It hardly bears repeating that Dean Smith was a man of principles, taking on segregation, nuclear weapons and the shot clock without regard to any criticism, warranted or baseless, that might come his way.
There was one moment when Smith, who died Saturday night at 83, had to choose between principles, when a lifetime of devotion to liberal and progressive causes came into conflict with perhaps the only thing he treasured more: the people around him.
Smith chose loyalty.
Not to anybody one might expect, not Bill Guthridge or Roy Williams, not Charlie Scott or James Worthy or Michael Jordan. It was a self-proclaimed “terrible player” who appeared in only nine games in two seasons, scoring a single point, the fringest of fringe players.
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When former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot came to Smith in 2000 to ask for his endorsement for the Republican nomination for governor, Smith obliged. And when Vinroot asked him to make a second television commercial, this time for the general election, Smith again obliged.
He was careful not to ask anyone to vote for Vinroot. He merely “bragged on him,” as Smith would put it later.
“ ‘I’m catching the dickens for endorsing you,’ he told me,” Vinroot said. “I knew that.”
It was proof that Smith would do just about anything for his players, his “young men,” as he would often refer to them – even one who was barely a player. They all received the same treatment.
When Vinroot served in Vietnam, he received weekly letters from his wife and his mother ... and Smith. When Vinroot’s kids arrived on campus in Chapel Hill, they all got the same call from the basketball office making sure they had access to tickets, the same call any of the children of Smith’s players would get, without Smith ever mentioning it to their parents.
In later years, Smith often turned to Vinroot for legal advice, and politics would often come up between the two over lunch – peaceable disagreements over opposing positions, between a budding Republican politician and the “liberal lion of Chapel Hill,” as Vinroot called him.
“I remember as a college boy putting up signs for Goldwater and having coach Smith ask, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ ” Vinroot said.
While Smith declined repeated entreaties to run for Senate against Jesse Helms, he endorsed numerous Democratic political candidates over the years, right up to Barack Obama in 2008.
For Vinroot, he broke ranks.
“There’s some kind of special relationship there,” said another of Smith’s former players, Tom LaGarde, an occasional political activist himself.
“I told him one time, I thought he was loyal to a fault,” Williams said. “He said I shouldn’t use those two words in the same sentence.”
Just as Smith took criticism from the left, it opened Vinroot up to criticism from the right. As a spokesman for one of his primary opponents put it that spring: “We respect Dean, and I’m a big fan myself, but he is a liberal Democrat.”
Smith wasn’t alone. Vinroot used his personal ties to get two prominent Democrats – Smith and Bank of America chairman Hugh McColl – to endorse him during the Republican primary.
“It didn’t matter to coach,” Vinroot said. “He caught hell for it, I’m sure.”
In the end, Smith’s stand on Vinroot’s behalf went for naught. His endorsement did help Vinroot win the Republican primary, but after Vinroot opened the general election with the second Smith commercial that ran in July, his Democratic opponent Mike Easley raised the stakes.
In the pantheon of North Carolina icons, there was perhaps only one alive who could trump Smith, and Easley answered Smith’s endorsement of Vinroot with a celebrity endorsement of his own: Andy Griffith.
Buoyed by a late barrage of commercials featuring Griffith, Easley held off Vinroot in the final days and won the election with 52 percent of the vote, to Vinroot’s 46 percent, in what would become known as the “Mayberry Miracle.”
“It was a brilliant counterstroke,” Vinroot said. “I’m sorry we didn’t run coach Smith all the rest of the way. I’ll take my chances with coach Smith, against Andy or anybody else.”
For Smith, his loyalty and support of Vinroot aside, one imagines that was one loss that didn’t wear as hard on him as some of the others over the course of his career.
His former player lost. His team still won.