If you grew up in Kansas in the 1940s, you thought it was the center of the United States, and geographically it was quite literally was. It also seemed that anybody of real importance came from there, Amelia Earhart was from there, and Walter Chrysler, and of course, Dwight D. Eisenhower… — Dean Smith, A Coach’s Life
Kansas was also at the center of the basketball world. The sport’s inventor, James Naismith, took the game to the University of Kansas, where he was the school’s first coach. Forrest “Phog” Allen learned the game while playing for Naismith. Allen became known as the “Father of Basketball Coaching” tutoring noted future coaches, Adolph Rupp, Ralph Miller, and Dean Smith.
The state’s basketball pedigree extended beyond Mount Oread, however. Fred “Tex” Winter invented the triangle offense while coaching at Kansas State. Lon Kruger and Gene Keady — both K-State alums — went on to remarkable coaching careers. Likewise, Eddie Sutton was born in the state.
Dean Smith, died last night in Chapel Hill, NC at age 83. He was a legendary figure, and, at the time of his retirement, he was the winningest coach in NCAA Division 1 basketball. Through most of his fame is connected to North Carolina, you could consider Smith Kansas’ John Wooden. Deep down, he was just an educator from Emporia, who found himself in a good situation. Like Wooden, Smith won a national championship in college and exported the values he learned to a new state.
Smith’s parents were both educators. A young Dean grew up with an excellent example at home. His mother was highly intelligent, meticulous, frugal, and well-organized. Important qualities for any coach’s wife. Indeed, his father coached high school football and basketball. During the 1930s, his father’s teams were already integrated. The 1934 Emporia High basketball team was the first integrated team to win a Kansas state championship. He tried to create a supportive, family atmosphere surrounding his teams, inviting their mothers over for a team dinner at least once per season. Smith’s parents also set a good example by abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and profanity.
His father was friends with Emporia’s most famous resident, William Allen White, and later served as pallbearer at his funeral. This was likely because of his deep interest in politics and in making a difference in the world around him. Smith recalled his parents incessant chatter over the 1940 Presidential election. Like most Kansans, they were supporters of the Republican candidate, Wendall Wilkie.
Dean Smith spent most of his formative years in Emporia, but graduated from Topeka High School in 1949. Five-years later, the Topeka schools were integrated by Brown v. Board, but Smith advocated for the integration of his high school basketball team much earlier. Among his classmates was future U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, who dated on of his best friends. From there, Smith matriculated at the University of Kansas (KU) on an academic scholarship. He walked on to the football and basketball teams as a freshman. Basketball, of course, was where Smith stood out. The Jayhawks were NCAA Champions his junior year (1952) and runners-up his senior season (1953). His teammate on those squads was LaVannes Squires, KU’s first black player, who was also a reserve guard. Squires played for the varsity Jayhawks from 1951 to 1954. While mostly a reserve player too, Smith soaked up the wisdom of KU coaches, “Phog” Allen and Dick Harp. After graduating, he briefly served as assistant to Allen and Harp. This experience was integral to Smith’s future success.
These formative years, foreshadow much of Smith’s future. On the court, he passed his mentor, Allen, and fellow KU alum, Rupp, in total wins. Like Rupp, he exported Kansas basketball to a new state and established what would become one of the preeminent basketball programs. Unlike Rupp, and to a lesser extent Allen, he was more determined on the issue of integration. Following the lessons of his father, he pushed for the integration of North Carolina basketball in the 1960s. Likewise, he valued education and teamwork. Smith’s Tar Heel teams graduated 97% of their players.
Winning, of course, is what made Smith most famous. His North Carolina teams played in 11 Final Fours and won 2 NCAA champions (and 1 NIT Championship). He also coached Team USA to the 1976 Olympic Gold Medal.
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Smith’s life and legacy have always been interesting to me. He was born just 4 years before my Grandfather, who also grew up near Emporia, KS. My Grandfather also went on to enjoy a long career as an educator, though he was never a coach. The similar timeline and locations make Smith easy for me to relate to. When I think of him, I think of these early moments, the influence of his childhood and adolescence in Kansas, more than his Carolina heydays.
While it may not seem like Kansas is the center of the United States today, there is still an immense pride among its residents and it’s still not hard to find Kansans in influential positions. Former Secretary of State Robert Gates was born in Wichita. Former Chairmans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers was born in Kansas City and grew up in the Kansas suburbs before graduating from Kansas State. Baseball statistician and sabermetrics inventor, Bill James hails from Lawrence (where he continues to live) and is a KU alum. And, it’s impossible to forget, the Koch Brothers are from Wichita.
