By Jim Sumner
March 11, 2008
Any short list of the greatest college basketball coaches in history has to include John Wooden and Dean Smith. The two men coached a combined 1,959 college games, with 1,543 victories and 12 NCAA championships.
Their head coaching careers at UCLA and North Carolina, respectively, overlapped by 13 seasons. Surprisingly, they squared off only once 40 years ago, in the NCAA title game.
There are reasons for that historical oddity, of course. In the pre-ESPN, pre-exempt tournament universe, teams from North Carolina and California had no reason to get together on a regular basis.
Still, they could have gone head-to-head more often. Five times in a six-year period, Wooden's Bruins and Smith's Tar Heels were slotted to meet in a tournament championship game. Both teams advanced to the 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1972 Final Fours, and they also were on opposite brackets in the December 1968 Holiday Festival, held at Madison Square Garden.
UCLA held up its end of the bargain all five times, but UNC faltered in the semifinals four times. The one exception was in 1968, when one of Smith's finest teams ran into a Wooden-led juggernaut widely regarded as one of the two or three best teams in college basketball history.
Smith had made his first Final Four as a coach in 1967, with a lineup that blended a trio of sophomores 6-11 Rusty Clark, 6-9 Bill Bunting and 6-3 Dick Grubar with stars Bob Lewis and Larry Miller. The Tar Heels were expected to meet their equally young UCLA counterparts in the 1967 title game but fell victim to a career game from Dayton's Don May, whose 34-point masterpiece keyed a 76-62 upset of the Heels. Dayton fell the following night to UCLA, while Carolina lost to Houston 84-62 in the consolation game.
Lewis, a senior in 1967, was replaced in the starting lineup the following season by sophomore Charlie Scott. UNC spent the entire 1968 season ranked in the top seven and survived an overtime game against South Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Clark then neutralized All-Americans Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure and Mike Maloy of Davidson to lead UNC to its second consecutive NCAA East Regional title.
The 1968 Final Four was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Carolina was matched against Ohio State in one of the semifinals. OSU was the surprise winner of the Midwest Regional. The Buckeyes had to beat Dan Issel and Kentucky in Lexington to win that title, so they didn't exactly back in.
Looking back, Grubar believes that UNC was better prepared for the NCAA Tournament in 1968 than in the previous year.
"We didn't take Dayton lightly, but we felt like the ACC Tournament was bigger then the NCAAs more fan pressure, more media attention," Grubar said recently. "It was hard for us to recover from the intensity of the ACC. We learned. No question our experience made us better prepared for the Final Four in 1968. Plus, we were a better team. Charlie made us more athletic."
Bunting also believes, in retrospect, that the experience factor helped the 1968 Tar Heels more than the 1967 edition of the team.
"Maybe we underestimated Dayton, but mainly we just got caught by Don May," Bunting said. "But we were awfully young, maybe a little naïve. We got burned."
UNC controlled the Ohio State game, winning with relative ease. The final score was 80-66, against an OSU team that shot 35 percent from the field. All five Carolina starters scored in double figures, led by Miller with 20 and Bunting with 17.
Smith decided to allow his team to watch some of the other semifinal match because, as he later wrote, "I didn't want them to be overconfident."
As it turned out, overconfidence wouldn't be a problem. The other semifinal match was one of the epic beat-downs in NCAA Tournament history.
In January, UCLA had traveled to play Houston in a made-for-TV spectacular in front of 52,000 fans in the Astrodome. Houston edged UCLA 71-69, aided greatly by an eye injury that handicapped UCLA's great center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Houston felt pretty good about the upset, telling all who would listen in the days leading up to the 1968 Final Four that UCLA was overrated, and that the Cougars were more than ready to beat the Bruins again in their rematch.
The comments didn't sit well with some of the UCLA players.
"(The regular-season matchup) was more of a spectacle than a game," UCLA guard Mike Warren said. "We did not quite understand the impact it was going to have. We prepared for it like it was just another game.
"Houston was not complimentary after the game. We were taught to respect your opponent, win or lose. Sometimes it's better to be silent than boisterous. This fueled us for the whole season. We saw Houston on the horizon. We thought we would see them again in the Final Four, and we circled that on our calendar. We could not wait to play them again."
"The rematch was the only time we were ever nervous with anticipation," UCLA forward Lynn Shackelford said. "There was even some anxiety (with) TV, the publicity, a rematch, the whole scenario. It could not have been scripted better."
Houston went into the Final Four game undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Star senior Elvin Hayes had captured the major national player of the year awards, over Alcindor.
But UCLA smothered Hayes with a diamond-and-one defense, forced turnover after turnover, and made 52 percent of its field goal attempts. The Bruins blew open the game with a 21-5 run. It was 53-31 at intermission, and the lead reached 44 before Wooden called off the slaughter. The final was 101-69.
