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Archive for Sunday, December 24, 2006

Knight no match for Smith’s class

December 24, 2006

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The call came one winter afternoon to the sports department of the Daily Tar Heel. The year was 1988.

"Coach Smith would like to see you," Linda Woods, longtime secretary for North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, informed us.

An appointment was made, and a few days later my friend Jim Surowiecki and I found ourselves sitting on a couch in the legendary coach's office, still not sure why we were there.

As the two highest-ranking sportswriters on the campus newspaper, we had regular interaction with Smith and his players but had never been summoned in this way before.

Smith emerged from behind his massive desk and greeted us warmly, like a kindly professor. He joined us in the sitting area and asked us about our families, where we were from, how our studies were going.

Then he calmly explained the reason for the visit. It seemed some of his players had been upset with some of our recent coverage, most notably a poor-shooting forward named Steve Bucknall.

Smith never raised his voice and made it clear he would never ask us to alter our reporting. He said he understood we had a job to do and merely asked us to be mindful of the sensitivity of some of our fellow Tar Heels on basketball scholarship.

The meeting couldn't have lasted more than 15 minutes, but as Jim - who has gone on to write The Wisdom of Crowds and a regular column for The New Yorker - and I left the sports palace that bore Smith's name we were filled with a mixture of relief and inspiration.

If a man as powerful as Smith could treat a couple of cub reporters with such respect, maybe we could make a career out of journalism after all.

Nearly two decades later, I'm reminded of that encounter as I ponder the meaning of Bob Knight's march toward history.

With a Texas Tech win on Saturday against Bucknell, Knight tied Smith atop the NCAA coaching list with 879 career victories. A few days later, Knight should slide past Smith with no plans to retire.

How depressing.

Rarely has the transfer of such an important milestone been marked by such a chasm in class. It's not quite as sad as the notion of Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron's home run record, but it's close.

It's not that I'm some blindly loyal Smith supporter. In fact, in my younger days, I usually defended the so-called General in the inevitable Smith vs. Knight debate.

But as I now dabble in youth soccer coaching, I am struck by how different the two men's methods and manners were along the route to sporting immortality.

While Smith, who retired in 1997, spent 36 years in Chapel Hill without even the hint of scandal, unless you count an amicable divorce and a long battle with nicotine, Knight has left a messy trail of missteps across 41 seasons.

Not so much at West Point, where he got his start at age 24 and coached a skinny cadet named Mike Krzyzewski, but certainly in Bloomington, Ind., and even more recently in Lubbock, Texas.

We all know about the chair Knight threw across the court against Purdue and the police officer he assaulted in Puerto Rico. We know about the "rape is inevitable" comment to Connie Chung and the choking incident with Neil Reed that should have ended Knight's career.

But those are just the lowlights of a long pattern of boorish behavior,.

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