Dean Smith 1931-2015: Dignified Man of Substance

Former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith passed away on Saturday, and there’s a lot to say about his life. Smith, who was 83, without question belongs on the NCAA coaches Mount Rushmore. During his 36 years at the helm at Chapel Hill he won two national titles, guided the team to twenty-seven national tournaments and 11 Final Fours. Before retiring in 1997 due to a progressive neurological illness, he had a streak of 13 straight Sweet 16 appearances. Currently, Florida coach Billy Donovan is the closets with four straight appearances.

Full disclosure, if you look at my veins you’ll see Tarheel Blue running through them. I fell in love with the team in 1982 after Michael Jordan hit the winning shot against Georgetown in the NCAA championship game. We didn’t have cable in our rural upstate NY home. If I was lucky, I could watch programming on network television. Though the tiny screen on our black and white dial television didn’t render the clearest picture, I could see enough to be indelibly impressed by the demeanor of Coach Smith and his highly athletic team. They did something that I thought was peculiar, yet intriguing after a made basket. I later heard broadcaster Billy Packer refer to their actions as the Bobby Jones Rule. The scorer would point to the passer to thank them for the assist.

The game came down to the final seconds. Georgetown’s Coach, John Thompson, was highly animated at the far end of the court. He was sweating profusely and screaming orders to all five players.  Smith sat with his staff as if they had already won and the rest of us were about to get the news. I was ten years old and still get a childlike feeling of butterflies when I recall that memory. His display of honor in winning is a distinct contrast to most of what we see in sports today. Call me old fashioned, but decorum matters. I was fortunate to see this displayed in my youth.

Before he became a legendary coach, Dean Smith was a legendary man.  He moved to Chapel Hill to coach the Tarheels in 1961, where he worshiped at Olin T. Binkly Baptist Church. The congregation was integrated and definitely progressive for its time. When sportswriter John Feinstein interviewed Smith for his Book One on One, he inquired about a time he and his pastor, Reverend Robert Seymour, met a black theology student at an upscale restaurant for dinner.  At the time, Chapel Hill restaurants were notorious for turning away black customers. According to Seymour, Smith wanted to integrate The Pines and send a message that they were expected to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The management were familiar with the upstart coach and allowed the men to be served. Smith bristled at the fact that Feinstein knew about what he had done. When told that he should be proud of doing the right thing he responded, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.” That’s about right for a man who everyone describes as decent.

Five years later, he recruited the first black student to receive an athletic scholarship at UNC — Charlie Scott. He exerted his influence to help a black graduate student buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. It’s been told that Dean Smith was a coach who never used profanity. In basketball circles the punch line to a running joke is Dean Smith was the only man who coached Michael Jordan. He was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Smith was born four days after my granddaddy on the last day of February. I didn’t know that until today. I do know that each night after I kiss Nings on his forehead I say, “Remember who you are-a dignified man of substance.” Pointing to you coach. Thanks for the assist.

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