He never really wanted the record, never really cared about the record. But when you're Dean Smith and you teach the game of basketball as well as he does, and when you coach the game as well as he does, and when you have as much character, class, and integrity as he does, and when the players who play for you respect you as much as they do, victories have a way of piling up.
So even if he didn't want to eclipse Adolph Rupp's NCAA Division I record of 876 victories, it was inevitable. So on the night of March 15, 1997, the record fell, appropriately in the NCAA Tournament, where Smith and his Tar Heels were an annual fixture.
As the buzzer sounds at soldout Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, signifying the conclusion of North Carolina's 73-56 NCAA East Regional Tournament rout over Colorado, Tar Heels center Serge Zwikker zeroes in on the prized souvenir -- the ball -- and races to midcourt. Colorado's Rick Brownstein holds the historic ball as chaos ensues. Zwikker grabs the ball from Brownstein's grasp, raises it over his head and runs toward the Carolina bench.
He is stopped momentarily by an NCAA Tournament official who says, "Give me the ball. We're going to give it to Coach Smith later." Zwikker snickers and quickly fires back, "No, we're going to give it to him right now.'"
With that, Zwikker races over to Smith. "Coach," he says proudly, extending the ball as a gift, "this is for you."
Dean Smith graciously takes the ball, wearing a humble smile. The stadium is roaring. History is complete. Smith's victory is career No. 877, surpassing former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. North Carolina players - present and past - stand and applaud, some with tears in their eyes. Quite a moment to savor, yet it's one Smith simply wants to end. He is, after all, not about personal attention.
But this is one time he can't escape.
Former Tar Heels came from all over the country for this moment. Sitting in the stands are 18 former UNC players, including George Karl, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones and Mitch Kupchak. The landmark victory they witness is North Carolina's 14th triumph in a row and it lands the Heels in the Sweet 16 for the 15th time in 17 seasons.
The victory didn't come easily. In fact, the Tar Heels, who watched star forward Vince Carter suffer a groin injury in the opening minutes, trailed at the half. But they come storming out for the second half, determind not to let No. 877 wait until the following season; they are not going to lose on this night.
Two minutes into the second half, the Tar Heels go on a tear to take the lead, then they build the edge to six, then blow it open to a 14-point advantage.
Even when the outcome is apparent, even though the victory is complete with a 24-point lead with just under four minutes left, Smith continues to coach, continues to teach his players. He calls a timeout. Not to devise a play to embarrass Colorado even more than the Tar Heels already have. Not to rub it in. He does it to make a point, a statement, only to his players. He informs them that even though the game is over, even though the "W" is in the books, to him the game is scoreless, and that every player on the court will be judged on these final four minutes, not the first 36.
The waning seconds of a blowout do not exist in Smith's world. Not when you're a University of North Carolina Tar Heel. Every Tar Heel -- past, present and future -- knows that. To illustrate his point, when one of the reserves, Ryan Sullivan, doesn't execute a play only a few seconds after the timeout, Smith yanks him right out of the game.
On this historic evening, when he takes over as the NCAA's all-time leader in victories, he calls the timeout in the interest of playing basketball the right way, the only way he knows how to coach.
He doesn't care about garnering more points. He is not attempting to show up the opponent. His mindset is simply this: Play the game the right way. Respect the game, respect yourself, respect your teammates, appreciate the supporters. Play the proper way every practice, every second, no matter the score, opponent, or whether it's preseason or the NCAA tournament. This is the blueprint, the recipe that enabled Smith to win more games than anyone in college basketball.
On this night, Smith is overtaken with emotion, but does his best not to reveal it. Smith thanks the university for sticking with him, he thanks his players, and he reminds the world that it's not about wins and losses, but about the players.