His basketball bloodlines ran as deep as the blue Carolina sky. His coach at the University of Kansas, Phog Allen, learned the game from the man who invented it and after whom basketball’s Hall of Fame is named — James Naismith.
Winning was also in his bloodline. Under Coach Allen, this man was a backup guard on the Kansas team that won the 1952 NCAA title and was runner-up the following year. He scored only one point in those two championship games, but it was from the bench, sitting near his coach, that a sports giant was birthed.
He would go on to mentor two of the next generation’s great coaches — fellow Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Roy Williams.
Great coaching apples, it turns out, don’t fall far from great coaching trees.
Dean Edwards Smith was born 87 years ago on Feb. 28, 1931, in Emporia, Kansas. His dad was a teacher and high school basketball coach. His mom was a teacher. It is from his dad that he learned to value every human being’s potential and treat everyone equally. Kansas was a highly segregated state at the time, but that didn’t stop his dad from putting a black player, Paul Terry, on his team. In the 1933-34 state tournament, Terry was banned from playing by state officials. Rather than hamper the team’s performance, it spurred them on. They ended up winning the state title.
When Smith was 15, his family moved to Topeka, where he played basketball, football and baseball in high school and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas.
Smith would go on to coach briefly at the University of Kansas and the Air Force Academy before becoming an assistant to Frank McGuire, who had led North Carolina to an undefeated season — 32-0 — and an NCAA championship in 1957. When McGuire headed off to the NBA, Smith became UNC’s head coach at age 30.
Things didn’t go well in his first year: The Tar Heels finished the season with more losses than wins, 8-9, in a state that lived and died basketball. Things got so bad after one loss to Wake Forest that Smith was hanged in effigy on UNC’s bucolic campus. There were calls for his firing, but he was no quitter.
He soon earned a reputation as a great recruiter and an even better person to play for — and by the end of the 1960s, he led his team to the NCAA Final Four three years in a row. A championship eluded him until 1982, when a freshman sank a last-minute shot to defeat Georgetown for the first of Smith’s two national championships. That freshman was Michael Jordan.
Smith taught the basics as well an anyone, but what separated him from his competition was the character of his teams. His greatest innovation had little to do with Xs and Os and everything to do with team building. The now-commonplace “point to the passer,” in which a scorer acknowledges the assist from the teammate who enabled the score, started with Coach Smith. No one had ever made that public, and immediate, expression of gratitude part of a team’s DNA. It became a symbol of selflessness and team spirit — the famous Carolina Way.
Smith was also, as sportswriter John Feinstein pointed out in his tribute, the first coach to insist that his seniors be recognized before their final home game. He started all of them, stars and walk-ons alike. On the rare occasion when there were six graduating seniors, they all started. This meant North Carolina would start the game with the other team’s shooting a technical foul shot because it’s a violation of the rules to have more than five men on the court.
No one thought a thing of it in the stands. If Coach Smith’s team ended up losing by one point, so be it.
As graceful and loving as Smith could be, he had a tougher side, too. He could cut people down to size in an instant without raising his voice. Feinstein quoted one of Smith’s players, Buzz Peterson, in his tribute to Smith:
In practice, he’d say, “Buzz, do you really think that was a good shot you just took?” Before I could say anything, he’d say, “Let’s ask your teammates what they thought. Or do you just want to tell me if you think that was the best shot we could have gotten right there?” There was no hole deep enough to crawl into at that moment.
Smith was more than a coach to the hundreds of young men he guided on the court. Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever to lace up for Smith, had this to say about the man for whom he played three decades ago: “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than him. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.”
Jordan added, “Coach was always there for me when I needed him, and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”
Much has been written about the fatherhood deficit in America — not enough has been written about the father-figure deficit, and the role men need to play in shaping the lives of boys. Smith helped close that deficit throughout his adult life. It’s his most enduring legacy.
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And what a legacy Smith had. In his 36 seasons at North Carolina, he racked up 879 wins and a .776 winning percentage. He retired with more wins than any other coach in men’s Division I history (a record now held by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski), and 17 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season titles (at a time that winning the ACC was as hard as winning a national championship).
Smith earned those records because he was a superb teacher committed to shaping his players not only into good basketball players, but good men. Time and again during the celebration of Smith’s life on the UNC campus not long after his death, athletes talked about Smith’s profound influence on their lives.
Take Phil Ford. Ford was the most highly sought high school recruit in America in 1974. Nearly every big college coach in America showed up at the door of the Rocky Mount High School senior’s home.
“My mom, when she first met him, thought he was the dean of the school,” Ford recalled in 2010. That’s the way Smith carried himself — like the dean of an academic program. That more than 95 percent of his players graduated is a record that would make any college dean proud.
