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On Dean's List, This Is Hardly Important

March 13, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina Coach Dean Smith is two wins shy of breaking one of college basketball's most hallowed records but acting as though he has just been called before an NCAA infractions committee.

It's difficult to understand.

Let's face it, some records need to be broken.

Adolph Rupp's mark of 876 wins in 42 seasons at Kentucky is one of them. Rupp was a great coach, but rest assured he won't be remembered for his contributions to civil rights. Rupp won four national titles, yet his legacy to many will be tied to the 1966 national title game he lost, when his white-supremacy theories were put to rest against an all-black team at Texas Western. Rupp retired in 1972, having never advanced a team to the Final Four after basketball fully integrated.

So here comes Smith, human being exemplar who--barring one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history--will tie Rupp's record tonight against 11-18 Fairfield in the opening round at Lawrence Joel Veterans Coliseum.

And Smith puts out a gag order . . . on himself.

"It's not that I'm ashamed of the players we've had that produced those nice numbers," Smith said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters. "But certainly, at every possible turn, the players aren't going to talk about anything and I'm not going to talk about anything other than this team trying to win its 25th game of the season Thursday night. I've never been into coaches' records anyway."

Those close to the North Carolina coach say the prospect of breaking Rupp's record in the NCAA tournament is Smith's worst nightmare, that he might be taking this better if he were chasing the mark against Valparaiso in the Great Alaska Shootout.

John Lotz, an assistant under Smith for eight years in the 1960s and now assistant athletic director at North Carolina, says he thinks the NCAA brackets were manipulated so that Smith might break Rupp's record on Saturday against Indiana and Bob Knight.

"Personally, I think it's a setup," Lotz said.

Smith watchers insist the coach truly does not care about Rupp's mark and worries that the attention will detract from his team.

"Whether he breaks the record, that's inconsequential to him," said former Tar Heel Bobby Jones, now the boys' basketball coach at Charlotte Christian High School. "His team is all consuming."

Lotz recalled the fit Smith threw a few years ago when the university decided to name the new basketball arena in his honor.

"And they said, 'Tough, we're going to name it whether he wants it or not,' " Lotz said.

Smith was said to have been even considering retirement to avoid Rupp altogether until several former players begged him to go for the record, if not for himself, then for them.

It just doesn't make sense. Why not bask a little bit, savor the moment?

It's not as if Smith is trampling on hallowed Carolina ground. We're talking Kentucky, Carolina's archnemesis in hoops since the hoop skirt.

Smith and Rupp were coaching contemporaries only nine seasons and were not particularly close. Once, Smith met Rupp in a Charlotte hotel room for a chat as "the Baron" lounged in his red pajamas.

So why the publicity barricade?

"He's very funny about himself," Lotz said of Smith. "He's just funny that way."

You really couldn't get a better trade-in on record holders. Smith not only was 5-2 against Rupp, he was infinitely more enlightened.

"Let's be honest," Lotz said of Rupp. "He never had many black players at Kentucky. It was a different league."

It was Smith who, in 1958, walked into a Chapel Hill restaurant with a black man to challenge the eatery's segregation policies.

"Doing what's right isn't something to brag about," he said later.

It was Smith who tried to sign North Carolina's first black player, Lou Hudson, in 1961, not succeeding only because Hudson didn't score high enough on his SATs.

It was Smith who did recruit the Tar Heels' first black, Charlie Scott, in 1966.

"His philosophy is, 'In the eyes of God, every person is a person of worth,' " Lotz said. "He always fought for equality. His father, who was a high school basketball coach, had the first black player in Kansas."

It is Smith who has never had a team on NCAA probation, Smith who never uttered a curse word anyone can remember. When a national writer recounted a courtside "cussing" match between Smith and Clemson Coach Rick Barnes last year, the scribe later wrote a letter of apology when it was confirmed that Smith did not, in fact, curse. So what better man than Dean Smith to seize history from Rupp, who piled up wins in a watered down Southeastern Conference as he occasionally invited officials to ride Kentucky's team bus to away games.

Since becoming coach in Chapel Hill in 1961 at age 30, Smith has dominated one of the nation's top conferences, the Atlantic Coast. In 36 seasons, he has averaged 24 wins a season, won two national titles, posted 27 consecutive 20-win seasons and is making his 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance.

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