Legendary North Carolina Tar Heels basketball coach Dean Smith passed away in his North Carolina home Saturday. He was 83.
“Obviously the overwhelming emotion is one of grief and sadness,” UNC beat writer Andrew Carter said on After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “But at the same time, Dean Smith had been suffering for a while with a disease that robbed him of his memory – basically dementia. It was very sad. Kind of the consensus down here is just that it was sad to see him like that for so long, and I think there’s a sense of peace, maybe, that he’s at peace now and in a better place. But obviously there’s a big sense of loss and sadness.
“And I think it says a lot, too, the fact that when people have talked about him today, a lot of the talk hasn’t been anything at all about basketball. It’s about his legacy as a civil rights advocate, what he did for social change here in Chapel Hill in North Carolina back in the ’60s and ’70s. Obviously he was much more than just a coach.”
Smith won two national championships at UNC (1982, 1993), Olympic gold in 1976, was a four-time national coach of the year and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. He went 879-254 during his career and retired with more wins than any coach in men’s Division I history.
And yet, when former players spoke of Smith this past weekend, there wasn’t much said about basketball.
“He basically single-handedly integrated the ACC,” Carter said. “He brought in Charles Scott, who was the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina at a time when no other school down here or around here had any African-American basketball players. Dean Smith was the first one to kind of take that step. He helped to integrate a restaurant here in Chapel Hill that was refusing service to African Americans, and he wouldn’t stand for that. He was outspoken against the Vietnam War. He was outspoken against the death penalty. He was very politically involved. Just the kind of thing you don’t see very often today from coaches or other sports figures who might be afraid to kind of take a stance on social issues. Dean Smith was the opposite.
“And of course, he operated in a different time,” Carter continued, “but he was very much aware of kind of his role as a person who could influence change, as a guy who could just inspire people to do the right thing. And when you talk to people about his legacy, those are some of the things that they mention first – even more than what he did on the court.”
Michael Jordan, among others, was quick to note that Smith was very much a father-figure.
“He was so much more than just a coach,” Carter said. “He was a guy who encouraged players to stop by at his office at all hours. He was the type of guy who, once you were done playing with him, it was almost kind of the start of a different relationship – not that he didn’t have a great relationship with players while they played for him, but it took on a different dynamic after they left. He didn’t just forget about guys. He didn’t stop communication with players.
“They talked about how they would hear from Coach Smith years later,” Carter continued. “When they became husbands, at their wedding day they would receive notes. When they became fathers, they would receive calls and hand-written letters from Coach Smith checking in. He was the kind of guy who would do anything for his players. That speaks to the father-figure type role that he had. He wasn’t just a person (who) cared about his guys on the court. He cared so much more about his players off the court. It was about a lot more than just basketball.”