Legendary Tarheels coach Dean Smith had plenty of Notre Dame ties.

Irish Extra: There Are Dean Smith Fighting Irish Connections, Too

Feb. 9, 2015

The news of the death of Hall of Fame University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith echoed all over the sports world Sunday, and in particular up and down Tobacco Road where he mostly plied his trade.

But, even though the University of Notre Dame only a year ago began competing in the same Atlantic Coast Conference where Smith resided, there have been plenty of connections over the years with the longtime Tar Heel coaching great:

  • Two years after graduating from the University of Kansas, Smith took a job in 1955 as an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy. In Smith’s third and final season with the Falcons (under head coach Bob Spear), Notre Dame and Air Force met for the first time, with the Irish prevailing 98-70 in South Bend on Feb. 8, 1958, behind 43 points from Irish standout Tommy Hawkins.
  • When Smith spent three seasons as a North Carolina assistant coach under Frank McGuire from 1958-59 through 1960-61, the Tar Heels defeated Johnny Jordan’s Irish four times over those three years:
    • 1958-59 — #10 North Carolina defeated Notre Dame 81-77 (the opening game of the Bluegrass Festival in Louisville in Hawkins’ senior year), and two weeks later the #4 Tar Heels knocked off the Irish 69-54 in Charlotte
    • 1959-60 – #11 North Carolina won 75-65 over Notre Dame in Charlotte
    • 1960-61 — #6 North Carolina defeated Notre Dame 73-71 in Charlotte (despite the Irish leading 71-68 with less than a minute remaining)
  • On his Campus Insiders podcast, former Irish head basketball coach Digger Phelps (1971-91) talked about how back in the 1960s he tried to get an assistant coaching position at North Carolina under Smith. The opening eventually went to Larry Brown. Phelps and Smith watched as their Irish and Tar Heel teams faced off on 11 occasions, three times in the NCAA Championship, once in the NIT and four times when both teams were ranked.
  • After Smith became the North Carolina head coach in 1961, his Tar Heels played Notre Dame on 14 occasions (Irish wins in bold):
    • 1961-62 at Charlotte–North Carolina 99, Notre Dame 80 (the Tar Heels finished 8-9 that year in Smith’s first season as head coach)
    • 1962-63 at Notre Dame–#14 North Carolina 76, Notre Dame 68, in overtime (the Irish led 63-61 with six seconds left in regulation after a Jay Miller tip-in, but a 40-foot heave by the Heels’ Billy Cunningham sent the game to OT in an overflowing Notre Dame Fieldhouse)
    • 1963-64 in Greensboro–#19 North Carolina 78, Notre Dame 68
    • 1971-72 at MSG in New York–#3 North Carolina 99, Notre Dame 74 (in Phelps’ first season at Notre Dame)
    • 1972-73 at MSG in New York in an NIT semifinal–Notre Dame 78, #11 North Carolina 71 (the Tar Heels were ACC regular-season champions but lost in the ACC Tournament; John Shumate made 11 of 12 shots and had 24 points for the Irish)
    • 1976-77 at College Park in an NCAA regional semifinal–#3 North Carolina 79, #10 Notre Dame 77 (Phil Ford won it on two late free throws after the Irish led 40-30 at halftime)
    • 1984-85 at Notre Dame in an NCAA second-round game–North Carolina 60, Notre Dame 58 (the Tar Heels won it on a last-second Kenny Smith bucket)
    • 1985-86 at Chapel Hill–#1 North Carolina 73, #15 Notre Dame 61 (Smith had 20 points for Carolina and Ken Barlow 18 for Notre Dame in a contest tied with 11:23 left)
    • 1986-87 at Notre Dame–Notre Dame 60, #1 North Carolina 58 (the Irish ended Carolina’s 16-game win streak by coming back from a 16-point first-half deficit)
    • 1986-87 at East Rutherford, N.J., in an NCAA regional semifinal–#2 North Carolina 74, #18 Notre Dame 68 (J.R. Reid had 31 points for the Heels, David Rivers 23 for the Irish)
    • 1990-91 at East Rutherford, N.J.–#7 North Carolina 82, Notre Dame 47 (Rick Fox scored 22 for Carolina)
    • 1991-92 at MSG in New York–Notre Dame 88, #8 North Carolina 76 (LaPhonso Ellis had 31 points and Daimon Sweet 30 for the Irish)
    • 1992-93 at Chapel Hill–#3 North Carolina 85, Notre Dame 56 (Indiana native Eric Montross led the Heels with 19 points, Monty Williams had 20 for the Irish)
    • 1993-94 at Notre Dame–#4 North Carolina 80, Notre Dame 71 (Montross led the Heels with 23 points, Williams again had 20 for the Irish)
  • Current Irish coach Mike Brey had a ringside seat for eight seasons (1987-88 through 1994-95) as a Duke assistant coach when Smith and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski squared off at least twice per season.

