North Carolina

Charles Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at UNC, in his own words

Smith with Charlie Scott in the 1969 ACC Tournament.  Smith signed Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC in 1966.
Smith with Charlie Scott in the 1969 ACC Tournament. Smith signed Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC in 1966. News & Observer file photo

When Charles Scott arrived at North Carolina in 1966, many parts of the South were still unwelcoming places for people of his skin color – places of long-held bigotry and hatred. He found comfort at UNC, though, and found something else entirely in his coach, Dean Smith.

Scott, who became the first black scholarship athlete at UNC, recently recounted his experience playing for the Tar Heels, and playing for Smith. Here is Scott, in his words:

Coach Smith had a lot to do with shaping my ideas of what kind of human being I should be. Beyond being an athlete. His contribution to my life is that teaching me and showing me and giving me insight into what type of individual I wanted to be, outside of athletics. And I think that’s the biggest compliment I can give.

He’s the model in which I try to distinguish how I should live. What my responsibility is to society, and what my responsibility is to my family.

I base my life on the things that coach Smith taught me and the direction and the insight that he gave me into the type of person I would want to be, and the type of person that I viewed as my model. What would make coach Smith proud of me I would say is a question that I answer every day.

The times that I went through, coach Smith could not take those things away. They were there. Bigotry and racism is there. Nothing that he does is going to take that away.

What he did more than anything else was to give me someone else to look at in a different skin color that I could accept and see that everyone was not like the bigots, or like the racists. That there are people who have genuine sincerity of what they think about life. That there are individuals who have genuine concern about wanting me to succeed in life as an individual. That was the most important thing he could do.

He could not take away the words of those individuals, or the way those individuals acted towards me. Those things were there. What he did was give me a barometer to look at outside of the racism and bigotry. He with a lot of other people at that school.

He was my mentor. He was my mentor while I was at school. He was the person that I had to look up to, he was the person that set the rules on what I should expect to be as an individual. Because when you’re 17 years old and you’re going away to college, coaches don’t like to think of themselves (like this), but they are your parents at that time.

The person who had the most direct input into how I acted – the person who had to be the disciplinarian and also the person that had to be the person that helped in my growth at that time was coach Smith. His input and the way that he treated me was how I was able to grow up in a society that at the time was going through turmoil.

The Carolina Way, as everybody talks about, is coach Smith’s way. So I think that maybe to the casual fan it’s lost. But to people who have any association with the University of North Carolina, I think it’s really prevalent and very out in the forefront.

There was no way I could have dreamed of – there was no way I could in any way fathom the type of input he would have on me. I made a choice to go to the University of North Carolina on the fact that I got along well with the other players, I felt comfortable with the other players.

I felt comfortable with the school, and I felt like coach Smith was a good coach. To be honest with you, at that time, if you want to talk about the best friendship – the best friendship I had was with Lefty Dreisell. On a friendship basis. But I chose the University of North Carolina based on a lot of other factors, along with the fact that I did respect coach Smith. I had no idea the impact he would have on my life at that time.

I don’t want to make it sound like I went through hell. Because my four years at Carolina I cherish very much. I had no problem at the university. I was well-accepted by the student body. I was well-accepted by the alumni. I was well-accepted by my teammates.

The problem was never within the confines of the University of North Carolina. The problem was with the outside world, which I had to deal with. I ran into racial taunts at other schools. I ran into racial taunts sometimes on the streets.

I had to deal with the fact that, again, being the only black on the team, and some of the circumstances of where we went to that coach Smith took us to – maybe a lot of the other people did not feel comfortable with me being there, because they had not had the opportunity to really be involved with people of different races, and they were forced to with me being on the University of North Carolina’s basketball team. So those problems, I dealt with.

But it was the era of Civil Rights. I don’t want to act like what I dealt with was any different than most blacks had to deal with in the South at that time. ... Maybe on a bigger stage and circumstances because I was put more or less into circumstances where there were no other blacks. So I had to deal with it on a more continual basis.

The relationship (with coach Smith) becomes stronger and becomes more binding, it becomes more rewarding, it becomes more upstanding as you get older, as you experience more, as you have a family and you see the choices that he made, and made for me.

You were able to look back from an objective standpoint and see what he was trying to teach us, what he was trying to make us understand about life – about circumstances, about choices.