A few years before he retired for good from the North Carolina Tar Heels in October 1997, Dean Smith was asked about professional legacies — namely, his own. He had recently added a second NCAA championship to a résumé that would include 11 Final Fours and 13 ACC tournament titles before he was done at age 66 — 879 wins in 36 years at Chapel Hill.
“Look,” he said, “I’m too much of a competitor to tell you that winning twice makes up for all the near-misses we had through the years. What am I supposed to tell my players on the 1968 team, or 1972, or 1977? ‘Sorry you never got to win, but at least I did!’ ”
That cracked up the gathered scribes.
“But don’t get me wrong,” he said with a wink. “I’m glad I have two. Two is better than one. Ask anybody.”
Andy Reid will go for two championships a week from Sunday at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. He will go for two titles in a row, in fact, and in the Super Bowl era that would put him on a list that only includes Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Jimmy Johnson, Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick. Only Shanahan is not a Hall of Famer, an oversight that will surely be addressed some year soon.
Reid? He is going to Canton whether he wins another, whether he wins a gaggle of them, or whether he will have to ultimately settle for the title he won in Miami last February, his Chiefs beating the 49ers 31-20, capping a postseason in which they erased three double-digit deficits in as many playoff games.
But two is better than one. Ask anyone.
Don’t ask Reid, because he’s certainly not going to go there, not yet, not until the business at hand is complete, not until the Chiefs throw mud on this grand chapter of the Tom Brady Fairytale and bring a second straight Lombardi Trophy back to western Missouri. So far, this has been the length to which he has acknowledged the presence of history on his doorstep:
“When I get about two seconds to sit down, I’m going to sit there and I’m going to go, ‘Doggone, how about this one?!’ ”
For Reid — like Smith before him in college basketball — getting the first title was the equivalent of finally having a scarlet letter removed permanently from his coaching outfit — “C” as in “can’t win the big one.”
Smith had to wait until his 21st season as a head coach before the Tar Heels emerged — barely — as the last team standing in an NCAA Tournament. Few ever questioned his overall mastery of the craft — not unless you wanted to be branded a basketball idiot — but something always seemed to go wrong for Carolina before that: a tough draw, a tough call, a heartbreaking shot. He also ran into some fellow master craftsmen along the way: John Wooden, Al McGuire, Bob Knight. It happens.
Reid had to wait until his 21st season as a head coach, too. He resuscitated and revitalized the Eagles, but could never quite figure out the last act in Philly. He immediately brought credibility and fun to Kansas City, but there, too, he always slipped on a banana peel — a clock-management snafu here, an odd play call there. It happens.
It isn’t just the two-decade waits that connect Smith and Reid. It wasn’t until Smith recruited a kid named Michael Jordan — who, you might have heard, went on to perhaps the finest of all basketball careers — that he made it. In Jordan all of Smith’s genius X’s and O’s finally found a human home, and a human heart.
For Reid, it wasn’t until Patrick Mahomes showed up out of Texas Tech — and four years into his career, it is certainly fair to wonder if Mahomes is destined to be remembered as the Michael Jordan of quarterbacks — that he got to lift the big trophy. In Mahomes, all of Reid’s brilliant offensive schemes and ideas found a player, at last, with the talent and imagination to make them real, and spectacular.
There was this, too:
“I really don’t think I’m any better a coach than I was four hours ago, or four weeks ago, or four years ago,” Smith said on the night of March 29, 1982, at the New Orleans Superdome, moments after the Heels beat Georgetown, 63-62.
“I’m the same guy, the same Andy, I’ve always been,” Reid said last Feb. Feb. 2 in the bowels of Hard Rock Stadium. “It just worked out this time.”
It worked out for Smith a second time, too, 11 years after the first. Reid’s wait could well be exactly 52 weeks. He is 221-130-1 as a coach, and that record is only going to get fatter the next few years. He’ll pass Curly Lambeau for fourth place all time (226) sometime next year and before he’s done should leapfrog Tom Landry (250) for fourth, behind only Shula (328) George Halas (318) and Belichick (280 and counting).
He’ll go to Canton the first time he’s eligible, even if it’s with only one title.
But two is better than one.