Had Dean Smith been there to see it Wednesday, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, he probably would have protested the thought that a national college basketball award be named in his honor.
“He would leave the room,” Williams said of Smith, who was never one for the spotlight, or attention. “Leave the room and say, ‘Thank you, but I think I’ll get out of here.’”
Smith, who died Feb. 7 at age 83, was known for his humility perhaps as much as he was known for winning games – and above all, he might have been known best for his legacy off the court, for his relationships with players and for the social causes that moved him.
It’s the spirit of his legacy – one that goes beyond basketball – that inspired the Dean Smith Award, which UNC and the United States Basketball Writers Association announced Wednesday. The award will be presented annually to someone in college basketball – a player or coach, an official, an administrator – who embodies Smith’s legacy.
“The winner is going to have nothing to do with wins and losses, because Dean was about so much more than wins and losses,” said John Feinstein, the author and Washington Post columnist who is a former USBWA president. “The causes he stood up for, the lives that he touched throughout his coaching career and after his coaching career – that’s what this award is about.
“And we’re going to search for a person each year who Dean would be proud to present the award to if he were still here.”
Feinstein late last college basketball season brought the idea for the award to USBWA officials. They contacted UNC, which then raised the idea to Smith’s family.
Smith was known for deflecting praise and expressed resistance to the idea that the Smith Center be named in his honor. Family members said Wednesday that he likely would have had the same objection to naming an award after him.
His wife, Linnea, and his son, Scott, attended the announcement Wednesday at the Smith Center.
“Dad would not want awards named for him, but I’m sure he would feel comfortable having people acknowledge what (future winners have) done in their lives and how they’ve impacted other people’s lives through the game of basketball,” Scott Smith said. “So that’s why we’re very happy as a family to be supportive of this.”
In February, Scott Smith, Linnea Smith and other family members attended the public service honoring Dean Smith. It had been awhile, Linnea Smith said Wednesday, since she’d been back in the building named after her husband.
It brought back memories, she said, and emotions. Since Dean Smith died, Linnea said the family has been “overwhelmed” by support, and that several organizations have expressed interest in “naming awards or other things for him.”
“I don’t think we could have asked for more support from Chapel Hill, from the university, from fans all over, from fans of different institutions,” she said. “It’s been very gratifying.”
The inaugural Dean Smith Award will be presented this year, close to the start of the college basketball season. It will be presented annually around the same time, and UNC will host a charity awards dinner and banquet when the winner is honored.
The awards dinner will be open to the public, and proceeds will benefit the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund, which assists students from low-income families in attending college. The fund also helps those in education and social work – two professions Smith held in high esteem – in their pursuit of advanced degrees.
The criteria for the Dean Smith Award will be “very open-ended,” said Pat Forde, a Yahoo! Sports columnist and USBWA president.
Smith retired in 1997 after leading UNC to two national championships, 11 Final Fours and 879 victories. At the time of his retirement, he was the winningest coach in history.
Feinstein on Wednesday recalled a conversation he shared with Smith in 2009, before Smith’s health began a rapid decline. Feinstein was hoping to begin work on a biography about Smith, who expressed reluctance at being the focus of such a project. At one point, Feinstein said, Smith told him: “I was just a basketball coach.”
“And he was never more wrong his entire life, but I think that reflects who Dean was,” Feinstein said.