Bunting was stunned, and he wasn't alone in that feeling.
"We had played Houston the year before and knew how tough they were," Bunting said. "We didn't think anyone could do to them what UCLA did."
Smith shared that sentiment. He had a deep, balanced team that had averaged 84 points per game, a team that thought it could run and press with anybody. But did these Tar Heels (28-3 heading into the NCAA title game) have a chance against this UCLA monster (28-1)?
"We found out the day of the championship game that Coach Smith had changed the game plan," Bunting said. "We were going to play Four Corners the entire first half. We had young egos and thought we could play with anybody. Running and pressing got us where we were, but you can't blame Dean for trying something different. I understand the logic. If we run with them, we could be out of it by halftime.
"The Four Corners gave us a chance to keep it close. It's hard to blame Coach Smith after sitting through what he did the night before. Plus, we had maybe one fan there. It was packed and the loudest place. You could not hear anything. It was pretty wild. The Four Corners might help control the crowd."
"Half the guys agreed with him and half didn't," Grubar said. "Dean wasn't infallible yet. We weren't all told at the same time, and I wish we had been. Still, we felt like we had a chance if we could keep it close in the first half."
Warren later said he sympathized with Smith's dilemmas. First, there was no chance of a letdown.
"Playing at home was the x-factor," Warren said. "Our fans would not let the title game be anti-climatic. We did a good job of staying focused. Our attitude was that the job was only half-done. Coach Wooden was always mindful of keeping your eye on the prize. Avenging our loss to Houston was very sweet, but it wasn't the prize."
And the Four Corners?
"I was never a fan of holding the ball, but I understand that was the best way to beat us," Warren said. "But UNC had some athletes. Let the horses run. Don't hold back a racehorse if it wants to go.
"We weren't that disturbed by it. Our intention was to jump on an opponent early and not let up. But it was the mark of good coaching, their players listening to their coaches and taking their obligations seriously."
Shackelford said his team didn't necessarily expect the Four Corners-style approach by the Tar Heels, but that the Bruins were ready for every possibility.
"The Four Corners was a little different, but we had played against lots of slowdowns," Shackelford said. "Coach Wooden had us prepared for anything."
When the national championship game got underway, Miller and Scott challenged Alcindor several times early and were rejected.
"It seemed like he blocked every shot we took," Bunting said, "and they turned every block into a fastbreak."
"(I remember) standing around a lot near mid-court, then trying to get back on defense in a hurry," Grubar said. "Once they started running, they had it made."
North Carolina had a dispiriting 14 turnovers in the first half, 23 for the game. Bunting picked up three quick fouls.
"We fell behind too far, too early," Bunting said. "That was critical. It knocked us off-balance."
Smith also had to decide how to defend UCLA. Again, it was pick-your-poison. Start with Alcindor. Then add talented forwards Shackelford and Mike Lynn and the nation's top backcourt, Warren and Lucius Allen.
Wooden, like Smith a humble man, since has referred to that group of Bruins in particularly glowing terms. Asked a few years ago which of his 10 national champions stood out above the rest, the legendary coach thought first of his 1968 squad.
"It would be hard to pick a team over the 1968 team," Wooden said. "I will say it would be the most difficult team to prepare for and play against offensively and defensively. It created so many problems. It had such great balance.
"We had the big center (Alcindor), who is the most valuable player of all-time. Mike Warren was a three-year starter who may have been the most intelligent floor leader ever, going eight complete games once without a turnover. Lucius Allen was a very physical, talented individual who was extremely quick. Lynn Shackelford was a great shooter out of the corner who didn't allow defenses to sag on (Alcindor). Mike Lynn didn't have power, but he had as fine a pair of hands around the boards as I have ever seen."
Many of the UNC players from 1968 said later that they had a good understanding at the time of the immense challenge they had on their hands.
"Alcindor was a phenomenon," Bunting said. "But they had balance and talent everywhere you looked. Everything fit together perfectly. Allen and Warren were tremendous guards. They could penetrate at will, you couldn't trap them, and they never seemed to turn the ball over. Still, we felt like we matched up well at four positions.
"But Alcindor could run fast, jump high, shoot. He could destroy you with that jump hook. He was so quick with his moves."
Double-team the big guy? Warren liked the idea.
"Leave Kareem alone, and he would kill you," Warren said. "But we had too many weapons to pay too much attention to one player. On any night, any one of us could kill you. I loved seeing a zone or two guys on Kareem. My eyes would light up."
Clark was a pretty good big man, as evidenced by his earlier performances against Lanier and other high-quality post players, and Smith gave him a chance against Alcindor. But Clark was unable to even slow the UCLA center.
Still, UNC controlled the tempo for large portions of the first half and forced some turnovers. The Tar Heels trailed 32-22 at the intermission, with Miller scoring half of their points.
