Before the late Dean Smith took over the University of North Carolina basketball program, he showed flashes of the championship coach he would become as an assistant on the first two U.S. Air Force Academy basketball teams.
At times, the fledgling Falcons even ran the four-corners offense, the stalling strategy Smith ran to perfection at North Carolina that led the NCAA to adopt the shot clock in 1985.
Smith died at the age of 83 on Feb. 7. He led the Tar Heels to 879 victories, two national championships and 11 Final Four appearances, and coached future NBA greats such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
“It was the passing of a giant,” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Beckel, the team captain and the top scorer on those first few Academy teams from 1956 to 1959. “He was just a special person to the game of basketball and a great human being. His conduct with his players and those he knew was the perfect combination for what he was as a coach.”
Beckel still holds the top four single-game scoring performances in school history. The Falcons played their first season at Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado, while the Academy campus was being built. That team compiled an 11-10 record behind Beckel’s 555 points, still the fifth best in Academy history. He graduated in 1959 and later flew 313 combat missions in Vietnam before he returned to the Academy as a brigadier general to serve as commandant of cadets in 1981. Beckel retired in 1992.
Smith was a lieutenant in the Air Force and served a tour in Germany before he served as an assistant on Maj. Bob Spear’s coaching staff at the Academy, as well as the head baseball and golf coach. The Falcons followed their opening season with a 17-6 record the following year, Smith’s last at the Academy.
During his two years on the Academy coaching staff, Smith kept the shot charts and ran Spear’s warm-up drills. Beckel remembers him as being committed to both tasks.
“He used to get really excited during the ballgames,” Beckel said. “I think that was indicative of his intensity and focus about the game of basketball. He always kept the shot charts, and whenever there was a timeout, he was very quick to point out where we were shooting from and the shots we shouldn’t be taking.
“There was no question there was a certain aura about Dean. He was a perfectionist and totally committed to basketball. He was a great coach, as he proved himself to be, and was soon off and running to greater things. I know he was a very focused individual about this game that he was remembered for.”
Smith left the Academy in 1958 for North Carolina, where he served as Frank McGuire’s assistant for three seasons before becoming head coach in 1961. The Tar Heels went to three consecutive Final Fours in the late 1960s, but had the misfortune of having this success in the middle of John Wooden’s UCLA teams’ streak of 10 national titles in 12 years.
Smith and North Carolina finally won their first national championship with Jordan, Worthy and Perkins in 1982. They won their second title when they defeated Michigan’s “Fab Five” in 1993. But perhaps Smith’s most lasting impact on the game was in strategies coaches continue to use today.
“Coach Smith was a great innovator for the game of college basketball,” said current Academy head coach Dave Pilipovich. “His four-corner offense led to the shot clock. He had his players point to their teammates after a pass that led to a score. Coach Smith had his teams huddle at the free throw line. He was always thinking and improving the game.”
As much as Smith was known for the wins and championships, he is also remembered for his commitment to his players as college students and as people. During his 36 years in control of the North Carolina program, more than 96 percent of his athletes earned degrees. He was also credited for promoting desegregation when he recruited the university’s first African-American scholarship player, Charlie Scott, in the late 1960s, and for pushing for equal treatment from local businesses.
Roy Williams, the current North Carolina coach, was Smith’s assistant for 10 years and considered him his mentor.
“I’d like to say on behalf of all our players and coaches, past and present, that Dean Smith was the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been,” Williams said in a statement. “We love him, and we will miss him.”
Looking back on his first two years at the Academy, Beckel expressed similar emotions. He recalled during his assignment on the Headquarters U.S. Air Force staff at the Pentagon from 1981 to 1982, Smith invited him to North Carolina’s game against Georgetown and to the team’s bench while the players warmed up.
“I considered Dean a friend,” Beckel said. “He was a very fine gentleman.”