By: Evan Lachnit, KCOU Sports
The college basketball season is in full swing and with only a few short weeks until March, the action is just about to heat up. There are many intriguing questions to be answered between now and Selection Sunday. Will Kentucky run the table? Who wins the ACC Tournament, which should be a classic with teams like Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina all hovering around the top 10? Can Kansas hang on and win its 11th straight Big 12 regular season crown? Is Gonzaga an actual threat to win the Championship? And of course the most poignant question, who is in and who is out of the field of 68 in the Big Dance?
As exciting as all of this is and there is so much to talk about, I felt it was important to take a step back from the play on the court and take time to remember and honor two legends of the game who passed away this past week: Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian. Both men were tremendous basketball coaches, but anyone that knew them would say that they were even better people.
Smith was a pioneer in many ways. He has not just a basketball coach, but a social activist and political figure in the state of North Carolina. He led the Tar Heels to two national titles in 1982 and 1983, made 11 Final Fours, took UNC to the NCAA Tournament 27 timed in his 36 years as coach, including a stretch of 23 straight appearances. He also accumulated 879 total wins. At the time he retired he was the all time winningest coach in NCAA Men’s Basketball. He has since been passed by three coaching greats in their own rights; long time ACC rival and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, current Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, and former coach Bob Knight.
Smith’s Tar Heels dominated the ACC for years. Smith won 30 ACC Titles (17 regular season and 13 ACC Tournament championships). Before the 1975 season only one team per conference was allowed into the NCAA Tournament, leaving many great teams out of championship contention. In Smith’s first 13 season the Tar Heels only made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament due to this rule. He did lead UNC to two Final Fours and an NIT championship in that time span. Starting in 1975 after the rule was changed and multiple teams were allowed in from each conference, Smith’s teams did not miss the tournament once.
He also is well known for coaching the great Michael Jordan during his college years. Smith in a way helped create the legend of Jordan. In the 1982 NCAA Title game against Georgetown, Smith drew up the last second play for Jordan, who was a freshman at the time, to take the game winning shot. Of course we all know the outcome and the folklore of MJ was created. Other NBA greats that came out of UNC in Smith’s time as head coach were the likes of Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, James Worthy, and Sam Perkins.
Smith’s coaching tree is quite impressive as well. Men such as Larry Brown, Roy Williams, Mitch Kupchak, Billy Cunningham and George Karl either played for or coached under Williams. And through those men, people like Greg Popovich and John Calipari got there roots. One last interesting fact about Smith is that he was about as close to the roots of basketball as one his age could be. He played for Phog Allen at Kansas, who was in the James Naismith coaching tree. Of course, Naismith was the creator of the game of basketball.
Off the court, Smith was a key factor in integrating the state of North Carolina in the 1960’s. He integrated the UNC basketball team, though he faced much pressure on the situation. He recruited Charlie Scott and gave him the first ever athletic scholarship to a black athlete in school history. He also had strong opinions on wars such as Iraq and Vietnam and fought for gay rights in the state. Many players upon his death said that in times of trouble or when they were faced with a tough choice many years after they graduated they still called Coach Smith for advice.
Tarkanian in his time as a coach in the NCAA, was not the “perfect role model” that many viewed Smith as, but he was just as successful as head coach of three different universities (Long Beach St., UNLV, and Fresno St.). He also did take an NBA job with the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, but was fired after 20 games at the helm. Tarkanian had a rough relationship with the NCAA and they had back and forth battles throughout his time as a head coach. Each program he coached at faced sanctions from the NCAA in years that he coached at the school. Tarkanian did not fight the NCAA on the basis of his schools breaking the rules, but as he put it “the selective punishment” by the NCAA. Tarkanian did not let that hold him nor his programs back.
He is most famously remembered for coaching the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as he created a powerhouse at a small school. He led the Rebels to three Final Fours from 1986-1991, and the Rebels won the 1990 title. The next year the Rebels went 34-1, losing to Duke in the national semifinals. Many consider the 1991 team to be one of the best teams in the history of the sport despite the Rebels not winning the title.
In his 19 year career at UNLV, Tarkanian had an astonishing record of 509-105, with four Final Fours, a NCAA Title and 12 tournament appearances. Tarkanian’s teams recorded at least 20 wins in 18 of those seasons. He also had four 30 plus win seasons with the Rebels. He turned UNLV into a feared program and did it at a “small” school, without the resources of schools like UCLA, UNC, and Notre Dame, just to name a few.
He also was impressive leading the programs at Long Beach St. and Fresno St. While at Long Beach St., in five seasons he led the program to four NCAA Tournament appearances and lost only four conference games in that time, winning 20 plus games in each of those seasons. After his failed trial in the NBA, Tarkanian returned to college taking over the Fresno St. program. He led the Bulldogs to two NCAA Tournament appearances and made the NIT in his other five seasons there. Tarkanian retired with 784 wins in 2002, but due to the NCAA vacating wins from his time at LBSU and UNLV, he officially has 729 wins.
Both men were instrumental in creating success at their schools they coached at and are part of the history of the NCAA. It is important to take a step back and remember these legends of the game. Both put their indelible stamp on college basketball and are still revered today.
In Memoriam of Dean Edwards Smith (1931-2015) and Jerry Tarkanian (1930-2015).