When Eric Montross was a star prep basketball player in Indianapolis in the late-1980s, the former McDonald’s All-American knew he was going to play college ball for an elite program. But he got much more than that at the University of North Carolina – and not simply because he helped the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1993.
Rather, it was because he played for Dean Smith, the legendary UNC coach who passed away in his home this past Saturday at the age of 83.
“I think it’s a good point,” Montross, a Tar Heel Radio Network color analyst, said on Gio and Jones. “I think there’s an expectation when you go to one of the premier schools coming out of high school that you’ll be competing at a high level. But I think the piece you’re never quite sure of until you get there is just what impact the head coach of that program will have on you long term. And for me, it was an immeasurable effect. And I think that when you look at what Coach Smith did, who he was, what he stood for, how he treated his players, how he believed in his team and the university, how he stood for what was right and stood with conviction for what he believed was right, his preparation, his work ethic, his honesty – all those things played an incredible role in shaping all of us as his players who were fortunate enough to play under him.”
Smith, who began coaching at UNC as an assistant in 1958, was the head coach from 1961-1997. Through the years, Smith had an innate ability to connect and communicate with players – even toward the end.
“He certainly (did),” Montross said. “Coach Smith was a man who we all had the utmost respect for. (When) you arrived as a freshman, we instantly saw an incredible amount of respect that the upperclassmen gave to the head coach and to the entire coaching staff and the office staff and the respect that they had for the university. So that was the first thing you noticed. There was that bond. And I think that respect gave great credence to the things that Coach Smith said. And believe me, he was tough. He was a tough leader. He was a demanding coach, but it was a pleasure to work as hard as you could because of the atmosphere he created. He believed in us, we believe in him, and I think that was the bond. It was very much a coach-player relationship during school, but make no mistake: He was a man who cared deeply and passionately about his players – and much of that occurs even after you leave.”
Of course, for all the great things that Smith did away from the court, he was still one hell of a coach. Montross said Smith’s work ethic, preparation and ability to set goals were what made him great – and Smith didn’t need the two national championships or the Olympic gold medal to prove it.
Montross spoke to former Tar Heels assistant Phil Ford on Sunday about that very thing. As Ford explained to Montross, everyone knew Smith was a great coach. He didn’t need a championship to validate that. Society wants great coaches to have championships to validate that, but if you ask any of the coaches who faced Smith or talk to the players who played for him or the coaches who coached with him, there was absolutely no doubt that Smith was an elite coach.
One who won’t be forgotten.