Smith then told his team it could play UCLA straight-up without leaning on the Four Corners in the second half. Miller didn't do much in the final 20 minutes, but Scott had his moments.
"We were awe-struck by Charlie Scott," Shackelford said. "He did some things we just didn't see."
UNC's press continued to force turnovers, but Alcindor's dominance made it impossible for the Heels to sustain any kind of run. The final score was 78-55, at the time the largest margin of victory ever in an NCAA championship game.
Alcindor finished with 34 points and 16 rebounds, making 15 of 21 field goal attempts. The NCAA and its member schools didn't keep stats on blocked shots in those days, but Alcindor might have had a triple-double.
Allen added 11 points and five assists. Miller (14) and Scott (12) were the only Tar Heels to score in double figures. UCLA won the battle of the boards, 39-25, and made just more than half of its field goal attempts. UNC shot only 35 percent from the field.
Following the game, Smith complimented the Bruins with superlatives that many college basketball historians still agree with today.
"(UCLA) has got to be the greatest college basketball team ever assembled," Smith said. "They make you change your style of play. We normally like to work the ball inside, but against Lew Alcindor that is nearly impossible."
Wooden praised UNC after the game. He called the win "not as artistic a victory as the one (against Houston) but equally as rewarding."
Wooden retired following the 1975 season, making the final score between the two coaching heavyweights an easy one to remember: Wooden 1, Smith 0.
Wooden, who often has been complimentary of Smith (whose long-time admiration for Wooden is equally established) during and after their coaching careers, probably wouldn't approve of such a summary. Like Smith, Wooden always preferred to direct attention away from individual coaches or players and toward the team aspect of the sport, but in their mutual retirement the legendary UCLA coach has offered his highest praise for the legendary UNC coach.
"I've always said that Dean is a better teacher of basketball than anyone else," Wooden said. "I couldn't begin to teach players the things Dean has taught them. I've admired him because there's more to him than just wins."
Wooden's players from 1968, most of whom gathered in Los Angeles on March 8 (they were honored at halftime of the California-UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion) for their 40-year reunion, remembered their game against the Tar Heels four decades ago as much more than a Wooden-Smith matchup.
"You never really play against the other coach. You play against the people he puts on the floor," Warren said. "But Smith was a real gentleman, a great recruiter and a real challenge. Going after Charlie Scott showed that Smith was going to go after great players no matter what color they were. It was an honor to be on the same court as him."
"Obviously, (Wooden and Smith) are intelligent men and were great coaches," Shackelford said. "But I'm most struck with how you never hear them publicly criticize a player or a former player on their own team. What is said behind closed doors stays there. That is so impressive, so classy."
Wooden, now 97, recently drew national headlines for unfortunate reasons. He fell in his Southern California condo in late February, suffering a broken wrist and collarbone. He recovered well in subsequent weeks, although his former players said he missed his place as a frequent observer at Pauley Pavilion, where he had watched the Bruins play a game as recently as Feb. 23.
Smith, who turned 77 on Feb. 28, still lives in the Chapel Hill area and spends some time in his small office at the Dean E. Smith Center (a.k.a., "The Dean Dome"), which opened in 1986 and remains one of the largest college basketball arenas in the nation. He prefers to watch most of UNC's games on television. At this year's ACC Tournament in Charlotte, Smith will be the Tar Heels' representative at the league's recently created Legends event, which honors one former great from each program in the conference.
Smith shared the national basketball spotlight with Wooden as recently as 2006. When the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Kansas City, Mo., inducted its founding class, it consisted of Smith, Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Dr. James Naismith.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here. I am, too," Smith told the audience, with a straight face, during his induction speech. "The real reason I'm lucky enough to be here are the (UNC) players. Any time you get something like this as a coach, it's because of the players."
Bunting, who now lives in Raleigh, is proud to be one of those players. Now an officer with the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, a state organization that deals with affordable housing, he still remembers his coach fondly and the 1968 NCAA title game well.
"We didn't view Wooden as some kind of deity. We respected him, but we were playing their players," Bunting said. "The (strongest) memory is Alcindor, the player of the century. We always wanted to play UCLA, and it was a thrilling moment when we got there."
Grubar, who lives in Greensboro and works in commercial real estate, said time has given him a greater perspective on the only game ever played between Wooden-coached and Smith-coached teams.
"I have no illusions," Grubar said. "If we had played a best-of-seven series against them, we might have won once. They were that good. Wooden was the man. Dean was just beginning. Remember, he was hung in effigy the year we were being recruited.
"So you had one legend, and one who was just starting the process of becoming a legend. But two legends, no doubt about it."
Jim Sumner is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal. His articles on southern sports history have appeared in the Sports Journal and many other publications. His latest book, "Tales From The Duke Blue Devils Hardwood," was published in 2005. He also writes a bi-weekly column on ACC history for theacc.com, the official website of the conference.