Honoring Dean: Legendary UNC coach gets Presidential Medal of Freedom

acarter@newsobserver.comAugust 8, 2013 

  • Key numbers

    879: Career wins, most at time he retired

    11: Final Fours, second at time he retired

    2: NCAA championships as coach

    1: NCAA championship as player (Kansas, 1952)

    96: Reported graduation rate of players

    60: Wins vs. N.C. State

    59: Wins vs. Duke

    23: Record consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (1975-1997)

CHAPEL HILL -- There were some things Dean Smith never could do for Charlie Scott.

Smith could never mute the hate-filled chants Scott endured in opposing gyms, back when he was the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina. And Smith couldn’t soften the harsh glares Scott received when he traveled someplace – a restaurant, a town – where people of his skin color had long been unwelcome.

But when news broke Thursday that President Obama named Smith, the Hall of Fame UNC basketball coach, as one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Scott thought of the things Smith could do, and often did.

“What he did more than anything else was to give me someone to look at in a different skin color that I could accept and see that everyone was not like the bigots, or like the racists,” Scott said during a phone interview.

“He could not take away the words of those individuals, or the way those individuals acted towards me. Those things were there. What he did was give me a barometer to look at outside of the racism and bigotry.”

Smith, 82, coached at UNC from 1961 through 1997, and retired after 36 seasons, 879 victories and two national championships, which the Tar Heels won in 1982 and 1993. He guided the Tar Heels to the ACC tournament championship 13 times, and he led UNC to 11 Final Fours.

Those accomplishments earned Smith his place in various halls of fame, and earned him his legacy as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. Beyond the on-the-court success, what earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, though, are the characteristics that Scott described Thursday.

“I base my life on the things that coach Smith taught me and the direction and the insight that he gave me into the type of person I would want to be,” Scott said. “What would make coach Smith proud of me I would say is a question that I answer every day.”

Fifty years ago this year, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that established the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which, according to the White House, is “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Smith is one of 16 recipients of the award, which will be presented later this year at the White House. Joining him, among others, are former president Bill Clinton; Sally Ride, who was the first American female astronaut to travel in space; and Oprah Winfrey.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” Obama said in a statement. “This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world.

“It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude.”

Smith joins John Wooden, the architect of the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 70s, as the only men’s college basketball coaches to receive the Medal of Freedom. Like Wooden, Smith was known in his coaching days for his calm, patient demeanor, and for building deep relationships with his players.

At UNC, Smith built a program that kept former players coming back year after year, summer after summer. That tradition lives on, as does Smith’s legacy for winning with integrity and class – characteristics Scott said Smith tried to impart on his players.

It wasn’t until years after he left school in 1970, Scott said, that he began to appreciate fully what he learned from Smith.

“You were able to look back from an objective standpoint and see what he was trying to teach us,” Scott said. “What he was trying to make us understand about life – about circumstances, about choices.”

In addition to his coaching accomplishments, Smith is remembered for being a champion for civil rights, and for being outspoken on various social issues. He openly opposed the Vietnam War, publicly spoke out against the death penalty and, according to a 2003 story in Sports Illustrated, sometimes took his players into prisons to meet inmates.

“It hit me the other day what we should do," Smith, a son of two teachers, told Sports Illustrated in 2003. “People should get a letter in the mail, like a jury duty notice, that says, 'You've been selected to carry out the execution of so and so. You'll kill him at noon.' That might wake some people up.”

In his coaching days and even years after his retirement, Smith was known for his sharp memory. Those closest to him, like Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant at UNC, can tell story after story of the precision of Smith’s mind and memory.

In recent years, though, many of Smith’s memories have been stolen from him by what his family in 2010 described as a “progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.” His family has declined to share much about Smith’s condition, but it released in a letter in 2010 that read in part:

“He may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years in coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them.”

Even after his condition became public, former UNC players have continued to visit Smith. Along with Guthridge, Smith still has an office down a hallway inside the UNC basketball offices. As recently as the 2011-12 season, caretakers brought Smith in a few times a week, and he’d walk the halls of the building that bears his name.

When the White House on Thursday made the Presidential Medal of Freedom news official, Smith’s family celebrated in a statement it released through UNC, and described the honor as “extraordinary.”

“We know he would be humbled to be in the company of President Clinton, United States senators, scientists, entertainers, the great Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and the other distinguished Americans who are receiving the award,” Smith’s family said. “We also know he would take this as an opportunity to recognize all the young men who played for him and the assistant coaches who worked with him, as well as the university.”

One of Smith’s old assistants was Roy Williams, who just completed his 10th season as the Tar Heels head coach. Williams played on the junior varsity at UNC, and then worked alongside Smith from 1978-88.

“Everyone who loves college and ACC basketball and the University of North Carolina is indebted to him,” Williams said in a statement of Smith, whom Williams only ever calls, “Coach Smith.” “But more than basketball, it was his social conscience that has left even greater marks on our society and will be paying dividends for generations.”

The story of Scott, a three-time All-ACC guard at UNC, perhaps best personifies the off-court qualities for which Smith is remembered. Scott is careful these days to describe what he endured.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I went through hell,” he said. “Because my four years at Carolina I cherish very much.”

But it wasn’t easy, either, being the first black scholarship athlete at a Southern school at a time when the old ideals of the South were crumbling. Scott could have gone a lot of places.

He nearly went to Davidson, where he had forged a relationship with Lefty Driesell, who’d go on to coach at Maryland. Instead, though, Scott chose to play at UNC and to break a barrier that Smith wanted broken.

“The times that I went through, coach Smith could not take those things away,” Scott said. “They were there. Bigotry and racism were there. His input and the way that he treated me was how I was able to grow up in a society that at the time was going through turmoil.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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