Smith, who led the North Carolina Tar Heels to two NCAA titles and 11 Final Fours died Saturday night at 83. He retired in 1997 with a then-Division I men's record 879 victories and a reputation for teaching his players about life as well as basketball.
"He was a wonderful man," said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who spent time with Smith at North Carolina. "He was very important to me at the beginning of my career and was really gracious to me.
"He really shared his basketball with a lot of people around the world. ... His passing is a loss for a lot of people. But he did a lot of things off the court that are even more important than what he did on the basketball court, that probably nobody will know about. He was an iconic figure in the game but he was a wonderful human being to a lot of people."
In the mid-80s, Popovich — then coach of Division 3 Pomona-Pitzer — took a year's sabbatical. He spent it at North Carolina, essentially studying basketball under Smith.
Smith had been the first assistant coach to Air Force head coach Bob Spear, under whom Popovich played. Smith and Spear combined on a 1981 book: "Basketball, Multiple Offense and Defense."
Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford spent 21 years with Smith as an administrator at UNC.
"Sometimes, the word legend is used with too little thought," Swofford said. "In this instance, it almost seems inadequate. He was basketball royalty."
Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey played and was an assistant coach at Kentucky, an arch-rival of North Carolina.
"Coach Smith did it the right way .... He did so much not only for young men that he coached there, recruited there but for society as a whole in that area," Casey said prior to the Raptors-Spurs game Sunday night.
Casey also paid tribute to Smith for the way he taught his players that there was much more to life than basketball.
"He did a great job of developing not only successful basketball players — everybody remembers Michael Jordan — but I'm sure there's so many doctors, lawyers and whatever, heads of companies that he's developed as players through his program by giving him that message which is so important," said Casey.
"This is a small part of our life — basketball. It's important to us right now but in the big scheme of things, this is very small as far as what he taught and what he tried to preach to his players."
Tributes poured in from all corners of U.S. college basketball.
John Thompson Jr., whose Georgetown team lost to the Michael Jordan-led Tar Heels for Smith's first NCAA championship, said simply: "I loved him."
NCAA president Mark Emmert called him "the true definition of a coach" and Kentucky coach John Calipari wrote on Twitter that it was "a sad day for basketball to lose one of the greatest coaches of all time."
One of Calipari's predecessors with the Wildcats, Joe B. Hall, called Smith "a dominating force."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino called Smith "the architect of so many innovative and creative things with our game." The shot clock was implemented to counter Smith's time-milking "Four Corners" offence. He was the first coach at North Carolina, and one of the first in the segregated South, to offer a scholarship to a black athlete when he brought Charlie Scott to campus in 1967.
With files from The Associated Press