Dean Smith coached for decades at UNC. (Robert Willett/AP)

Dean Smith won two national championships while coaching at UNC. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer/AP)

Dean Smith was the head men’s basketball coach at North Carolina from 1961 to 1997. He led the Tarheels to 11 Final Fours, 23 straight NCAA tournament appearances, and he retired with 879 wins and two national titles. But Smith’s struggle with Alzheimer’s has made it increasingly difficult for the former coach to remember his accomplishments. Tommy Tomlinson wrote a story for ESPN about Dean Smith titled “Precious Memories,” and he joined Bill.

BL: Please describe for us the circumstances of Dean Smith’s life now.

He’s gone from having a prodigious memory … to a point where now most days he doesn’t remember anything at all.
– Tommy Tomlinson
TT: Well, for the past seven years, maybe even longer, he’s been struggling with various forms of dementia. His wife describes it as basically a combination of Alzheimer’s, elements of Parkinson’s disease, other types of dementia. She sums it up in two words: relentless loss. And that has been his situation for the last several years. He’s gone from having a prodigious memory where he could remember names and dates and people’s children to a point where now most days he doesn’t remember anything at all.

BL: You make that point in the article very dramatically when he walks by a room where somebody’s watching a film of a game from how many decades ago. Tell us that story.

TT: Right, that was a story that Dave Hanners, who played and coached under Dean, told me. So there was a day when Dave was going through some old films, and Dean happened to walk by — this was in 1989. And Dean happened to walk by and glance at the film, and he said, “You know, in just a minute there’s going to be a play where one of our players runs a backdoor cut and gets a layup. And the next time they go down the floor he and the passer are going to switch, and the other guy’s going to pass, and he’s going to make the layup.”

And Hanners looked at him and said, “Coach, when was the last time you looked at this?” And he said, “Well, probably the day after the game.” Well the game was from 1963. So it had been 26 years since Dean had even glanced at this film, but he knew immediately what was going to happen next.

BL: What, in your opinion, are the most impressive of the many accomplishments on Dean Smith’s resume?

TT: Well, I think the consistency is the most impressive thing. His teams — 20 wins is sort of a bench mark for a good college basketball team — his teams won 20 games or more for 27 years in a row, which is just astounding. And went to 11 Final Fours, won 13 ACC tournament championships.

Just year-after-year-after-year North Carolina was really good at basketball. Now, he only has two national titles, which is fewer than some other coaches kind of in his peer group, but year-after-year-after-year you knew North Carolina was gonna put a great team on the floor.

BL: You learned that Dean Smith’s former assistant Bill Guthridge prefers to avoid Smith these days because as he told you “it just breaks my heart.” How have Smith’s former players handled his decline?

TT: Well there’s been a range of emotions. Some players came to see him once and realized he didn’t remember him anymore and sort of left in tears sometimes and have been hesitant to call back ’cause they just don’t know what that interaction is going to be like. Other players and other coaches have been pretty consistent about showing up.

Phil Ford who was a great player in the ’70s for Dean is probably the most consistent person to show up there. He’s got a son who goes to Carolina. Dean still visits the basketball office three times a week, comes in to read and look at his mail, look at books and just kind of be there for people to see him. And Phil Ford comes by quite a bit to see him and talk to him there. Sometimes they just sit there in silence and enjoy each other’s company.

BL: Tommy, I would like to conclude this conversation on an up-note if we can. Tell us something about what joy Dean Smith still finds in life, and, as I understand it, music is often a key element on those occasions. 

TT: Yes, for lots of people with dementia there have been lots of studies that show music is sort of one thing that sticks when lots of other memories go away. There was a great moment a year or two ago when a family friend, a guy named Billy Barnes, came over to play some songs for Dean. He played for 30 [to] 45 minutes and Dean was starting to get restless a little bit, and Billy said, “Let me play you one more song.” And he played the North Carolina alma mater and the fight song.

And at the end of every Carolina basketball game, win or lose, everybody stands up for the fight song and the alma mater. So the moment Billy started playing this song Dean jumped up and he waved to his wife, Linnea, and he said we have to stand up. From memory, Dean sang the entire alma mater and the entire fight song. And it’s something this family still hopes for, searches for, and still finds every now and then: the moments when the old Dean still rises to the surface.