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"The Carolina Way" -- It’s a Lot More Than Knocking Heads

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 2, 2004

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“I don't know what's going on, but I would sure knock some heads before the next game.”

Coach Williams, of course, is not Coach Smith.

I have been hearing this comment and similar ones from Carolina Tar Heel basketball fans the last few days. Like passionate athletic fans everywhere, their bitter, critical remarks usually go hand-in-hand with a loving, devoted commitment to their team.

Folks who wonder whether Coach Roy Williams is “knocking heads” (or taking some other approach) got a nice gift this week--the release of “The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching,” a book written by Williams's mentor, Dean Smith, together with UNC Business School professor Jerry Bell and famed sports writer John Kilgo.

Coach Williams, of course, is not Coach Smith. But, as Williams writes in the book's introduction, he believes strongly in what Smith taught him.

Thus, a Carolina fan who wants a guide to how Williams is approaching the challenges of an incredibly difficult February and post-season play, will want to study this book.

When the fan finishes reading the “The Carolina Way,” he or she may decide that Williams is probably doing something these days other than “knocking heads.”

Smith summarizes his approach to coaching his team, “Play hard, play together, play smart.”

Smith summarizes his approach to coaching his team, “Play hard, play together, play smart.” This did not surprise me. Some of the specifics did.

For instance, while Carolina basketball fans’ top concern right now might be winning the next game, Smith puts that goal in the background. He writes: “The best way to win is to make it a by-product of the process. In any competition, the participants are better off if they get their minds off the final outcome and onto a ritual.”

After the end of every game, win or lose, Smith went back to his basic principles to evaluate the team's effort. “Did we play hard? Did we play together? Did we play smart? If the answers to those questions are yes, there should be satisfaction gained from a successful execution of a plan, regardless of whether it resulted in winning or losing.”

What about preparing for the next game? Even though Coach Smith's family-like concern for his players is legendary, one of the book's surprises for me is how much emphasis Smith puts on caring about each one of them. “Our players knew I cared for them, and they returned it to me and our program tenfold over the years.”

But this genuine caring, according to Smith, is not inconsistent with tough discipline. Violation of the rules resulted in “team running, a lot of running.”

Nor was Smith's caring attitude inconsistent with rigorous practices that emphasized the fundamentals and constant repetition of anything that was new to the players. “We hammered it home, repeat, repeat, repeat until we got it right.”

If Smith criticized a player, no response was allowed on the court. But the coach’s door was always open for a conference with a player after practice.

Another surprise for me was Smith's emphasis on making the game fun for his players. “Because of along season, coaches run the risk of inadvertently making basketball boring for the players. The routine needs to be broken occasionally.”

When he sensed this problem, Smith would vary the practices, sometimes shortening them and sometimes surprising the team with a day off. At least once, Smith turned practice into a volleyball game just to get the players' minds off basketball for a little while.

Smith's emphasis on unselfish play is well known. “If the team as a unit played unselfishly, it would usually succeed, and the individuals on the team would also prosper. The players needed to understand this and buy into it before we could get to where we wanted to be.”

Dean Smith earned a reputation for leading great individual athletes to play unselfishly. But he does not pretend it is easy. In fact, much of the book, with its chapters on teamwork, role definition, one-on-one meetings, confidence building, and discipline, show that Smith was constantly coaxing his players towards unselfish play.

“The Carolina Way” is more than a book of sports coaching principles. As a part of every chapter, UNC Business School professor Jerry Bell writes a separate “business perspective” section to show how Coach Smith's coaching principles translate into management leadership principles.

For instance, after Coach Smith's discussion of “Fun, Fatigue, and the Long Season,” Bell writes about the problem of burnout in the business world. Bell says that business leaders must learn the importance of pacing, both for themselves and their subordinates. As an example, Bell describes how he and the owners of the Vail Ski Resort their employees' mid-season fatigue and burnout. “We attacked the problem by creating miniseasons. We planned some breaks for the employees and instructors for each month beginning in November. We built more fun into their jobs and hired a few more people so we could give everyone more time off during the peak times. It paid off handsomely.”

Bell's business perspective may help even the most rabid Carolina fan understand the importance of “having fun” as a part of working hard for success--both in basketball and in business.

And, after reading “The Carolina Way,” that rabid fan might even stop shouting for Coach Williams just to “knock heads.”


D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5PM. This week’s (February 8) repeat program features Ron Rash author of “One Foot in Eden.”

Winner of the 2002 Novello Literary Award, One Foot in Eden, a story of family, love, betrayal and murder nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, is the first novel from acclaimed poet and short-fiction writer Ron Rash. Ron Rash knows whereof he speaks. His family has called the southern Appalachian Mountains home since the mid-1700s, and it is this region that persistently weaves its way into his lyrical writing. Rash discusses his fictional tribute to a time, place, and way of life slowly vanishing from the modern South.

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