It is agreed, as it often is on the day of a great person’s death, that there will never be another like him. And so it is with Dean Smith.
The longtime face of North Carolina athletics passed Saturday to the usual metric tons of praise, and it is generally agreed among even his most strident rivals and critics that they are all richly merited. It is only in death, it seems, that one’s sins are placed in perspective against his or her deeds, and on balance Smith was far better for those he touched and the ethical stands he made than whatever you might have thought about the four-corner offense or the way he worked officials.
So who, then, is the next Dean Smith, if there is one? Which active coaching figures matter as much as he did? Who changed his or her sport, who won the loyalty of those around him or her, and who defined his or her era? Who was, in point of fact, truly great on a Smithian scale?
But here’s where it gets odd: “Great” in this case does not mean “people you liked” but “people who made a significant impact in the sport in which they toiled.” It is the value-neutral Time Magazine of Person of the Year standard, and how it could juxtapose Mahatma Gandhi and the French traitor Pierre Laval, Bill Clinton and the man who tried to impeach him, Ken Starr, and the completely daffy selections of “You” and Vladimir Putin.
So put away your “Yeah, but he’s a bad guy” arguments. Your bad guy is someone else’s “good guy,” and if you don’t think so, tell a Patriot fan in Southie that Bill Belichick is a weasel and see how quickly your debate turns into a concussion.
And what better place to start than:
BILL BELICHICK: Everything you think may well be true, but his successes defined an era of the National Football League. His tactical mastery is unmatched, his ability to find the soft spots in the talent market are exemplary, and he’s a thumb short of the full Super Bowl Ring sampler. And if you also find him disturbingly amoral on the matter of fair play, well, that’s the nature of football as well, and indeed of all sports. These are cynical times, and those who don’t do, get done.
By that standard:
NICK SABAN: Not as accomplished by Belichick over as long a period, but he re-drew the lines of college football around the Southeastern Conference, and his red tide raised most other SEC boats.
Then there’s GREGG POPOVICH: Easily the best NBA coach of his era, and probably the impactful equal of all save Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson. He is changing the nature of the NBA game through acolytes like Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr, and while talent still defines most coaches, the Pop style is easily recognizable and is singlehandedly ending the era of the isolation.
And here we should mention GENO AURIEMMA: Connecticut finished the road paved by Pat Summitt and Tennessee, and nobody wins without getting through Auriemma. His tactical revolution is much less important than his talent acquisitions, but coaching is both.
And on the men’s side, MIKE KRZYZEWSKI: he had the advantage of sharpening his blade against Smith, and raising Duke’s game to meet Carolina’s, but the deed was done. Krzyzewski is a college lifer, which probably gives him a leg up on JOHN CALIPARI, but Calipari’s revolution is not sustainable across the full game because it requires gaining a monopoly on the nation’s one-and-done players. When the system is changed, we will see Calipari’s ability to adjust, but not yet.
In hockey, there is MIKE BABCOCK and nobody else, although what he has done in Detroit has at least as much to do with general manager Ken Holland, and is more a triumph of how two strong-willed men find common ground (a lesson here for the 49ers, who forgot that truth completely). Will there be a Babcock Era? Probably not – the Red Wings were a going concern before he got there, but he has upheld and advanced the standard.
In world football, there is JOSE MOURINHO, though mostly to the benefit of the brand that is JOSE MOURINHO.
And in baseball, there is, well, nobody right now. Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre are gone, and there is no discernible Bruce Bochy School of managing, in that what he does works for him but has not yet been adapted across the game. Frankly, a better case could be made for BILLY BEANE, though he is a general manager, but his attraction to metrics and market conditions is actually modified from theories first mastered by Branch Rickey nearly 80 years ago, and without the benefit of better results in what Beane calls “the crapshoot” of the postseason, the argument for Beane is as tenuous as it is solid.
There are others, but as they do not come easily to mind, they become an eye-of-the-beholder matter. Being nationally impactful isn’t always as important as merely being there for your players over the years, and coaches you never heard of make as much of a difference as ones whom you see on TV every weekend.
In the end, coaching remains a largely subjective matter. Dean Smith was one of the very few to transit across lines of loyalty and rivalry, and though his like will be seen again, it will be only very rarely.