In early March of 1982, with seven minutes and 34 seconds remaining in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game and North Carolina leading 44-43, Dean Smith called a timeout to set up his Four Corners offense; and for the next seven minutes and six seconds, the Tar Heels stalled, passing the ball around the perimeter from man to man, refusing to make a single overture toward the rim.
It’s difficult to even comprehend the rhythm of such a moment in a modern context. It is a stretch of basketball so infuriating that it even appears to have eluded capture on YouTube. Today’s college basketball is sloppy and offensively challenged; still, most of that stultifying pace is indeliberate. What’s amazing is that Dean Smith was doing this on purpose, with the express hope that he wouldn’t have to do it again. “I don’t care about the image of the sport,” Matt Doherty, then a Carolina player, said after UNC’s 47-45 victory, but it was clear that Dean Smith did.
In 1982, there was no shot clock in college basketball, but there would be soon after, in part because of this ACC championship game, in part because of Dean Smith’s insistence upon pushing toward the existential nothingness. And amid all the eulogies for Smith over the past couple of days, this is what stands out to me: Even in his embrace of conservatism, Smith was advocating for liberalism, for a way of pushing the sport forward.
“As successful as he had been at slowing the game down, he knew playing the game faster would be to his advantage because he almost always had the best players,” John Feinstein wrote in his own remembrance of Smith. “The more possessions there were in a game, the more time there was for that talent to take control.”
There is, of course, a constant battle in college sports between coaches like Smith, who are able to lure the top talents, and those who are making do with less; college football, at least on a competitive level, is as great as it’s ever been in large part because it is played at a myriad of tempos, because it is blessed with coaches who are unafraid to challenge the status quo. In the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and through the early part of the 21st century, college basketball had that feel, too.
Buoyed by Dean Smith’s push into the shot-clock era, programs like UNLV and Loyola Marymount and Michigan embraced a flamboyant and fast-paced ethos. None of that might have happened without Smith, who was perhaps the greatest adapter in the history of the sport, a coach who found a way to effectively utilize both the shot clock and 3-point line when those things came along, who devised so many of the modern innovations we now take for granted that it’s kind of astounding.
What once made college basketball great, from start of season to finish, was that it felt more like a laboratory for innovation than a breeding ground for the NBA. It was also defiantly egalitarian – a coach willing to think outside the box could win a game as a 14 seed, which is what made (and still makes) the opening round of the NCAA tournament one of the best weekends of the year. Yet somewhere along the way, without innovators and button-pushers like Dean Smith, without any real will to alter the rules to encourage that innovation, it no longer has that same energy. The regular season is a dead zone. It’s a hard sport to watch now, tangled up in itself, devoid of any real progressiveness. It needs real change, which, with 350 Division I programs advocating different agendas, is not as simple as it might seem.
“A coach thinks to win a game under the rules,” Smith said after that Virginia game, and all these years later, as we mourn the loss of one of the more unabashedly liberal coaches of all time, I wonder if college basketball needs another coach who isn’t afraid to challenge those rules, and to trek into the existential nothingness, for the good of us all.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb