One of my favorite things about ACC basketball over the years has been the rich personalities in the league, particularly among its coaches, who have always been excellent, both in coaching prowess, but also in the give and take among the different coaches.
You had to love some of the things you saw in the 60's and 70's that we don't have today, for example: Bones McKinney of Wake Forest, and Lefty Driesell of Maryland, were two of the most interesting coaching personalities ever, and to boot, neither coached his alma mater, which became a big conference rival, UNC for McKinney and Duke for Lefty.
I think the relative level of coaches was just as good or better back than than now. You had Dean Smith of UNC, Frank McGuire of South Carolina and Norman Sloan, of NC State, all of whom would win titles; you had Terry Holland of Virginia, and Vic Bubas of Duke, and Bill Foster, of Duke, all of whom made it to the Final Four; you had Lefty Driesell at Maryland, who did everything but make it to the Final Four; Carl Tacy at Wake Forest was at the tail end of this period and class of coaches, but still took the Deacons to the Final 8, twice, I believe, farther than Tim Duncan could; you had Press Maravich, Tates Locke and Bill Foster at Clemson, where Locke probably had the best Clemson teams ever back with Tree Rollins and Skip Wise, and Foster had less success there but had built the UNCC program from nothing, leaving the year before Charlotte went to the Final Four, in 1976.
The amazing thing to me is the way that Dean Smith buried all his rivals. Partially, it was on the court, but that came in the overwhelming sense only after 1975. Dean was simply so good at, I won't say manipulating the media, because that has a negative connotation, but he made it difficult for his rivals to feel comfortable in the conference, even when they were either outdoing him or at least performing equally. Coach K was essentially the only one with the will to go head to head with Smith, not counting Valvano and Lefty, who had unfortunate demises, and had to leave NC State and Maryland after being accused of not monitoring their players to a great enough extent.
For example, here is a list of the excellent coaches, who essentially desisted from competition against Smith, in spite of some decent successes:
Vic Bubas at Duke had a winning record against Smith and equal or better success in the 1960's but then retires unexpectedly at a very young age in 1970.
Frank McGuire of USC, establishes South Carolina as a national power, and beats Smith four out of their last five contests in the ACC, after going undefeated in conference in 1970 and winning the ACC tourney and achieving the number one ranking in 1971, but his team left the conference at the end of the year and he would only face Smith one more time in their careers.
Norm Sloan beats Smith 9 times in a row and wins 57 out of 58 games in the early 1970's and wins the greatest NCAA title since 1957 after going undefeated in conference two years straight and winning two ACC tournaments in a row, during a period when Smith had never done any of these things, except win consecutive tourney titles. And yet, Sloan was gone from State within four years of his amazing title run, leaving to try to establish the program at Florida, where he had just so-so success.
Bill Foster at Duke, had a period from 1977 to 1980 where his teams are either equal to, or exceed, Smith's teams on the court depending on your point of view, going to the Finals and the Final 8 during this period and yet by 1981, he has gone to USC to succeed McGuire and is unable to maintain or restore the high levels of success achieved by McGuire.
Terry Holland never quite equalled Smith on the court, but did have pretty good success against Carolina, tormenting them in the ACC tourney with mediocre Cav teams in 1976 and 1977 and then taking 3 out of 6 against the incredibly talented UNC finalists from 1981 and 1982. Granted, Smith won the bigger games in 1981 and 1982, but Holland's upset in the 1976 ACC tourney ruined Ford's greatest team, which had a record of 25-2 after losing just once in conference, and which thought it might be able to compete with eventual undefeated champion, Indiana. In 1984, when Carolina may have had its most talented team ever, UNC flamed out against Indiana, while Holland went on to beat Indiana and on to the Final Four and almost the finals, with a very mediocre Cav team, that had a .500 record in conference. Holland would then quit just a couple of years later.
Carl Tacy at Wake Forest, filled this bill to a lesser extent, going to the Final 8 twice and dropping huge defeats on Carolina in 1978 in the ACC tourney, in Ford's final ACC game, and in 1982 against the eventual national champs, and like UVa, went further than Carolina in 1984 and yet, he too would be gone in a couple of years, citing burn-out.
Only Coach K at Duke, whose tenure started rather horribly, was able to avoid scandal, burn-out or general exasperation, among those coaches who were able to compete at least fairly equally with Smith.
Nevertheless, Smith, who at one time had close to an equal record versus K, finished up from 1993 through 1997 on a big streak and ended up with an 11 victory margin, overall, and for once things went the other way. Duke's program although certainly already excellent, went into the stratosphere when Smith retired, benefiting from the vacuum at UNC and it has only been the return of Roy Williams to some extent, that has brought Duke back down to earth.
So what was it about Dean? Obviously talent, innovation and hardwork were the most important factors, but it seems that many of his peers just couldn't stand Smith or abide his presence, and ended up fleeing the competition to what appeared to be greener pastures, most probably to UNC's benefit and leading to a 30 year run of success never before seen.