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Dean Smith is alive but absent, his remarkable mind ravaged by the effects of dementia. While that has caused deep mourning among those who know and love the legendary former North Carolina basketball coach, there is one small sliver of relief regarding his current condition.
He is unaware of the ongoing integrity crisis that has engulfed the program he built into a national model.
"I'm tired of it," said former Smith-era player Richard Vinroot. "I want it fixed. I want it to end."
The NCAA recently announced it has re-opened its investigation of an academic scandal at Carolina. That figures to follow the tracks of the school's ongoing (and latest) investigation of itself. Those investigations follow the drip-drip-drip of allegations of classroom shortcuts – and other embarrassing headlines – at a school that once proudly considered itself the ultimate intersection of competitive excellence and off-court class.
"It pains me greatly," Vinroot said. "I have such high regard for Coach Smith. I revere him."
Vinroot is a former mayor of Charlotte and one-time Republican nominee for governor of North Carolina. Smith, a staunch and outspoken Democrat, cited player loyalty over party loyalty when supporting Vinroot's gubernatorial bid in 2000.
That was Dean Smith, to those who played under him: a mentor and ally for life, extending well past the player/coach relationship. David Chadwick, senior pastor of Forest Hill Church in Charlotte and another former Tar Heel under Smith, wrote a book, "The 12 Leadership Principles of Dean Smith." The first principle he cited: "The Reciprocal Law of Loyalty."
"He had an unyielding loyalty to us," Chadwick said. "That's why we had that fierce commitment to him, because he had that commitment to us."
Smith cultivated something of a Camelot aura in Chapel Hill – it was Duke before Duke, and before Duke had the taint of Corey Maggette and Lance Thomas to deal with. The UNC players and coaches were all part of something special, and forever bonded in the making of it. Which is why this disorienting journey from Camelot to crucible has the Carolina old guard dismayed.
No-show classes that were popular with basketball players? A player (P.J. Hairston) ruled ineligible for the year for impermissible benefits? A former star (Rashad McCants) making allegations of a no-try 4.0 grade-point average while the Tar Heels were winning a national title? The old guard could never imagine such things happening under Smith. And they don't want to believe it is happening under their friend and former North Carolina teammate, Roy Williams.
"It's unbelievable," said Bill Chamberlain, MVP of Carolina's 1971 NIT championship team. "We know the standards we were required to uphold. Dean Smith didn't do that crap. Roy wouldn't do that crap either.
"Roy and I were freshmen together, in 1968. I've known him 46 years. I know the man pretty well. Personally, it bothers him. He's bothered by the negative attention, as we all are, but Roy is not a shrinking violet. You don't stop people by throwing mud on them."
Said Chadwick: "I think there's a great sadness we have to be going through this. It causes us all pause, and then the question is, did Roy know? Roy vehemently denies it, and I've never known him to be anything but a man of great integrity. It's hard for me to imagine him approving those classes. This is a guy who tutored under Dean Smith."
Vinroot is adamant that Smith's unstinting focus on academics has not been lost under protégé Williams. Last month he attended the wedding of his nephew, Jack Wooten, a recent UNC player and graduate. His niece, former Carolina basketball manager Maggie Wooten, also was at the ceremony, along with other former players. They were unanimous in vouching for Williams' academic commitment.
"They all swore by him and swore he runs it the same way Coach Smith ran it," Vinroot said. "I have high regard for Roy Williams. I believe in him and will believe in him until someone proves me wrong."
The old guard has little to not regard for McCants, whose revelations to ESPN's "Outside The Lines" appear to be at least one major reason for the NCAA's reignited investigation.
McCants never seemed to fit the image Carolina tried mightily to convey. He was moody, difficult and at times seemed only loosely connected to the Heels' team concept. It came as little surprise that McCants declared in the locker room he was turning pro just minutes after the '05 national title victory over Illinois.
"Who in the world would ever trust Rashad McCants with anything he ever said?" Chadwick said. "He was a [Matt] Doherty recruit, and I can't imagine Roy ever recruiting him."
But Roy did play him, to positive effect. McCants was the second-leading scorer on that title team, and during his final season Carolina (and Williams) went to great efforts to protect McCants from external criticism. "Misunderstood" was the operative word attached to the shooting guard.
Back then, he was worth something to Carolina basketball. Today, while firing shots at his former program, he is disreputable.
"If Rashad had the experience he said he had," said Vinroot, "he must have had some out-of-body experience none of the rest of his teammates had."
The old guard is unsparing in its description of the football program under Butch Davis, which was heavily sanctioned for a smorgasbord of NCAA violations.
"The embarrassment of the football program is enough in and of itself," Chadwick said. "It looks like, in the Butch Davis era, we began to think winning was more important than doing things the right way."
Said Chamberlain: "Butch Davis was a joke."
But in their hearts, the men do not believe Roy Williams was or is a joke. Roy is a direct coaching descendant of their beloved mentor, Dean Smith – and if the program has lost the Smith-created elements that once made it Camelot, it has lost everything.