Howard Lee, the former mayor of Chapel Hill, recently recalled that when he first met Dean Smith decades ago, Lee heard Smith’s first name and thought he was a member of the faculty.
How fitting. Because in his 36 years as men’s basketball coach at UNC, Smith thought of himself as a teacher and acted as if he were a member of the faculty.
When his admirers gather at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center to honor him, they will remember his many fine qualities.
Among them was that Smith considered himself a part of his university’s academic mission in a way that is rare among today’s big-time college football and basketball coaches.
Aspire to excellence
Away from the court, Smith quietly took an interest in all kinds of UNC students. Raleigh lawyer Keith Johnson, a 1984 UNC graduate, served as student attorney general and enforced the student honor code.
Each year, Smith would have a student involved with the honor system and a faculty member talk to his players. Johnson addressed the team one year. “They were not just checking the box by having us come and a good amount of time was devoted to it,” Johnson, 52, remembered in an email.
When Johnson finished, Smith asked him how any of the players could get involved with the honor system if they were interested. “The question caught me off guard,” Johnson said, “and was a good reminder to everyone in the room that the players were part of the student body.”
Johnson crossed paths with Smith again when the coach spoke at a gathering for an honorary student organization to which Johnson belonged. Johnson sat with Smith during dinner. “He had given a great speech I still remember about aspiring to excellence without obsessing on being No. 1,” Johnson said.
During dinner, the conversation turned to summer vacations. Johnson had worked at a YMCA camp that had just started a family camp. He sent Smith information. Smith responded with a hand-written note.
Smith was a private person, but he’d stop and talk with students. He enjoyed engaging with them and being part of the academy. The university was his home. He was comfortable there.
Tim Saunders, a Charlotte physician, graduated from UNC in 1977 (and from its medical school in 1981). As a freshman, he attended a UNC game at Carmichael Auditorium and hung around afterward with a friend. When Smith walked by, they congratulated him.
“He stopped and shook our hands and thanked us,” Saunders, 59, recalled. “For a freshman who had been watching Coach Smith and the Tar Heels since coming of age, it was a great honor and privilege just to shake his hand. The stories of his character and beliefs were something I admired before coming to UNC, and now I knew I was in the promised land.”
Gracious with students
It’s a testament to Smith’s graciousness that I remember clearly each of the four times I talked with him as a student in Chapel Hill in the early 1980s.
Smith came to a feature-writing class so we could interview him. Later I traveled out of state with the team to cover a nationally televised season-opening game for The Daily Tar Heel.
Before practice the day before the game, reporters gathered around Smith and started asking questions. I stood 25 feet away, clueless.
Smith stopped them and motioned me to join them. He knew I was a student journalist from UNC, and he wanted me to have the same access to him as the professional reporters.
It seems almost quaint now. But Smith was a big-time coach who respected the students and faculty and never thought he was bigger than the university.