I was sad to read this week about Dean Smith’s struggles with dementia. Growing up, Dean Smith was one of my favorite coaches. I liked Smith’s values and the expectations he set for his team. Smith never used profanity, something that is unfortunately very rare in coaching; Smith expected freshmen, even the great Michael Jordan, to earn their way into the lineup, nothing was given before it was earned; and I especially liked how a player who scored a basket was required to point to the player who made the pass to him, the ultimate display of selfless teamwork.
(Dean Smith with Michael Jordan and James Worthy, two of UNC’s greatest players.)
These values undoubtedly helped Dean Smith become one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. While coaching at the University of North Carolina, Smith compiled an impressive record of 879 wins, 30 20-win seasons (27 consecutively), and 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances. Smith guided Carolina to 13 Atlantic Coast Conference championships, 11 Final Four appearances, and 2 National Championships. Perhaps more impressively, Dean Smith graduated 96% of his players.
I was fortunate once to watch Dean Smith’s North Carolina team practice at a pre-game shoot around when they were playing in Pittsburgh. They had a morning practice before their game that night. When I arrived, the Carolina players were on the court just warming up and shooting on their own without any coaches on the court. Then, precisely at the time practice was to begin, Coach Smith and his assistants walked out to the court. As soon as Smith stepped on the court, the players immediately began performing organized drills. Smith never said a word. But the second his foot hit the court, the team became a disciplined, synchronized machine. Then, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen from a coach happened. After several minutes of practice, Coach Smith called over the arena manager and began pointing at one of the baskets. They talked briefly and then two maintenance men appeared with a ladder to measure the height of that basket. I later spoke with the arena manager to see why Smith had called him over. The manager told me that Smith thought the basket was not regulation height. When the maintenance crew measured, it turns out Smith was right. The basket was off by an inch!
I learned some valuable leadership lessons from Dean Smith at that practice – the importance of discipline, organization, and efficiency; the value of attention to even the smallest details; and the fact that if our teams know our expectations, words and commands are not always necessary.
Dean Smith was a very successful coach. He was a tremendous leader who motivated his teams to perform at the very highest levels. I was fortunate to be able to witness one of his practices and I hope these lessons help you to lead a great team.
Thanks for reading,
Ways to follow Dr. Jim Earle:
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Book – 100 Yards of Success: Leadership Lessons from College Football, http://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=978-1-62510-731-2