It could be argued that only three things unite basketball teams in the tough , competitive Atlantic Coast Conference, which placed four teams in the top 20 of this year's final regular season national rankings. One common element is their thirst for supremacy. Another is their pride in the caliber of league play. The third is the pleasure they take in defeating the Tar Heels of North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are the New York Yankees of the ACC, perennial contenders with an air about them of utter confidence and capability. In the parlance of sports , they have "a winning tradition" -- and then some.
The current team has followed the mold, too, winning the school's ninth ACC title in the last 14 years and continuing a streak of always finishing first or second in the conference and always appearing in a post-season tournament during that period.
Five times in that span, moreover, the boys in sky blue and white have advanced at least to the NCAA semifinals. Over the course of the past two decades, they have averaged 21 wins per season -- and the last time they won less than 20 was 1970.
All this success, some feel, tends to breed a certain arrogance.
The man most responsible for the Tar Heels' remarkable prowess is head coach Dean Smith, coach of the gold-medal winning 1976 US Olympic basketball team.
Smith took over at Carolina (as the locals call it) under difficult circumstances. Only three years after Frank McGuire led the Tar Heels to a 32-0 record and the NCAA crown, the school was on probation for recruiting violations and McGuire was off to coach in the NBA. Smith, a young, unproven assistant, was the man tabbed to take his place.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, UNC has had but one losing season -- Smith's first on the job. Utilizing a carefully calculated system that stresses defense, patience, and subordination of the individual for the benefit of the whole, Smith's teams have won 431 games. His .751 percentage is tops among active major college coaches with at least 15 years' experience, and seventh all-time.
National coach of the year twice, ACC coach of the year six times, Smith has developed more All-Americans than any other active coach. His players in the NBA are a veritable All-Star team in themselves -- Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Bobby Jones, Bob McAdoo, Mitch Kupchak, Tom LaGarde, Dudley Bradley, Mike O'Koren. Past Smith charges include Billy Cunningham, Larry Brown, Doug Moe, and Charlie Scott.
In fact, had the Emporia, Kan., native's parents (his father was a coach) not named him Dean, chances are it would have become his nickname by now, anyway.
This season, despite the graduation of four starters -- almost all Smith's players graduate on time -- the Tar Heels completed the regular season 25-7 and ranked No. 6 in both wire service polls (They've been ranked in the top 10 in seven of the last eight years). What's more, Smith will lose only one senior starter, All-America forward Al Wood, from this year's squad. With the certain ACC rookie of the year in 6 ft. 9 in. center Sam Perkins, an All-America-quality forward in 6- 8 James Worthy, and an outstanding batch of prep recruits already lined up, the future may hold even brighter things.
How does Smith do it? By employing a well-tested formula that blends players' talents into a predictable, consistent, effective whole. The formula varies little from season to season, leaving the distinct impression one can see Smith's hand moving his players about the court like so many chess pieces.
"We really aren't set right now on what we're going to run offensively, defensively," Smith said before this season began. But then he added, "We won't change.It won't be the kind of change that anyone notices."
One can expect a Tar Heel team to be disciplined, heady, organized, precise. A strict hierarchy based on seniority will hold sway. The team will take command with its defense; Smith's charges are known for their constantly switching defenses, and Dean is widely respected for the innovations he comes up with to thwart and confuse opponents.
Although Carolina has a reputation for using slowdown tactics, over the past decade the Tar Heels stand fifth nationally in scoring. That offensive proficiency is achieved largely by passing up mediocre shots for good shots, and good shots for excellent ones, the emphasis going not to who scores but to who assists the scorer. Since 1970, UNC leads all teams in field goal accuracy.
Smith's idea of a good coach is one who gets all he can out of the personnel at hand. "The effort is the big thing," he said. "If we play hard, the best I think we can, and still lose, then I have to be pleased regardless of the outcome."
A personable man who shuns attention away from the court, Dean is apt to tell a prospective interviewer, "Too much is written about me. Write about the players."
Smith's ways have earned him the loyalty of many former players. Typical was the comment of O'Koren, now with the New Jersey Nets: "The highlight of my college career was just getting to know Coach Smith. He treated me like a man and not a basketball tool."
On the other hand, one ACC coach called Smith a "phony" who attempted to intimidate officials on the court while working hard at cultivating a gentleman's image.Some critics question the rigid, "totalitarian" nature of the Smith system. Others insist something's wrong, since for all his success Smith has never won an NCAA title.
Whatever his failings, one thing is certain: Other ACC teams may from time to time have better single seasons, yet there remains something very special about meeting -- and perchance beating -- a Dean Smith team.