College basketball lost one of its icons Saturday night.
Dean Smith, the legendary former North Carolina coach, died at his home in Chapel Hill with his wife and five children at his side. He was 83.
“It’s such a great loss for North Carolina – our state, the University, of course the Tar Heel basketball program, but really the entire basketball world," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, a longtime assistant under Smith. "We lost one of our greatest ambassadors for college basketball for the way in which a program should be run. We lost a man of the highest integrity who did so many things off the court to help make the world a better place to live in.
"He set the standard for loyalty and concern for every one of his players, not just the games won or lost. He was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people. His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most."
Smith won 20 or more games in 30 of the final 31 seasons he coached at North Carolina and retired in 1997 as college basketball's winningest coach. He led the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours and two national titles, the first in 1982 and the second in 1993.
On the floor, Smith was best known for his "four-corner offense," which salted away many narrow victories in the pre-shot clock era. Away from it, the son of parents who were public school teachers emphasized academics, a big reason more than 96 percent of his players graduated.
North Carolina was so successful under Smith that fans of other ACC schools united in their dislike of the Tar Heels. They mockingly called Smith "Saint Dean," grumbled that North Carolina received preferential treatment from referees and the league — all the things people now say about Smith's longtime adversary Mike Krzyzewski.
Any lingering bitterness among Smith's rivals has faded in recent years as his health has declined. Dementia began to ravage his famously steely memory almost a decade ago. In recent years, the man who once could recall specific plays from games he coached in decades earlier could no longer recognize some of his most decorated players or most trusted assistant coaches.
Those health issues forced Smith to make fewer and fewer public appearances at North Carolina in recent years and made it tough for his ex-players to visit him. Some did anyway out of loyalty to their longtime coach. Others couldn't bear to see him in that state and preferred to remember the good times.
Smith's legacy is the sustained success North Carolina basketball has enjoyed since he retired and the impact he made on the men and women who spent time around him.
"He was a mentor to so many people," Williams said "He was my mentor. He gave me a chance but, more importantly, he shared with me his knowledge, which is the greatest gift you can give someone.
"I’m 64 years old and everything I do with our basketball program and the way I deal with the University is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud. When I came back to Carolina, the driving force was to make him proud and I still think that today."
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