It would be easy to list the famous players coached by Dean Smith in the 37 years he reigned over the basketball program at UNC, but that wouldn’t be fitting to a man who valued the team over the individual. In fact, many of Coach Smith’s 877 wins, more than any before him, came from teams without a standout superstar. Dean Smith’s unorthodox coaching, which according to one former player rarely included talks about winning, focused on the day-to-day, not the tournament at the end of the season. His approach to coaching basketball serves well in understanding what it takes to be a great leader in business.
In his career, Dean Smith faced many obstacles including a hostile student body in his early years. He saw himself hanged in effigy from a campus tree twice, and critics blamed his coaching decisions for costing UNC important title wins. Despite the naysayers and pressure, Dean Smith wasn’t afraid to be different.
Coach Smith famously implemented the dreaded 4-corner offense created by John B. McClendon, who was recognized as the first African American coach of a predominantly white university. The 4-corner offense utilized at the end of a game to run out the clock was so effective it led to the implementation of the shot clock.
Dean Smith is also credited with the foul-line huddle, which allows players to relay instruction from their coach, the practice of point scorers pointing a finger at the player who passed them the ball, and a visualization technique of posting photographs in the locker room of a blank Championship scoreboard.
Coach Smith’s strategies were not so much about winning games, but for building a strong team, working together as one, acknowledging the contributions of others, and creating a sense of control over their own destiny. The creation of these processes wasn’t about making more baskets, it was about strengthening the bond of a team who worked together every day. Like a team, a business relies on its moving parts working together as one, where each individual excels for the benefit of all. Having a disciplined, energetic and experienced TEAM with good chemistry is what makes a company not just good but great!
Former players are often quoted as saying, under Coach Smith, school came first, athletics second. Coach Smith instilled the value of education in his players, 96% of whom graduated from UNC. It’s not enough to have a passion for what you do, you need discipline to know your industry inside and out. You must understand how competitors and consumers think and operate to set your business apart. It doesn’t always take a great original idea; you just need to know what the great ideas are to institute them. With a cohesive team in place, a great idea will be effectively executed.
Coach Smith’s career spanned many tumultuous years in American history, throughout which he was a vocal supporter of equal rights. He championed the success of his players not just on the court, but also in the classroom and in their lives after college basketball. Coach Smith’s values of fair play, honesty and equality laid the foundation of UNC’s basketball program from which all 877 wins were built. The principles of a business leader, and those embraced by the company’s team members, distinguish you from the competition far more than brand colors and logos.
“The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring. The best leaders in any profession care about the people they lead, and the people who are being led know when the caring is genuine and when it’s faked or not there at all.”
After his first NCAA Championship win, Coach Smith reportedly remarked, “I’m not a better coach today than I was yesterday.” Winning didn’t make Coach Smith a great coach, or his team great players. It was the teamwork leading up to the game that made them great. Success is often measured by wins or profit, but the real success is the leadership and teamwork that brought it about. Business strategy in which the leader values the team above the individual, innovative ideas are rewarded, continuing education is supported, and principled culture is the standard creates not just a successful business model, but a lasting legacy.