Thousands of people celebrated the life of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith yesterday. His family, former players and longtime friends paid tribute to the man, coach and leader at a memorial service in Chapel Hill. Smith passed away earlier this month following a long neurological illness. He was 83.
Inside a building that bears his name and beneath dozens of banners he helped to raise, Dean Smith was memorialized on Sunday.
"You know I never, ever walk into this great place without looking up," said former UNC System President Erskine Bowles was among the speakers on Sunday.
"Dean Smith had the heart, the mind, and the spirit of a genuine leader – a teacher, a champion, a leader who always seemed to do, what was right," he continued.
Bowles recalled Smith’s sharp memory, attention to deal, and how uncomfortable he was when the focus turned to him.
"As I look out over this huge crowd I can’t help but think how Coach Smith would absolutely hate this – as you know he did not like to be the center of attention, he did not want to be in the spotlight. He was a very humble man," noted former player Mickey Bell noted as well.
For 36 years that humble man from Kansas guided the UNC basketball team. Under his watch Carolina won 879 games, earned 11 trips to the Final Four and claimed two national titles. His legacy extends beyond basketball though. Speakers recounted life lessons, and a fierce loyalty.
"He brought the fight for desegregation to college sports and used the game of basketball as a vehicle to carry the message, a faith-based message of humanity, onto a national stage," added Eric Montross, a member of the 1993 National Championship team.
Montross was one of the many future NBA players to come out of the Carolina program. So, too, was 1986 Graduate Brad Daugherty was another.
"The one man that was going to be standing their right beside you no matter what – was Coach Smith. Coach Smith believed more in me than I did in myself and because of that I have tremendous homage to pay to him for the rest of my life," said Daugherty.
Coach Smith retired from college basketball in 1997. His former assistant Roy Williams took over in 2003 and today is the new patriarch of the Carolina Basketball family Smith created.
Coach Williams paid homage to Coach Smith during a game Saturday in the Dean Dome against Georgia Tech. UNC began the game in the Four Corners offense, an iconic play devised by Smith decades earlier.
"I would like to encourage all of you to tell people what they mean to you. At the private service with the family and the lettermen I told them a story – that I had never told Coach Smith that I loved him – and I’ve regretted that," said Williams.
For nearly two and a half hours an assortment of speakers paid tribute to Coach Smith. Billy Cunningham is a 1965 graduate of UNC and played on Smith’s earliest teams. He joked that the struggles of those teams helped provide Smith with humility. Cunningham also said that 50 years after his graduation, the wins and losses aren’t what he remembers most.
"He showed me over and over again that one person can make a difference. And that’s what he did. And he also taught me that I must follow in his footsteps and do these types of things to help others. And that’s the standard he has set for all of us here today – or watching on TV."
Dean Smith would have turned 84 this Saturday.