Remembering Dean Smith

Feb 8, 2015

Dean Smith retired in 1997 with 879 wins. He passed away on Saturday.
Credit Bo Gordy-Stith (PBoBS) / Flickr/Creative Commons

Induction into a sports Hall of Fame is a reflective moment for any athlete or coach. Nine Tar Heel players or coaches are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and eight of them either had some connection to Dean Smith or were Dean Smith. And none missed the opportunity to thank him during their acceptance speeches:

Michael Jordan: “Coach Smith… what else can I say about him? He’s legendary in the game of coaching.”

Roy Williams: “Coach Smith, this truly is hard to put into words. You were and are my mentor, my teacher, my friend. Ninety-five percent of what I do came from you."

Larry Brown: “Anybody that’s been part of the Carolina family knows what an unbelievable honor it is to play for Coach Smith and represent that school.”

'I'm the luckiest guy in the world and I've said that. To be in Chapel Hill. To be at the University of North Carolina.'

When Smith began coaching, there was no shot clock, no three point line, and no black players on southern teams. When he retired, the college game had become a fully integrated, multi-billion-dollar business.

But one thing never changed: the loyalty Smith showed for members of the so-called Carolina Family. It was a quality he exhibited from his first days at the school.

“His loyalty, forget about it,” said Frank McGuire, the man who hired him at Carolina. “What more would you want from a man than loyalty? The most loyal man in the world.”

When McGuire left UNC in the midst of a recruiting scandal in 1961, Smith became the head coach. It was a rocky start. Drawing on the strength and faith of his parents – both teachers and devoted Baptists in Kansas – Smith endured the first few years in Chapel Hill and built a consistent winner.

Integration

Once he was established, Smith turned his attention to integrating his team. In 1966, Smith recruited the school’s first black player, Charles Scott. It was a groundbreaking move that changed southern sports and culture.

“He actually said to me that he regretted that he hadn’t been more aggressive in recruiting African-American players earlier, that he had been fairly passive about leading the way,” says sportswriter and historian Barry Jacobs.

As the tumultuous 1960s gave way to the Nixon-era 70s, Smith kept on winning. A steady stream of Atlantic Coast Conference championships and Final Four appearances and an Olympic gold medal.

Smith ran a tight program. Players graduated. Smith demanded politeness and prohibited facial hair. He claimed he never once cursed.

But Smith was hardly perfect.

He struggled to quit smoking. His first marriage ended in divorce. And despite all of the team’s success, it seemed he could never quite get over the hump and win a national championship.

That changed on March 29th, 1982, when the Tar Heels defeated Georgetown in one of the most memorable title games ever.

Eleven years later, Carolina won it again against Michigan. In between the two titles, the University opened a 21,000 seat arena on campus in 1986. Smith originally did not want the $33-million building named after him, but was convinced to let it happen when he was told the fundraising would be easier.

But Smith held to his convictions on another point: during his tenure, the building that bore his name did not display any advertising inside. He also came out against ads for alcohol on TV broadcasts of college sports and longed for the day when freshmen sat out a year before they could play on the varsity team. All were efforts to protect and enhance the student-athlete experience - stances that seem quaint today.

Final years of his career

The last decade of Smith’s career was a time of great victories, and some off-the-court challenges. Some players began to get into legal scrapes, and on the court, the team seemed less cohesive at times.

Smith coached his last game in 1997 – a loss to Arizona in the Final Four. Three games earlier, he had set the record for all-time wins, surpassing Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp. He said later that he considered retiring short of the milestone because he was fundamentally against the intense focus on such records.

At his retirement press conference in October of 1997, Smith found it hard to stay composed.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world and I’ve said that,” he said. “To be in Chapel Hill. To be at the University of North Carolina. I arrived in August of ’58. Thanks to Frank McGuire – a great friend – and Chancellor Aycock, I was able to come. Thanks to my players, I was able to stay. They didn’t fire me. What loyalty I’ve had. Any man… from my players, over there, they’re really special. That’s all.”

Smith stayed on at UNC after retiring as coach. He went back to earning the same annual salary he had when he started – $7,000. He kept an office in the basement of the building that bore his name and his hand in some high-profile coaching changes. Roy Williams, his hand-picked successor and former assistant, now sits in Smith’s old office on the first floor.

Later in life

For as long as anyone can remember, Smith devoted several hours every Monday morning to corresponding with former players, coaches, team managers, almost everyone associated with the Carolina basketball family.

In his later years, Smith also stayed involved in political issues. As a coach, he spoke out against war, nuclear proliferation and the death penalty. In 2008, he supported Barrack Obama for president.

“He said that although he was occasionally approached, he could never be elected to an office in North Carolina because he was too liberal,” says Jacobs. “People just didn’t know that, and part of that was because he didn’t make too many political statements. And he stuck to things that he thought were consistent with his spiritual values.”

For as long as anyone can remember, Smith devoted several hours every Monday morning to corresponding with former players, coaches, team managers, almost everyone associated with the Carolina basketball family. His memory for even the smallest events in others’ lives was legendary.

And although his memory faded due to dementia near the end of his life, Smith’s devotion continued to be an inspiration to those around him, and a model to those who competed against him.

“The intense loyalty that you feel towards him is something that I’ve admired since I first started coaching,” Mike Krzyzewski, coach at Duke, said to some of the UNC players gathered at an event in 2013. “It is really one of the great things in sport: the intense loyalty of the Tar Heel players for Coach Smith. I applaud you.”

Remembrance

In the coming days, old rivals and players and friends will share stories and memories. Countless commentators and Carolina fans will obsess over the details of Smith’s career and debate his legacy.

But in an interview conducted in 2008, Smith didn’t believe his greatest successes were the 879 victories or the 1976 Gold Medal or the national championships, he chose instead to focus on the extended family he now leaves behind:

“I never really thought about a legacy, except the nice thing I’m probably most pleased with, the real high graduation rate: 96 percent. But the fact they all stick together. They call themselves the Carolina Family. I didn’t plan that. They’re really good people. I think they all like me now. They might not have liked me when I played. I don’t know whether that’s a legacy, but I’m very proud of all of ‘em.”

>> Read Dean Smith's recruitment letter to Michael Jordan.

Statement from UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt:

'North Carolina and beyond will remember him as a great teacher and remarkable pioneer in promoting equality and civil rights.'

“Our Carolina community is deeply saddened by the passing of Dean Smith. Coach Smith was an extraordinary man who cared deeply about people.  Known worldwide as a legendary basketball coach, our University, the Chapel Hill community, and the countless students, faculty, staff and people across North Carolina and beyond will remember him as a great teacher and remarkable pioneer in promoting equality and civil rights.

For Coach Smith, his players, coaches and staff were family. He was a trusted mentor whose care for his players went beyond the basketball court and continued after they left Carolina. He will be remembered as a great American and true Tar Heel.”

Statement from UNC coach Roy Williams:

'I'm 64 years old and everything I do with our basketball program and the way I deal with the University is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud.'

"He set the standard for loyalty and concern for every one of his players, not just the games won or lost.

"He was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people. His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most.

"He was a mentor to so many people; he was my mentor. He gave me a chance but, more importantly, he shared with me his knowledge, which is the greatest gift you can give someone.

"I’m 64 years old and everything I do with our basketball program and the way I deal with the University is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud. When I came back to Carolina, the driving force was to make him proud and I still think that today.

"I’d like to say on behalf of all our players and coaches, past and present, that Dean Smith was the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been. We love him and we will miss him.”