Family: Legendary UNC coach Smith having memory loss

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Aaron Beard


RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina coaching great Dean Smith is dealing with memory loss.

His family sent a letter to former players and coaches Saturday, discussing the 79-year-old Hall of Famer's health after generally declining to comment for privacy reasons. Smith's condition was described as a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."

"He may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years of coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them," the letter said. "He still remembers the words of a hymn or a jazz standard, but may not feel up to going to a concert. He still plays golf, though usually only for nine holes instead of 18."

Smith had largely kept a low profile in retirement, consistent with his habit of trying to deflect credit to his players while never seeming comfortable with the attention that followed him during the peak of his coaching years.

Smith's health became a question

after a recent story by The Fayetteville

Observer reported he had occasional memory loss. A week later, author John Feinstein posted on his blog that he backed off an effort to collaborate with Smith on a book in the past year because of related issues.

The family letter states that Smith has had two hospital procedures in the past three years, one for knee replacement and the other for an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

"Coach Smith wanted to keep his professional and personal life separate," the letter states. "But as we all know, the personal and professional life and sometimes overlap, and we understand that many fans, former players and friends are concerned about his well-being."

Smith retired in 1997 after 36 seasons in Chapel Hill as the winningest coach in Division I men's basketball with 879 victories, a mark passed a decade later by Bob Knight at Texas Tech.

Smith won 13 Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments, reached 11 Final Fours and won the NCAA championship in 1982 and 1993. But his imprint on the game goes beyond numbers, from the creation of the Four Corners slowdown offense that

ultimately helped lead to the creation of the shot clock to the simple gesture of pointing to the passer after a made basket.

In addition to coaching some of the game's biggest names like Michael Jordan, Smith -- a Kansas native and the son of public school teachers -- oversaw a program that graduated more than 96 percent of its lettermen.