Said Brey, “When I was at Duke and Mike and Dean were going at it for supremacy in the league, what an education for me. By osmosis, at the height of the rivalry, it was so good for my career. I absorbed a lot. What training for being a coach for a young guy, watching him and Mike.

“After my first year as head coach at Delaware, we go 15-12. At the Final Four that year I see Dean in a hotel lobby, and he comes over and says hello and goes, `Great first year, 15-12, that’s really good.’ And I’m thinking, `That guy knows my record?’ I walked around on cloud nine the rest of the weekend–Dean Smith knew my record at Delaware. But that’s the kind of guy he was.

“My experience actually started by way of Morgan Wootten because Morgan and he were very close. We ran a lot of the Carolina system when I was a player and coach at DeMatha (High School in Hyattsville, Maryland), and Dean would be up there to recruit. So I first got to know him as a player at DeMatha and connected with him there.”

During Brey’s years as a Duke assistant, his Blue Devil teams were 9-11 against Smith’s Carolina teams, including a 2-1 mark in ACC Tournament title games and a 3-5 record in games played in Chapel Hill.
  • Former Notre Dame assistant sports information director Karen Croake worked for a year in the same position in 1978-79 at North Carolina: “I spent a year working in sports information at North Carolina during a time when women were just starting to `infiltrate’ the world of sports media. We were few and far between, and it was often a challenge to be accepted in the pretty inclusive `all-boys’ club.’ Yet, Coach Smith always treated me with kindness and respect and never once questioned what a 24-year-old female from Purdue University could possibly know about ACC basketball (which wasn’t much). He welcomed me into the Tar Heel family, and that helped enable me to work effectively with the media there as well as other coaches and administrators around the league. If Coach Smith thought I was capable, well, that was good enough for everyone else. When I left a little over a year later to come to Notre Dame, he thanked me for my work, wished me well and told me to keep Digger out of trouble.
“I didn’t see Coach Smith again until 1985, when Carolina opened its NCAA Tournament play in first- and second-round games at the Joyce Center. I was working as the TV timeout coordinator. I didn’t think he’d remember me, but he did.

“He was an amazing coach, but the way he treated people was extraordinary. He made the world a better place.”
  • Another former Notre Dame assistant sports information director, Eddie White, offered these thoughts on his Indiana Pacers blog: “I ran into Coach Smith at an NCAA tournament game in 1985 at Notre Dame. His Tar Heels were in South Bend to try and advance in the tournament. I had to take him to the media room with his longtime SID (sports information director) Rick Brewer. He was as elegant a person as you could imagine. He treated me like I was somebody! I never forgot that.”
  • Notre Dame played in only the third men’s college basketball game ever played at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill. That came on Jan. 26, 1986, as top-ranked North Carolina defeated 15th-rated Notre Dame 73-61. Notre Dame’s first men’s basketball win in Chapel Hill came last month.
  • In 1988, when Notre Dame was playing host to first- and second-round NCAA games at the Joyce Center, Phelps’ #10 seed Irish were assigned to Chapel Hill where they fell 83-75 to seventh-seeded SMU.
  • Former North Carolina player Matt Doherty, who played on the 1992 Tar Heel national championship squad, spent one season as Irish men’s basketball coach in 1999-2000. Doherty’s Irish finished 22-15 and played in the NIT title game.
  • Former Notre Dame athletics director Gene Corrigan (1981-87) had dozens of interactions with Smith during Corrigan’s time as athletics director at Virginia (1971-81) and later commissioner of the ACC (1987-1997).
  • Jimmy Black, a teammate of Doherty under Smith at North Carolina, was an assistant coach at Notre Dame under John MacLeod from 1991-92 through 1994-95.
  • Scott Dupree, a former Notre Dame sports information intern, is a North Carolina graduate who worked in the Tar Heel sports information office (he’s now executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance):
“When I was 11, in the fall of 1974, like so many kids in North Carolina I was a huge Carolina basketball fan, but I had never been to a game,” said Dupree. “My mom, not really knowing any better, wrote a letter directly to the UNC basketball office c/o Coach Dean Smith. She said that her son was a big Tar Heels fan and would love more than anything to go to a game in Carmichael one day, but she didn’t know how to go about getting tickets, because she thought it was virtually impossible.

