While the tributes continue to roll in for former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who died this weekend at the age of 83, few people know that at one time, Smith himself felt his future might be in baseball.
Smith, the two-time national championship coach for the Tar Heels, was a two-sport letterman at the University of Kansas. Most sports fans know that Smith was a member of the 1952 national championship basketball team at Kansas, where he described his play as “coming off the bench sparingly.” Smith then became the sixth when the Jayhawks again reached the national title game in 1953, but Kansas lost to Indiana 69-68.
But Smith also played baseball at Kansas, winning the starting position at catcher as a sophomore in 1951 after a solid career as a second baseman at Topeka (KS) High School. Early in his collegiate career, the future coaching legend still harbored dreams of playing a sport professionally, but realized that basketball would be a long shot for him. He thought baseball might offer him a more likely athletic path. Smith’s 1952 Jayhawk baseball team managed a 6-9 record, but improved that mark to 11-6 in Smith’s junior season, when he began to split time behind the plate with Kansas football star Galen Fiss.
Fiss surpassed Smith by the time they were seniors, earning attention from Cleveland Indians scouts largely because of his throwing prowess. Fiss, a fullback and linebacker for the Kansas football team, was actually drafted by the Cleveland Browns as the self-deprecating Smith admitted that “he would go on to do far more substantial things as an athlete than I would have.”
Fiss elected to pursue a baseball career with the Indians, but suffered vision problems after a particularly nasty beaning during his initial minor league season. Ironically, considering today’s increased attention on concussions, he switched back to football and proceeded to play 11 seasons with the Browns, even serving the defensive unit as captain before his playing days ended.
Smith, meanwhile, went into the Air Force and then eventually landed a job as the assistant basketball coach to Bob Spear, who was beginning a program at the newly formed Air Force Academy. Three years later, he moved to North Carolina as Frank McGuire’s assistant, and became the Tar Heels’ head basketball coach for the 1961-62 season when McGuire moved into the NBA.
Smith went on to win 13 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles, national championships in 1982 and 1993, and a total of 879 games to surpass Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp as the NCAA’s all-time leader in coaching victories before retiring in 1997. Smith was also a gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic coach and was instrumental in helping eliminate racial segregation in the ACC. He was among the honorees in the College Basketball Hall of Fame’s initial class in 2006.