Dean Smith & Tony Hulman–two legends of sport

February 9, 2015 by

Yesterday the sports world learned of the passing of Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels (1961-1997).

When I think about Dean Smith and Tony Hulman, several things strike me.  Both were legends in their time and had a profound impact on the sport with which they were connected.

Both men believed strongly in education.  In an era when college ball players attended four years of college, Smith’s graduation rate was over 95%.  More than fifty players went on to play professional basketball but many more went on to enter the ranks of coaching or became lawyers or physicians.   Hulman gave millions of dollars to education—to Indiana State University and to Rose Polytechnic which is now known as Rose-Hulman School of Technology.  In their own way, both men have influenced countless people.

Hulman and Smith both started when things were incredibly bad.  Smith took over a basketball program with multiple NCAA violations and on probation.  With only one losing season, Smith went on to build a program with a 77% win rate, thirteen ACC tournament championships and two national championships.  When Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in November 1945, most Indianapolis residents believed the track would be become a residential subdivision.  Under his leadership, the stands were repaired, the track was rid of small trees and weeds and opened a mere six months later to host the 1946 Indianapolis 500.    Over time, Hulman built the Indianapolis 500 to become “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Both Hulman and Smith were strong tacticians.  Hulman loved solving problems.  His greatest success was probably diversifying the family business, Hulman & Company from a wholesale grocer to a diversified company including beer, Coca-Cola franchise, and various media outlets.  Hulman also took one of the company’s proprietary products, Clabber Girl Baking Powder to a national product.  Smith developed the “four corners” which was an effective way to slow the pace of the game down.  Slow it down so much that the NCAA instituted the shot clock.  He also was behind the tradition of players giving credit to the teammate which passed the ball enabling the score.  Under Smith the team….and the fans…and the opponents knew that anything was possible.

Both men developed strong benches.  Since Smith retired from coaching in 1997, all Carolina coaches were coached by him--Bill Guthridge, Matt Dougherty and current coach Roy Williams.  After Hulman’s untimely death in 1977, his right hand man, Joe Cloutier, took the reins of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hulman & Company.  With one short interlude until recently the leadership of both companies has been by either Cloutier or Tony George (Hulman’s grandson).

Lastly and probably their greatest contribution was their love of their fellow humans.  When Hulman would see a need, he was willing to step up to the plate—education, an improved water system in his hometown and a municipal airport for his hometown, development of parks in his hometown and Indiana.  Hulman, the quiet affable Hoosier, was always available to listen to the common man.  Smith was legendary for the long relationship he built with his players.  After graduation, many would rely upon Smith for his input as they progressed along their careers.   Smith also was a leader in the civil rights movement being among the first to recruit a black athlete to play at a southern school.

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