Dean Smith leaves a legacy far beyond sports

Dean Smith coached North Carolina basketball teams to 20 wins or more for 27 straight seasons and two national titles.
Dean Smith coached North Carolina basketball teams to 20 wins or more for 27 straight seasons and two national titles. 1997 News & Observer file photo

Jerry Stackhouse, the former basketball All-America for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remembered his former coach, Dean Smith, with a personal anecdote that had little to do with coaching or a game. He recalled that years after he left Smith’s program, he would send his financial records to Smith.

Dean Smith, who died Saturday night at the age of 83 after several years of declining health, did that for a lot of former players, famous and, more often than not, not famous. He found them jobs, called if a child was sick, counseled them through personal crises.

And he did more. Long before integration was common in North Carolina, Smith and his minister and a young African-American student walked into a Chapel Hill restaurant, sat down and ate dinner. Chapel Hill was thereafter integrated. He did, in effect, the same with the men’s basketball program, bringing in Charles Scott as the first black player. Today, Scott remembers that Smith always called him “Charles,” because that was his name and his preference, in contrast to the more sports-friendly Charlie.

Genuine and generous

He lectured governors on what he believed to be the heinous wrong of the death penalty. He endorsed liberal politicians. He did not like criticism, but he did not fear it.

He contributed to charities, believing in the dignity of others and the obligation to share. He was a sportsman, a thinker, a theologian.

And, yes, he was one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports, all sports. His records and his innovations (the four-corners offense, the huddle at the foul line before shots) will be exhaustively documented in the next days, as the coach is widely mourned.

But so many who played for him, and so many who never played for him or even met him, will remember first his humanity and his genuineness.

For he was the most decent of men. It was bred in him at birth, as his parents taught him the value of all, and they lived those values themselves, pushing for integration of the races in Kansas when that was not a common much less a popular cause. Young Dean Smith learned well, and he, too, lived those values all his life.

If one talked to him about his upbringing, asked the question, “Coach, where did your views on life and values come from?” he would go back to Kansas and his parents, both public school teachers. In 1934, his father coached the Emporia High school team to a state championship, with the first black player ever in the Kansas state tournament.

Time for everyone

Though Smith held strong opinions, he understood that those who didn’t agree but were loyal fans and alums of the institution he represented were due respect as well. It was the way he treated everyone, whether a big booster of the university’s athletics program during a golf game or a kid on a playground. Everyone got time, and everyone got a smile.

His way, and his skills, he shared generously. Said one high school coach, exiting a Smith-taught clinic for coaches: “What that man knows ...”

Make no mistake. He was a ferocious competitor, and he hated to lose. But he won well. Oft-cited in his obituaries was his reaction to his team’s victory in the 1982 national championship against Georgetown. It was an emotional, hard-fought and close game. But when UNC won, Smith’s first move was to hug John Thompson, the Georgetown coach. Class, all the commentators said.

Yes, but that was simply the man. When coaches against whom Smith had competed got into trouble or needed help in finding another position, he would make the calls himself to other schools, and his blessing was gold. A seeming multitude of his former players became coaches themselves.

But they also became teachers and doctors and principals and successful people in work and in life. Dean Smith took great pleasure in that, primarily in their happiness. Always he would be “the coach.” Always he was first the man, and the friend.