Of course, this is largely nostalgic and biased, but to me, Smith reflects the important values Kansans taken pride in, and the sport that many of us consider to be our religion. The religious nature of college basketball to Kansans is reflected in the remarkable success of their native sons in the coaching world. And Smith was the best. Here is an overview of the success of Kansas-born Division I basketball head coaches:
- Dean Smith — born Emporia, KS — college KU — coached Air Force, North Carolina — 879 wins — 11 Final Fours — 2 national titles
- Adolph Rupp — born Halstead, KS — college KU — coached Kentucky — 876 wins — 6 Final Fours — 4 national titles
- Eddie Sutton — born Bucklin, KS — college OK-State — coached Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma State, San Francisco — 804 wins — 3 Final Fours — 0 national titles
- Ralph Miller — born Chanute, KS –college KU — coached Wichita State, Iowa, Oregon State — 657 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles
- Gene Keady — born Larned, KS — college K-State – coached Western Kentucky, Purdue – 550 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles
- Lon Kruger — born Silver Lake, KS — college K-State — coached Texas, Pan Am, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV, Oklahoma — 545 wins — 1 Final Four — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
- Johnny Orr — born in Yale, KS — college Illinois, Beloit — coached Massachusetts, Michigan, Iowa State — 466 wins — 1 Final Four — 0 national titles
- Mark Turgeon — born in Topeka, KS — college KU — coached Jacksonville State, Wichita State, Texas A&M, Maryland – 326 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
- Mark Fox — born in Garden City, KS — college Eastern New Mexico — coached Nevada, Georgia — 221 wins — 0 Final Fours — 0 national titles (ACTIVE)
- Bill Guthridge — Born in Parsons, KS — college K-State — coached North Carolina — 80 wins — 2 Final Fours — 0 national titles
Totals: 5,404 wins — 23 Final Fours — 6 national titles
In addition to the totals, there are two basketball arenas and three courts named after these Kansans: Rupp Arena (Kentucky), Dean Smith Center (North Carolina), Keady Court (Purdue), Eddie Sutton Court (Oklahoma State), and Ralph Miller Court (Oregon State).
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Several years ago, I told one of my advisors I was interested in learning more about Naismith and “Phog” Allen. Being a native of Kansas, I was interested in Allen especially, but the history of basketball more generally. I also liked studying coaches. They really interest me and I think there are lessons to be learned from their lives. Biographies of famous coaches was part of what got me into doing sports history.
Anyhow, while my advisor conceded that “Phog” Allen was well-known and important to some, he thought Allen lacked an interesting story. Furthermore, he wondered what his influence he had beyond coaching, and if he was really worth studying from a historical perspective. He told someone like Adolph Rupp might be a little bit better because of the racial dynamics in his tenure at Kentucky, but even then there probably wasn’t much more to his life beside the fact he won a bunch of games. I understood where he is coming from — both as a scholar and someone who tries to reach a popular audience; perhaps there isn’t much else to say about these figures. But I’ve never been fully convinced. The giants of college basketball history deserve and need another look.
There is no doubt that my obsession with college basketball, and my home state, taint this outlook. But as I’ve read more and written more sports history, I really think it can be done. As I’ve tried to show above, Dean Smith is one figure with a compelling and significant story. I’ve read his co-written autobiography, A Coach’s Life, and a few other journalist biographies of him. There’s a lot to his story — he was a tremendously successful coach, an advocate for integration, and more. Interrogating his career at North Carolina and charting how his teams came to symbolize the region and the sport, particularly during the 1980s and 90s, would also be fascinating. John Matthew Smith wrote an excellent book on John Wooden and his UCLA dynasties that could serve as a template.
Reflecting on Dean Smith’s life and my knowledge of the college basketball’s history, it seems clear that his career and influence builds off of Wooden’s. Indeed, they even intersect. Wooden’s UCLA teams defeated Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1968 championship game in the middle of its string of 10 NCAA championships. Though it was Smith’s second Final Four, he was still a relatively young coach (it was his 7th season) refining his craft. After Wooden retired, Smith replaced him as one of the most venerated college basketball coaches in America. Smith continued on into the modern era of the NCAA tournament (it’s post-1980 boom) and the corporatization of college sports, symbolized by North Carolina’ signing its first contract with Nike in 1993. While the sport has undoubtedly continued to evolve since Smith’s retirement in 1997, his career offers a window into basketball’s development since Wooden’s retirement.
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Smith’s passing is a time to honor his incredible legacy as well as contextualize him as a product of an era, and a place, where both Kansas and college basketball were at the center of the United States. I hope his legacy lives as an inspiration to Kansans, like it did for me, and as a symbol of the state’s hard-working values. Smith grew into an iconic coach. But, just like John Wooden was shaped by his early Indiana life and Purdue career, Dean Smith would not have been who he was without the lessons he learned from his parents in Emporia and his coaches at KU. And, without Dean Smith, North Carolina would not be what it is today. Rest In Peace, Coach Smith.