“He was about the only coach who told me I was not going to start,” Ford recalled. “But my mom sat me down and explained to me that when I was a senior, I could be assured that Coach Smith wouldn’t be promising another high school All-American my starting spot, and I would never have thought about it that way.”
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Already, the father figure was teaching the young Phil Ford a lesson about integrity and about telling the truth.
While at North Carolina, Ford became the school’s all-time leading scorer, and an incredible assist man, too. Coach Smith tailored the team’s four-corners offense around Ford’s speed and ball-handling skills. It drove opposing coaches so crazy they rallied for a rule change. Thus was born the NCAA shot clock.
The wins, the future NBA players (he coached over 50), and the testimonials — all of it would be enough to seal any man’s legacy. But Smith was also a civil rights pioneer. It was at the urging of his pastor that he did what he did, and it did not always make him popular. But in 1967, Smith made Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina and one of the first in the South. On more than one occasion, he accompanied Scott to restaurants that would not ordinarily have permitted that.
Roy Williams, who is UNC’s coach and was once Smith’s assistant coach, told a similar story. It was the 1980s, and a country club had called Coach Smith to offer him an honorary membership. Williams never forgot the conversation.
“Would you offer this same opportunity to John Thompson?” Williams remembered Smith asking the person on the other end of the phone. Thompson was Georgetown’s coach, and a friend of Smith’s. He was black.
“I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation,” Williams said, “but I heard Coach say that he would not accept an honorary membership or any kind of membership to belong to an organization that was not open to a person of color.”
“I heard Coach say that he would not accept an honorary membership or any kind of membership to belong to an organization that was not open to a person of color.”
Coach Smith was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2013.
“He was teaching us about life,” Eric Montross (UNC ’94) told fans in a tribute. “[He was] teaching us how to behave, as individuals and as a team.”
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“Thank you for being tough on me, for showing me. Thank you for sticking with me,” Hubert Davis (UNC ’92) told his coach in that same tribute.
Hundreds of students assembled in front of the Dean Smith Center after the news of his death in 2015: They sang the school fight song, silently lit candles and left signs, including ones bearing their coach’s favorite motto: “Play hard, play smart, play together.”
When news of Smith’s death broke, Mike Krzyzewski — who coaches UNC’s most bitter rival miles down the famed Tobacco Road — had this to say: “His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself.”
A big part of what made Smith the man he was had to do with his deep Christian faith. Coach Smith believed that the path to heaven was less about the checking of lists than about mercy and grace. He was a regular at Binkley Baptist Church, and it was his faith that instilled in him the notion that all human beings — no matter their skin color or birth origins — should be treated equally. And with grace. Because all of us, Coach Smith believed, were children of God.
Coach Smith often joked that the Holy Spirit is in everyone — even referees.
Roy Williams told two stories that revealed a lot about how Coach Smith instilled core values and principles into his players:
Coach took one of the teams when I was here [at North Carolina] as an assistant to a maximum-security prison. Everybody there had at least two life sentences. And they closed that door, that gate, and it is a scary feeling. And we are in there doing a clinic and everybody is having a good time, and Coach says, “Let’s scrimmage those guys.” And then he looks at me and says, “And you referee.” And I said, “Coach, if you think I’m calling a foul on one of those guys, you’re crazy.” And that was the truth. I didn’t call a single foul.
The audience laughed. But the story lingered.
What a beautiful thing to do for those inmates — and the players, too. What better place to teach young people about the dignity of every human life.
Williams then told another story about Coach’s gifts and directed this part of his talk to Smith’s ex-players.
“He always wanted to make sure you guys knew you were first. That you were more important than anybody else, and I have been trying to do that in my years as a head coach,” Williams said.
“One day, I was talking to a player, and I have a rule that when I’m talking to a player, no one interrupts. And if there’s a call, I don’t take the call. I had a player in the office this one time, and Jennifer Holbrook, who’s sitting over here and was my secretary at the time, opened the door and stuck her head in and I said, ‘What?’ I was annoyed because we just don’t do that.”
“‘Former President Bush is on the phone,’ she told me.”
Williams paused. The crowd laughed.
“I said, ‘Would you please tell him we’ll call him back?'” The crowd laughed, and the laughs soon turned to applause.
The student had become the teacher. Eternal themes became embedded deep into the hearts of future generations. The player in that room surely felt like the most important person in the world at that moment — because he was.
Smith’s pastor, Robert Seymour, ended the celebration of Coach’s life at the Smith Center with a special message for the man he so clearly loved. Smith had died just a few weeks before his 84th birthday.
Said Seymour: “Were he still in our midst, I have a birthday card I would have sent to him, and the message was this: Treasured and trusted, with a heart that’s true. No wonder we celebrate, that God gave us you.”
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.
(photo credit, homepage and article images: Youtube)