My Mistake

Dean Smith, center, with his North Carolina team in 1967 after beating Duke for the ACC title.

In chapter 24 of Ramblers, George Ireland’s son Mike tells a story about the 1963 final four. It was Thursday, March 21. The Ramblers had just flown in to Louisville and were ensconced in their hotel. Tomorrow night they would play Duke in the semi.

That night at the Sheraton, Mike Ireland recalled, his father had a visitor who brought him a gift from North Carolina coach Frank McGuire—a scouting report on Duke. “You didn’t have the television you’ve got now, anyone who was that far away you just didn’t see them. And so McGuire’s assistant came up to the room and they went through the scouting report. That guy’s name was Dean Smith.”

His father and McGuire were friendly, Mike Ireland said, but there may have been more to it than friendship….“I think the rivalry between North Carolina and Duke was so great that McGuire was willing to help anybody beat Duke.”

Recently I received a very generous email from a reader named Keith Brewington. It’s the kind of note that every self-respecting journalist dreads. After praising the book lavishly (that is not the dreaded part), he says:

There is one thing that might have been mentioned to you, though. Mike Ireland erroneously told you that Frank McGuire sent his assistant Dean Smith with the Duke scouting report in ’63. Dean had already been head coach for two seasons at that time. That is not to say he didn’t give George Ireland a scouting report, just that he was not McGuire’s assistant at the time.

I wish I could say that Keith is mistaken, but of course he is not. Smith was an assistant at UNC from 1958 to 1961; he moved up to head coach in fall of ’61. I should have checked it, but Mike Ireland’s story fit the facts I knew:  Smith was McGuire’s assistant.  And in my research I learned more about Frank McGuire’s hatred of Duke than Mike Ireland had let on. I wrote:

Art Heyman had originally intended to attend North Carolina but switched to Duke at the last minute. In 1961, Heyman and a player he had known in New York, Larry Brown, came to blows during a North Carolina-Duke game and in the melee that followed Heyman had punched Frank McGuire in the groin.

It all fit! So, in a lapse of skepticism that I think (I hope) every nonfiction writer can identify with, I passed this story on as it was told to me, without even thinking to question whether Smith was McGuire’s assistant at the time. I checked a thousand facts like this as the book went through the editing process, but it’s not the facts you think to check that get you in trouble, it’s the ones you “know” are correct.

I apologize profusely. I picture a researcher 50 years hence, hunkered over a pile of books in the quiet stacks of a library somewhere. This has always been my dream: to make something that would have a place in the library, something that would last and be useful long after I’m gone. But the nightmare side of that dream is committing an error that will live forever. I see this imaginary (and somewhat anachronistic) researcher sighing and shaking her head in exasperation, trying to figure out why the sources don’t agree on the career of Dean Smith or Frank McGuire. Sorry, comrade. I’ve been there. The last thing I wanted was to do it to you.