Coach Dean Smith, whose innovations, creativity and commitment to players as men and family forever changed college basketball, is dead, and the accolades keep pouring in from former players, associates and rival coaches. Meanwhile, his most diligent disciple is finding Smith's old team in a funk and facing its biggest rival tomorrow night in a hostile arena.
Roy Williams professes to pattern his every move after his mentor, but any concerned Tar Heel fan with a long memory can see that ol' Roy is doing some things Smith would never do. I like Roy. I think he's a good coach. He's done a great job at Chapel Hill and did a terrific job at Kansas. But he may be letting his own personal style take away from his shadowing of Coach Smith.
Dean Smith was famous for never taking credit for the 879 wins in his career and never letting the players take the blame for a loss. After a win, Smith always praised his players, often starting with the obscure bench warmers who came in and gave a few respectable minutes of basketball. After a loss, Smith always took the blame. "I did a poor job of coaching," he'd say. He always deferred any criticism of the players, even when there were bonehead plays or obvious goofs.
Williams' style contrasts with Smith's example. The past couple of years have been frustrating ones for Williams, and his frustrations sometimes spill over in public. He has publicly chastised the team for lack of effort or for lack of concentration. I don't know that this shift of blame has anything to do with this year's Tar Heels' sometimes poor performance, but I do know that criticism of his players is something Smith would never do.
While Smith could occasionally vent his anger at the referees or something, his demeanor on the bench was almost always calm, even relaxed. In the past couple of weeks, some former players have mentioned that when Smith called a timeout, he was always the calmest person in the huddle, calmly telling them exactly what to do and what the opponent would try to do. He once reminded players during a tense timeout that there were a billion people in China who didn't even know this game was happening. Williams, in contrast, can be seen yelling at players in the huddle instead of calmly explaining the situation to them.
There's another habit — call it a tactic, if you want — that Smith did and that other coaches picked up. That habit has faded among coaches since Smith's retirement. In comments before a big game, or even a minor one, Smith always praised the opposing team. He would compliment the way they pass or the way they run the fast break or the way they play defense. Even against a clearly mismatched and woebegone team, Smith would make it sound as if the game was a toss-up at best. Maybe it was Smith's way of never underestimating an opponent or maybe it was a ploy to make the opponent overconfident and keep his own team on its toes. Whatever the reasons, the result was that Smith never played a team that was, in his description, anything less than a powerhouse.
When other coaches adopted this tactic, the result was laughable — two coaches each claiming the other team was far superior than his own.
Williams has not underestimated opponents, I don't think, but he has not been as effusive in praising opponents as Smith was. I doubt that this has anything to do with the Heels' struggles this year, and the other ways that Williams has deviated from Smith's example might have no impact on his success, either. No one is a perfect copy of a mentor, and Williams is no exception.