“Two weeks later, she gets a letter in the mail. On North Carolina basketball letterhead, it was a personal hand-written note from Coach Smith himself. “Dear Mrs. Dupree, I’m delighted to know that your son is a Tar Heel fan. I have included three tickets to an upcoming game. I hope you and your son enjoy your visit to Chapel Hill.” It was signed Dean Smith.

“That was the fall of 1974. I didn’t know anything about the letter. For Christmas that year my parents gave me a winter jacket. In one of the pockets was an envelope … three tickets to a Carolina game and a personal letter from Coach Smith! Man, I was on top of the world! To this day it remains my favorite Christmas present ever … a personal gift directly from Coach Smith.

“I’ll never forget that first game. It’s burned in my memory … Feb. 3, 1975. Carolina 79, South Florida 72. Carmichael Auditorium, Phil Ford’s freshman year. It was magical.

“A second story … and this is more about the larger than life presence of Coach Smith in North Carolina. I’ve always said, as a kid growing up in North Carolina in the 1970s and `80s, Coach Smith might as well have been the President of the United States. He was that big. That important.

“So, it’s the fall of 1985. I was a student assistant in the Carolina sports information office, and my boss Rick Brewer called me into his office one afternoon. He says, `I need you to get my car and take Coach Smith to a photo shoot with the Dallas Morning News. It’s off campus about 10 minutes away.’ I remember my response: `What, are you joking?’ Rick couldn’t go for some reason, and apparently no one else could either. The Dallas Morning News was traveling around the county getting photos of the coaches of the top teams in the nation that preseason, all standing along various roadways, for a photo essay titled, `The Road to the Final Four in Dallas.’

“I was terrified, but not because I would be spending time with Coach Smith. I knew him just a bit from working in the sports information office, and of course he knew my name because Coach Smith knew everyone’s name.

“No, I was terrified because Coach Smith’s safety would be in my hands and I didn’t particularly care for that responsibility. I remember my hands practically trembling on the steering wheel. All I could think was, `Man, if I have a wreck and something happens to Coach Smith . . . ‘

“To this day I have no idea what he said or what we talked about during our 20 minutes in the car together, and I still truly regret that. It has always bothered me. And I can only imagine the babbling nonsense that I must have spoken, because I was so nervous driving for Coach Smith.”

Here are some other people whose athletic careers intersected both in South Bend and Chapel Hill in and around Smith’s time in Chapel Hill:

  • Former Notre Dame baseball coach Larry Gallo (1980-87) is now executive associate athletics director at North Carolina and has been part of the Tar Heel athletics administration since 1997.
  • Former Notre Dame associate athletics director Bubba Cunningham has been the athletics director at North Carolina since 2011.
  • Former Notre Dame tennis player Brian Kalbas (he is a 1989 graduate and captained the Irish men’s team that season) has been the North Carolina head men’s tennis coach since 2003. He also served as an Irish assistant coach from 1989-92.
  • Former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Tom Timmermans (he was an Irish captain in 2003-04) has been the associate director for compliance at North Carolina since 2011.
  • Former Irish athletics ticketing staffer Laura Woodward accepted a position last summer as director of ticketing, communications and customer service at North Carolina.
  • The athletic staffs at Notre Dame and North Carolina have had long-term working relationships as part of their collaboration as founding institutions of the Sports Management Institute.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director