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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Smith finally burned his last Kansas bridge

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It's not whether you win or lose, the old sports aphorism goes, but who gets the blame.

Kansas University basketball fans, hurting over the loss of Roy Williams, are looking for someone to blame and the man with the target on his back is Dean Smith.

Internet chat rooms are full of uncomplimentary remarks about the North Carolina icon. Many chatters blame the 71-year-old Smith for ruining KU's Final Four appearance, complaining Williams wouldn't have been linked with North Carolina if Smith hadn't exhorted his former assistant coach to return and breathe new life into Tar Heels' basketball.

Now that Williams has opted to return to Tobacco Road, Smith is perceived as a traitor to his alma mater. Smith, they grouse, cares more about Carolina than he does about Kansas, the school that tendered him a diploma in 1952.

Don't be fooled by Smith's soft-spoken demeanor. He is a cunning behind-the-scenes operator, an old-school power broker in the strongest sense. Smith, for instance, brokered the hiring of KU's last two coaches -- Larry Brown and Williams, both North Carolina graduates.

Each time -- in 1983 and again in 1988 -- KU officials tried to lure Smith away from North Carolina and each time he told them that even though his mother lived in Topeka and that he loved Kansas he could not leave what he had essentially created.

So instead of returning to Mount Oread, Smith laid the groundwork for Kansas to hire the mercurial Brown, then head coach of the New Jersey Nets, in '83. Later, when Brown left to return to the NBA with the scepter of NCAA probation looming over the Jayhawks, Smith recommended Williams when many established coaches -- primarily Gary Williams, now at Maryland -- were scared off.

Not that Roy Williams was so desperate for a head-coaching job that he wanted to take over a school about to go under the NCAA guillotine. In order to lure Williams far away from his native North Carolina,

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KU athletic director Bob Frederick had to offer the UNC aide a four-year contract, plus the number of years KU would be on probation. As it turned out, Williams began his head-coaching career with a seven-year pact.

As successful as Williams has been at Kansas -- he has the highest winning percentage of all active NCAA Division One coaches -- it seems incongruous he was also the head coach of the only school in history ruled ineligible to defend its national basketball championship because of NCAA sanctions.

Now, Brown has told friends here he would be interested in a return engagement at Kansas. Boy, wouldn't that be a strange quirk -- Brown coming back to replace the man who had served his time in the NCAA penalty box?

The last KU men's basketball coach hired without Smith's input was Ted Owens. That was way back in 1964 when Smith was in only his third year as the Tar Heels head coach, and in no position to go anywhere or broker any coaching deals.

At the time, KU's athletic director was the tight-fisted Wade Stinson, a man who tossed nickels around like manhole covers. Stinson elevated Owens from assistant to head coach, replacing Dick Harp, in large part because it was cheaper to promote an aide than to hire an established coach like Ralph Miller, the people's choice.

What goes around comes around and it's doubtful KU chancellor Robert Hemenway will seek Dean Smith's input this time. To tell the truth, I can envision Hemenway hiring Heidrick and Struggles Inc., the executive-search firm that indirectly led to Hemenway selecting Al Bohl as athletic director, before he makes a phone call to Smith.

It's a shame Smith, one of Kansas University's most distinguished basketball alums, is now considered a snake-in-the-grass, but Smith clearly made his own bed.

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