Whenever someone of historical prominence dies, particularly someone of the stature of Dean Smith, who died Saturday night at the age of 83, there is an inevitable tendency to honor the deceased by proclaiming "we will not see the likes of them again." This is rarely true. While acknowledging that every human is unique and every death touches his or her loved ones and the world in a different way, most of the time, the deceased, in our popular culture, can and will be replaced. There will always be new star athletes, new cinematic heroes, new pop stars, new authors, new presidents. We always find new icons. That's why they're icons.
But the career and influence of Dean Smith feels like an exception. Smith retired from coaching after the 1996-97 season - a UNC team that included Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Serge Zwikker -- but a sports world that could include someone like Smith feels like a distinctly divergent universe than the one we currently inhabit. There will never be another Dean Smith. But imagine if there were. Imagine a scientific breakthrough that allowed Dean Smith to be cloned, and his life experiences somehow replicated to produce the exact same Dean Smith at the age of 30 (the age when he took the North Carolina job), at the exact same point in his career. Even if he did everything exactly the same, we would never allow him to become Dean Smith. We don't really do Dean Smith anymore.
Every aspect of Smith's career is unsustainable today. In Smith's first season after taking over for Frank Maguire -- who left to coach in the NBA four years after an undefeated national championship season -- North Carolina went 8-9. The next season, he was 15-6, and after that, in 1963-64, the Tar Heels went 12-12. As mentioned in Smith's obit in The New York Times, by January 1965, his fourth season in charge, students on campus hanged him in effigy after a road loss to Wake Forest. (Which seems perhaps extreme.) Year Five: 16-11. After his first five seasons, Dean Smith, 35 years old, had a career record of 66-48, with no postseason appearances.
Suffice it to say: There's no way Smith survives five seasons like that today. He probably doesn't survive that third year at 12-12, not when Carolina was winning titles a half-decade before, whether it had been on probation (one year) or not. His youth and his earnestness would have been laughed away. We vivisect coaches regularly for far better records than that. We would have never seen that sixth season, where the Heels went 26-6; we would have never known that Smith wouldn't lose more than nine games in a season again until 1990. He'd have been long, long gone. He would have been a joke.
This is true of every sport too. College basketball is the one sport with a sort-of seniority clause, where some of these men can hang around in the same jobs for multiple decades. Jim Boeheim has been at Syracuse since 1976; Mike Krzyzewski at Duke since 1980. But they are the exceptions, and they are dying out. Tom Izzo is third on the list of major-college coaches seniority, starting at Michigan State in 1996, followed by Billy Donovan at Florida (1997), Rick Barnes at Texas (1998) and Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt (1999). And that's it. Nobody is going to get a job and hold onto it for 30 years anymore, even if they're a great coach, even if they never want to leave.
And they're certainly not going to remain as beloved as Smith. Boeheim and Coach K are the only real contemporaries of Smith remaining -- Izzo faced Smith once, in his second game as Michigan State coach, a 92-70 loss in the Maui Invitational -- and while they're certainly accomplished, I'm not sure anyone would refer to either as "beloved." Boeheim's teams have been on probation twice -- including last week's "self-imposed" probation -- and he's widely considered college athletics' resident cantankerous crank. Coach K is the most decorated and accomplished coach in college basketball history, but he has also become the most polarizing coach in the sport: When he passed his mentor Bob Knight to become the winningest coach in NCAA history, The Atlantic convened a panel called "Why Everybody Hates Coach K."
Duke has become a brand name for sneering elitism in ways that vastly outstretch its university, and that's because of Coach K. (We make GIFs of Coach K's sadness.) Maybe it's our jealousy, maybe it's his arrogance, but Coach K has become the bad guy in college sports, whether he deserves it or not. If Dean Smith had said, "I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball" back in 1989, we would have all applauded and agreed with him. When Coach K says it in an American Express commercial, it makes us throw things across the room. Smith wasn't just around forever, he was loved forever. And we don't love anything forever anymore.
Smith also was outspoken on social issues -- particularly racial issues, though he also spoke openly against the death penalty, something 60 percent of Americans support -- in a way that no coach ever does anymore, in any sport. The only times in recent memory that I can remember any coach speaking out about anything were David Blatt supporting Israel's war in Gaza, Jack Del Rio introducing Sarah Palin at a rally and Pete Carroll having some, um, interesting thoughts about 9/11. (You can argue about Tony La Russa at a Glenn Beck rally all you want.) As those examples showed, there's no real upside in a coach talking about politics anymore. (I sometimes wonder if there's upside for any of us to.) Smith was outspoken in a way that was once rewarded, and now isn't.
There are coaches you can imagine being around for a long time, likable, successful: Bill Self, Bob Stoops, Mark Richt, Bruce Bochy, Gregg Popovich. But they will always protect their flank in a way Dean Smith never did … and they won't be allowed to stay around as long as he did anyway. (Each of them, men who generally have it easier than most coaches, is hammered regularly in a way Smith never was.) Dean Smith was a special person and deserves every warm remembrance he's getting today. But let's not kid ourselves: If Dean Smith were starting today, we'd eat him alive.