They have all had similar thoughts, but it was Bill Foster, the former Duke coach, who said it best for all of them. Several years ago, after reading yet another paean of praise to North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, Foster shook his head and said, "Funny, I always thought it was Naismith who invented basketball, not Dean Smith."
An exaggeration? Not by much. Twenty-six years into his reign, Dean Smith is revered and reviled. But if you talk ACC basketball, you start by talking about him. And if you coach ACC basketball, there is no getting away from him.
"When someone is on top," North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano once said, "everyone takes shots at him. Dean has been on top a long time."
Smith has won the ACC tournament nine times, the regular season 14 times (10 outright) and, in the last 20 years, has finished worse than first or second only once.
That means, as programs rise and fall in the ACC, there is one constant: North Carolina and Smith. That also means that if you are a coach and you want to get to the top of the ACC, you have to climb over Smith to get there. Smith, competitor that he is, lets no one climb over him without waging a war. And so, over the years, coaches have come and dueled with Smith and have left and been replaced, and the cycle begins again.
When Lefty Driesell was first at Maryland, he used to joke that he thought the name of the coach at North Carolina was "that damn Dean." Why? "Because every morning Norman Sloan (then at North Carolina State) would call me on the phone and scream, 'Do you know what that damn Dean just did?' "
Over the years, Driesell had a few choice words for Smith. He often referred to Smith in private as "that hook-nosed little sucker." He once wrote a letter to Smith ordering him to never shake hands with him after a game again. The next year, when Smith approached him to shake hands, Driesell waved him away. A fight between the two coaching staffs almost ensued.
Now, with Driesell out of coaching, he and Smith are pals. "Dean's a good guy, I like him," Driesell said recently. "He's a great coach, just look at his record. He's honest and I consider him a friend."
But what about calling him a hook-nosed little sucker?
"Aw, I was just fooling."
More typical of Smith's relationship with league coaches is the one he has with Virginia's Terry Holland. Several years ago, Holland made the comment that Smith was not as much of a gentleman as he seemed to be. He said that mainly because of something that had happened during the 1977 ACC championship game: at halftime Smith cornered Virginia's Marc Iavaroni and accused him of dirty play. Holland was furious, but after his comment about Smith, it was Holland who was roundly criticized, especially in North Carolina.
Now, Holland understands that raging at Smith is useless.
"It's a process you go through," Holland said. And how, he was asked, had he gone through that process? "Kicking and screaming," he answered.
The same can be said of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. When Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1981 he vowed that he would think of Smith merely as a good coach he was trying to compete with. In 1984, after losing a close game to North Carolina, Krzyzewski angrily said that there was a double standard among ACC officials: one for Smith and one for everyone else. Smith was infuriated by the comment, so much so that to this day he and Krzyzewski have -- at best -- a cool relationship.
Each says he respects the other. And that is it. A couple of years ago, asked about the cool relationship, Krzyzewski said, "I like Dean. But if you want to know if we sit around and smoke cigarettes together (Smith is a two-pack-a-day man), no, we don't do that."
Few ACC coaches socialize with Smith. To be fair, few ACC coaches socialize with each other. Holland was friendly with Bill Foster when he was at Clemson and Valvano is close to Bob Staak, now the Wake Forest coach, a relationship dating back to when Staak played for Valvano at Connecticut. But if the coaches are united on one thing, it is Smith.
In fact, several years ago at the ACC meetings, Driesell called the other six coaches into a room after a meeting and announced, "Listen, we got to get together and do something about Dean. I'm tired of him whipping us all the time."
Valvano, new to the league at the time, piped up with a suggestion: "Tell you what, Lefty, when you play him, I'll send my best guys over. When I play him, you send yours. That way, maybe, we'll have a chance."
They haven't tried it ... yet.