Dean Smith’s Pastor: ‘Dean Is An Emblem Of What Athletics Ought To Be’

Feb 9, 2015

Credit UNC Athletic Communications

    

North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith died this weekend. As a coach for the Tar Heels men's basketball team, he won two national championships, his trademark "Four Corners" offense frustrated opponents, and his 879 wins were the most in Division I basketball history when he retired.

But his friends, his family and his players often point to what he did off the court as a sign of who Dean Smith was.

He graduated 96 percent of his players; he was referred to as a second father by many of them. He was the first to integrate the UNC men's basketball team, and with the guidance of his pastor, Smith helped integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant in 1964.

That pastor is Rev. Robert Seymour of Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

"We were good friends for over a half-century," Seymour remembers. "I knew him primarily as a man, and not as a coach. And he always said over and over again, 'Only a game, it's only a game.'

"As a man away from the coaching job, he was a man of integrity, and respected everyone, and was always gracious to people, and had a way of making everyone to whom he spoke feel very important," says Seymour.

On how the two men met:

Dean was blessed by having grown up in a Christian home. (He) had a sister who went to seminary, so it's not surprising that when he came to Chapel Hill, one of the first things he did was to seek out a church. And that turned out to be Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, and I had just arrived there when Dean and his family joined the congregation.

I did not know who he was, and of course, at that stage, most people in Chapel Hill did not know the name of Dean Smith.

He'd come [to the University] as an associate coach, and he joined out church, and we immediately asked him if he would be chair of the Student Affairs Committee.

On segregation: 

'Dean is an emblem of what athletics ought to be: a game. It's only a game, and one has a life beyond that, and it's the quality of that life that counts for more than what happens on the court.'

We were worshipping on the UNC campus. We were a small group, but we had a significant number of African-Americans in the congregation. This was at a time before integration of Chapel Hill.

But Dean saw that segregation needed to go, and we gave him several assignments. One (was to) to go out and find the best basketball player he could find and recruit him for Carolina.

And the other was to go with me and a black student to The Pines restaurant and see if they would open the door and comply with the new public accommodations law.

And of course, seeing Dean at that door, they did open it, because this was where the all-white basketball team frequently had meals.

On the courage of his convictions:

Credit UNC-TV

Dean was always quite willing to go public with his convictions. He was a person of some courage. I don't know of another coach who would have done what he did.

  • He publicly was against the death penalty.
  • He was active in the civil rights movement.
  • He stood for nuclear disarmament.
  • He affirmed gays and lesbians.

'No, I don't feel that I am courageous. I am just doing what I think is right.'

He knew that the gospel had a social dimension, looking for justice everywhere, and he was known not only for his basketball play, but known for his "person" as a man.

The only time he had some hesitation is when the widow of Arthur Ashe asked him to accept the award for courage. And his response was, "No, I don't feel that I am courageous. I am just doing what I think is right."

On Smith's success as a teacher:

Every now and then he would call me and say, 'Give me a quotation from Martin Luther King that I can share with my players today.'

He was always teaching them values and faith and social concerns.

And I think he had almost a paternal feeling toward his players…the thing he was most proud of was the players who were able to receive an education and graduate.

On his role in the congregation:

He was highly respected by everyone. He was there every Sunday when he was in town. He had a remarkable gift for remembering names. People who hadn't been in the congregation for years, when they would return, he would call them by name and the names of their children.

It was awesome the way he was able to greet people, and he was so gracious in all of his personal relationships.

On Smith's legacy:

I think his legacy will be with us for a long, long time.

I think that it's needed today more than ever before, as we see professional sports attacked from many different things.

Dean is an emblem of what athletics ought to be: a game. It's only a game, and one has a life beyond that, and it's the quality of that life that counts for more than what happens on the court.

In this 1994 interview with UNC-TV, Dean Smith talks about his parents, and his early years as a basketball player in Kansas: