Mark Story

Mark Story: No coach ever caused Kentucky fans more angst than Dean Smith

Dean Smith
Dean Smith

With one notable exception, even the men's basketball coaches who have enjoyed the most all-time "success" against the Kentucky Wildcats haven't really "succeeded."

Dale Brown, the ex-LSU head man, had 18 victories over Kentucky — but he lost 33 times for a winning percentage of 35.3.

Billy Donovan, on the verge of catching and passing Brown as the coach with the most career wins against UK, is still only 17-27 (38.6 percent) against the Big Blue.

Ray Mears, the former Tennessee coach, went 15-15; Bobby Knight was 15-18 (45.4 percent); Roy Skinner, the former Vanderbilt head man, went 14-18 (43.8 percent) versus the Cats.

Then there is that one exception. Across his long North Carolina career, Dean Smith flat-out had UK's number.

As a young coach making his name, Smith went 5-2 against an aging Adolph Rupp.

In the prime of his coaching years, Smith was 5-1 against Joe B. Hall.

Toward the end of a Hall of Fame career, Smith was 3-0 versus Rick Pitino.

Overall, Smith was 13-3 against Kentucky, a cool 81.3 winning percentage.

It is not a stretch to say Smith, who died Saturday evening in Chapel Hill at age 83, is the one coach who caused basketball fans in Kentucky more angst than any other.

Smith hung two of the more painful NCAA Tournament defeats in UK history on the Cats.

In the 1977 East Region finals, Kentucky fell behind Carolina 53-41 at halftime. In half two, the Cats rallied within 59-53 — when Smith ordered the Tar Heels into their famous (or infamous) Four Corners delay game.

North Carolina did not take a shot in the final 9:35 of the game, yet it stayed ahead by making free throws. UNC cashed 16 straight foul shots at one point, 33 of 36 overall, and won 79-72.

That game also featured the incident in which Smith confronted Kentucky's Rick Robey on the court after the UK player was called for a foul for knocking Carolina guard John Kuester down with a forearm.

Robey told the media afterwards that Smith "came up to me and called me a cheap son of a b----.'"

Smith denied calling Robey an SOB. "I don't swear. I was badly misquoted," Smith said then. "My Mom and Dad will be mad if they hear I said those things."

For decades, Kentucky backers seethed over the nerve of an opposing coach chastising a UK player. When I wrote about the incident the weekend of this season's UK-UNC game — nearly 38 years after it happened — I got more email in reply than to any article I wrote in 2014.

A full 18 years after the 1977 NCAA meeting, Smith and North Carolina beat Kentucky out of another Final Four trip.

The 1994-95 Wildcats steamrolled their first three NCAA tourney foes by an average of almost 31 points a game. Smith, however, flummoxed Pitino's Cats into 21-of-75 shooting with a tricky, trapping zone defense.

The Tar Heels scored a 74-61 upset. A fuming Pitino stormed off the court.

There was one other area where Smith always seemed to get the upper hand on Kentucky: the national media narrative.

Where UK basketball was often portrayed, not always unfairly, as driven by an excessive zeal for winning, Smith's "Carolina way" was held up as the counter example of "doing things the right way."

During the 1960s, Smith had played an admirable role in the racial integration of Chapel Hill, escorting a black theology student into an eatery and demanding service. The coach's UNC players are said to have graduated at a 96 percent rate.

In recent years, however, as North Carolina has been swept up in a far-reaching academic scandal that involved alleged "paper classes" in the school's department of African and Afro-American Studies, some Kentucky fans have reveled in schadenfreude. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, UNC men's hoops players were responsible for 54 enrollments in sham classes from 1993 to 1997 — the final four seasons Smith coached.

Whether Smith's legacy should be tainted by what we've recently learned about North Carolina will be hotly debated in the years to come.

What is not up for argument is that no basketball coach who has regularly faced the Kentucky Wildcats has ever dominated UK like Dean Smith did.

That is no small achievement.

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