CHAPEL HILL — Dean Smith, the former North Carolina basketball coach whose teachings and philosophy inspired legions of players and colleagues, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday during a ceremony in Washington.
Smith, who in recent years has been affected by a degenerative neurological disorder, will not attend the ceremony but will be represented by family members, friends and former colleagues, including Roy Williams, the UNC coach who served as an assistant under Smith for 10 years.
President Barack Obama will present the Medal of Freedom to Smith and 15 others, including former President Bill Clinton, television and media mogul Oprah Winfrey and baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is considered the nations highest civilian honor.
Smith is receiving the medal in part because of what his teams accomplished during his 36 years as UNCs coach, but more so, perhaps, because of his legacy outside of basketball. Smiths legacy has been defined by the close relationship he shared with his players and the interest he took in their lives and also for championing civil rights causes.
Coach Smith was, youve heard me say this before, hes the best there ever was, in my opinion, on the basketball court, and he was far better off the court, Williams said recently. And the things that he did off the court meant so much more than the time he spent on the court, except for the fact of the relationships he built on the court, and how special that was to him.
Smith, 82, retired in 1997 after leading UNC to 879 victories and two national championships, which the Tar Heels won in 1982 and 1993. At the time of his retirement, he was the most victorious college basketball coach in history.
John Wooden, who led UCLA through its dynasty years in the 1960s and 70s, is the only other mens college basketball coach to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which President John F. Kennedy established 50 years ago.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded, according to the White House, to individuals who have 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 took pride in imparting lessons on his players that he hoped would serve them throughout their lives, far after their playing careers ended. He also stressed the importance of academics, and more than 95 percent of his players earned their degree.
I feel very honored to be able to go up there and see that happen and to be with his wife and some of his children, Williams said. And itll be a neat deal for me.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter