What the many tributes to Coach Dean Smith have focused on was not so much the remarkable record of wins and championships and All-Americans produced but on how he achieved such a record while doing it "the right way."
Smith spent more than 35 years running a clean program, seeing more than 95 percent of his players graduate, maintaining an unparalleled reputation of loyalty to and from his players as well as a legendary egalitarianism, subjecting his freshman super-recruits to such indignities as carrying the team projector on trips and treating the lowest of the low in the Carolina basketball hierarchy as fairly as he treated his stars.
I speak as one of the lowest of the low, a walk-on on the 1961-62 freshman team, the year Smith became head varsity coach. Yet when I ran into him about 15 years ago, after not having talked with him in more than 30 years, he called me by name and remembered the year I had played and even the one thing, jumping, I could do well.
Smith's courageous stands on matters beyond basketball also have been well-noted. He was virtually the only high-profile coach of a major sport of his era - the only white coach at any rate - who was outspoken as a progressive on issues such as race, war and peace and the death penalty. Not only outspoken, but also committed to social action, as demonstrated by his recruitment in 1966 of Charlie Scott as the first African-American scholarship athlete at UNC. A far more courageous action, given its even more racially loaded time, was his taking a black student to dinner in 1958 when he was a new unknown assistant coach and thus integrating a prominent Chapel Hill restaurant.
All of these points are important, but I feel a strange disconnection between the tributes to Smith and the atmosphere that surrounds high-profile college sports today. Smith would have hated the current lingo of athletic programs, dividing the university into "the athletic side" and "the academic side" - although that distinction, in fact, has become a reality within most universities.
For years, he strongly advocated that freshmen be ineligible for varsity sports, a concept unthinkable today, because he felt that "student-athletes needed a year to adjust academically and socially to college. This might be an amusing thought, considering what Phil Ford and Michael Jordan did for Carolina as freshmen, but then Smith said nothing about being for unilateral disarmament.
A man who was the most reluctant of celebrities, Smith would hate the self-promotion of many of today's high-profile coaches. He would also deplore the role money has come to play in major college sports, although, of course, he and UNC were very much a part of the moneyed sports culture during the latter half of his career (no unilateral disarmament there, either).
A key to understanding Smith is knowing that his idea of being a university coach included seeing himself (as his parents had been) as a teacher. In his mind, the "academic side" extended to the basketball court, and the hardwood was his classroom - players later remembered his lecture on the usage of "farther" and "further."
And he viewed instruction in more traditional classrooms as something more than a means of remaining eligible. He would be dismayed by the "paper classes" that have disgraced his university - classes that had their bare beginnings in the larger athletic program in his last years as coach, but not even the most cynical critic would contend that he knew of them.
On a broader front, this advocate of social justice would be dismayed that the university he served with great pride for 40 years - a university committed to free expression, social justice and the greater good of the people - is being taken over by forces of reaction. It is no longer Dean Smith's university, and, given the current culture of college basketball, it is no longer altogether Dean Smith's game.
Fred Hobson is a newly retired English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.