Two of my favorite basketball personalities have passed away this past week, Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina and Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian of UNLV and Fresno State.
Jerry Tarkanian, a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee in 2013, is most famous for his time as head coach of the Running Rebels of UNLV from the early 70s until the early 90s.
Both men were incredible basketball coaches, racking up several National Championships and Coaching Awards, while grooming an unbelievable amount of future NBA players and Collegiate All-Americans. The stats for both are ridiculous and beyond what any coach could imagine their career to be.
Tark was a BIG personality with a big heart for his players, he was the caring father figure that many athletes were lacking and the disciplinary figure that many of his athletes needed. He believed in second chances and third chances, he believed in empathy and teaching more than just a great game to his players, but also how to be a great young man.
He more than earned his way into the Basketball Hall of Fame standing tall on a pillar of excellence at the highest collegiate level: 729 wins, a winning percentage of better than 75 percent, four Final Fours and one national title.
Even with the issues that Tark had with the NCAA and recruiting violation investigations, when you ask players that he coached or coaches that he coached against about Coach Tark, overwhelmingly there is nothing but positive comments.
Dean Smith was the opposite of Tarkanian in personality, but very much the same when it came to the love and adoration of his players and other coaches.
Smith was a humble man, a coach that stressed the unity of TEAM basketball above all other actions. He spoke softly, but carried a huge heart and mind for the game of basketball and life. He spoke to the man inside his players, not to just the player.
Smith coached from 1961 to 1997 and retired with 879 victories, which was the NCAA Division I men’s basketball record at that time. Smith had the 9th highest winning percentage of any men’s college basketball coach (77.6%). During his tenure as head coach, North Carolina won two national championships and appeared in a staggering to comprehend, 11 Final Fours.
As I wipe away my basketball tears listening to all the stories about these two mentors and leaders, I realize that even though I never met either man, I never played for Coach Smith or Coach Tarkanian directly; even though I’ve never sat in a practice listening to either of them wax poetic about the game I love and cherish, I KNOW for a fact that I learned how to be a better basketball player and a better person through their teachings. Their passion for teaching, coaching, mentoring, working hard and improving every day, has trickled down to EVERY single player who has ever played organized basketball.
So next time I’m playing in my old-guy rec league reliving my younger days on the court; and I receive a pass that sets me up perfectly for a jumper, I’ll make sure I point at the player who gave me the ball to thank him for the assist…….but really I’ll be pointing to Coach Smith and Coach Tarkanian for giving me much more than just a good pass.