me in Philly.  He needed to help me and set everything straight so I could go on in my career,”  Calipari told New York Newsday’s Ken Berger.


Roy Williams’ most prominent offspring is Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, who was an assistant at Kansas for five years.  In 26 seasons as a player, assistant, and head coach, Stalling’s teams have made 21 tournament appearances, including 14 NCAA trips and three Final Fours.  This year’s Vanderbilt team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.  “Roy has had a very significant influence on me,” Stallings said prior to the Commoderes’ tournament victory over N.C. State.”  A lot of the things we do in the way we set up our offense, and set up our entire organization, are things I have learned from him.  Our players don’t understand how significant it is.  They don’t know that we do them because I did them every day at Kansas.”


Former coaches Matt Doherty, Steve Robinson, and Jerry Green were also assistants under Williams at Kansas.  Doherty’s “resignation” at UNC has been well chronicled.  After his tenure at Florida State, Robinson rejoined Williams at Kansas and moved with him to North Carolina.  Green had a 71.2% winning percentage at Tennessee (Peterson succeeded him.) and a school-record 26-win season, but a perceived lace of disciplined and an absence of big wins led to his being forced out.  Two other former Williams’ assistants are faring better.  Wichita State head coach mark Turgeon (who can also put former boss Larry Brown on the resume) has turned around the Shockers program.  Neil Dougherty, head coach at Texas Christian, also has multiple Carolina connections.  Prior to his seven years at Kansas, he served under Eddie Fogler at Vanderbilt and South Carolina.  Last season Dougherty’s Horned Frogs doubled their Conference-USA win total from the previous year and earned the program’s first victory over a Top-10 team in 14 years.


Continuing Education


The beauty and charm of Chapel Hill bring alumni and fans back again and again.  That same allure helped attract Dean Smith in 1958.  “When I arrived I fell in love at first sight.  The town was its full springtime glory with dogwood and cherry trees in blossom and petals floating in the breeze and dusting the footpaths,” he wrote in his autobiography A Coach’s Life.  In the ensuing decades, Smith’s love coaching and teaching proved infectious, as countless Carolina family members left Chapel Hill in pursuit of a career in the profession.  Yet they all, at one point or another, have found their way back home.  Dean Smith taught them about life as well as basketball.  They, in turn, have worked to instill those same values in their own players.  Seven years after his retirement, Dean Smith’s lessons continue.


- Other notable members:

- Media:  Kenny Smith (studio analyst, TNT Sports); Eddie Fogler (studio and color analyst, FOX Sports, ESPN Regional); Matt Doherty (color analyst, CSTV-College Sports Television, ESPN Regional); Brad Daugherty (color analyst, ESPN); James Worthy (broadcaster/host, FOX Sports); George Karl (studio analyst, ESPN); Phil Ford (color analyst, Tar Heel Sports Network); Dennis Wuycik (publisher, ACC Area Sports Journal and Prep Stars Recruiter’s Handbook)     


- NBA:  Mitch Kupchak (GM, L.A. Lakers); Walter Davis (scout, Washington Wizards); Bob McAdoo (assistant coach, Miami Heat); Mike O’Koren (assistant coach, Wizards); Dave Hanners, John Kuester (assistant coaches, Detroit Pistons); Pat Sullivan (assistant coach/video coordinator, Pistons); Billy Cunningham (former coach of Philadelphia 76ers-1983 NBA champions


- College:  Jim Delany (commissioner, Big 10 conference); Tony Shaver (head coach, William & Mary); Joe Wolf (assistant coach, William & Mary); Scott Cherry (assistant coach, George Mason); Brad Frederick (assistant coach, Vanderbilt); Rick Duckett (assistant coach, South Carolina)



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