Seven Factors for Success from a Coaching Legend

by Diane Berenbaum

In professional basketball, the players know what to do—they have years of practice and training. But, winning still isn't easy. Clearly, the coach makes a difference. In fact, coaching matters so much that a team's results and morale can be negatively affected by his/her experience, judgment and style.

Dean Smith, the coach for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 36 years, was not just a "winning coach," he was a model leader and the winningest coach in all history. He is also considered a "coaching legend," according to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It's clear that he was ahead of his time. Here are just a few of his basketball accomplishments:

  • 879 wins in 36 years of coaching; fourth most in men's college Division I basketball history behind Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Boeheim, and the most wins of any coach at the time of his retirement

  • 77.6% winning percentage, which puts him 9th on highest winning percentage.[1]

  • Fourth total number of college games coached with 1,133.[1]

  • Most Division I 20-win seasons, with 27 consecutive 20-win seasons from 1970–1997[3] and 30 20-win seasons total.[1]

  • 22 seasons with at least 25 wins

  • 35 consecutive seasons with a 50% or better record.[2]

  • Two national championships (1982, 1993)

  • Perhaps most importantly are his teachings and his "ability to help mold men of integrity, honor and purpose." He learned a lot from his father, Alfred Smith, who helped integrate sports in the 1950s, when he signed the first black player, Nat "Sweetwater” Clifton, to his team.

Dean Smith was also known for promoting desegregation and a relentless focus on equal rights. He recruited the University of North Carolina's first black scholarship player, Charlie Scott, and his team had an impressive 96.6% graduation rate.

How was he able to sustain success and win respect from players, coaches and fans for so many years? Below are seven factors for his success:

Seven Factors for Success

1. Focus on what you can control.  Concentrate on the process, not the results.
Smith asked his players to "concern themselves only with things within their control," as he noted in his book, The Carolina Way, written with Gerald Bell and John Kilgo. He added, "We knew if we did those things, we would be successful a large percentage of the time." (Based on his accomplishments, clearly, he and his team were successful.)

2. Be prepared with dedication to practice, hard work and sportsmanship.
Smith noted, "We prepared for pressure by the way we practiced. We were greatly concerned about how we would play and much less concerned about what our opponent would do. There was no substitute for this hard work."  Equally important, his parents emphasized sportsmanship above all else, including winning.

3. Show you care.
Smith was a tough coach, and he willingly admitted it. However, he knew that his team cared about him. And, the feeling was mutual. Coach Smith shared that, "my caring didn't stop when they graduated and went off to their careers. The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring." This was true whether his players were headed to the NBA, or for an MBA, or any other endeavor.

And, he noted that "the people who are being led know when the caring is genuine and when it's faked or not there at all." As former player Phil Ford said, "I got a coach for four years, but a friend for life."

4. Be a role model; "on and off the court."
As the legendary coach John Wooden once said, "A leader's most powerful ally is his/her own example." And, he emphasized that "the coach's job is to be part servant in helping each player reach his goals within the team concept."

It's clear that coaches can have a lasting impact on their players, personally and professionally. Smith modeled the most important lessons a coach can teach his players:
  • be a good friend and teammate
  • model integrity and confidence
  • act consistently
  • trust each other

5. Accept and learn from the "good failures.”
A recent article in the Science of Sport, highlighted the meaning of "good failure." It means "understanding that innovation, progress and improvement are never smooth processes.” And, that failure is inevitable and an opportunity to learn. In fact, it's not really failure, but rather "the successful learning about what did not work." Smith encouraged his team to recognize the good failures, learn from them, and grow as individuals and as a team. 

6. Stick to your principles and have the courage to do what's right.
Smith was a righteous man; some say he "radiated integrity." He stood up for causes larger than himself, including integration. He told his players that they should never compromise their ethics, and when in doubt, follow their conscience. He reminded everyone that they could do and be better. He once said, "You should never be proud of doing the right thing; you should just do the right thing.”

7. Provide praise and build confidence.
Coach Smith emphasized that it was important to praise his players "for the good things they had done, especially on the road, where they faced enough adversity without my piling on." Equally important, he was purposely less critical during the games than the practices. He recognized that that his players needed confidence, not criticism. And, he seemed to know how to not only deliver constructive feedback, but also appropriate praise as well.

Winning isn't easy. But how you win is what matters most. It's clear that Smith was not only a great coach, but also a great human being. His triumphs were personal and professional. As a result, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our country's highest civilian honor. 

Dean Smith passed away at the age of 83 on February 7, 2015. He was the greatest and most humble teacher of basketball (and life lessons) that this country has ever known.
[1] "NCAA stats." NCAA. NCAA. Archived from the original on October 8, 2006. Retrieved February 1,2007

[2] "Smith by the Numbers." Sports Illustrated. Dean Smith: The 1997 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Retrieved October 29,2006.

Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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