From the Editor

Drescher: Dean Smith read widely about basketball and life; Bzdelik shuns sports news

Executive EditorMarch 22, 2013 

Jeff Bzdelik, the men’s basketball coach at Wake Forest University, said recently he doesn’t read newspapers or websites.

In three years at Wake, Bzdelik has won 34 games and lost 60. This year, Wake won six of 18 games in league play, finishing ninth in the 12-team Atlantic Coast Conference. A group of fans recently purchased ads in the Greensboro News & Record calling for his firing.

“I don’t read the newspapers or the Internet, and that’s the truth,” Bzdelik said last week.

Bzdelik’s comments prompted me to think of former UNC coach Dean Smith, who liked to read. I wanted to ask Bzdelik why he didn’t read newspapers or online sites; how he kept up with current events; and what he did read.

He declined to be interviewed, but a spokesman, Scott Wortman, said Bzdelik keeps up with current events by reading newspapers and watching the news.

“But he doesn’t follow sports in the media, be it newspapers or the Internet,” Wortman wrote in an email. “Reading that stuff might cloud his judgment when interacting with the media, so he just stays away from it all. He’s more focused on coaching his team and letting me, as his SID (sports information director), keep up with the media coverage.”

Fair enough. Smith, on the other hand, read what was written about him and his program. When The News & Observer’s A.J. Carr received an award in 2008, Smith told me: “He’s very thorough. It always came out right. I had a lot of confidence in him.”

Smith retired in 1997 with more wins at that time than any coach in men’s Division I basketball history. He was a creative leader, always looking for new ideas. He was alert to the world – the basketball world and the real world.

Rick Brewer, the sports information director at UNC from 1975 to 1999, told me Smith had numerous newspapers delivered to his office. He called Smith “probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. He did read extensively. ... Because he had such various interests, especially on social issues, I know he read the newspapers.”

Serious reading

When it came to books, Smith read almost exclusively about philosophy and religion. His longtime assistant, Bill Guthridge, said Smith liked to relax by reading from midnight until 2 a.m. Guthridge was an early riser; Smith a night owl. “We joked with each other: We had the 24 hours locked up,” Guthridge said last week.

In his 1999 autobiography, “A Coach’s Life,” Smith wrote, “It was a habit of mine to do some reading late at night in my study after watching film. I would leaf through various volumes.”

Smith read the work of American theologian Robert McAfee Brown, who put together the Layman’s Theological Library. “This library introduced me to theologians and philosophers such as Barth, Bultmann, Buber, Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard,” Smith wrote. “I guess I was searching for the meaning of life through these authors, and still am.”

Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, made a big impression on Smith; the retired coach mentioned him five times in his book. Smith wrote, “Certainly, Søren Kierkegaard has been most interesting to me.”

Smith was interested in public affairs and thought often of the society in which he lived. He supported integration in Chapel Hill in the 1960s and signed Charles Scott in 1966 as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC. Scott became a star player when many Southern teams were still all white.

‘An exceptional mind’

Barry Jacobs has covered ACC basketball since 1976 and writes for several websites. He’s also chairman of the Orange County commissioners and served previously on other local government boards. Smith knew of Jacobs’ interest in public affairs and would initiate conversations with Jacobs about politics. “He was just a well-informed person,” Jacobs said. “You can’t be that on top of things if you are not reading.”

Smith had a keen intellect. That, Jacobs said, “is part of why people who played for him and worked for him are reverential (toward him). There was this incredibly active intellect, and he had decided to do basketball. You recognize when you are in the presence of an exceptional mind.”

Guthridge said: “His mind was unbelievable. He could remember everybody’s name, every situation. It was amazing what he could remember. It was a great gift.”

Sadly, Smith’s mind is no longer strong. But for most of his 82 years, he was a deep and clear thinker, and reading about basketball, politics and faith was an important part of who he was.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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