By Matthew Johnson, Sports Editor
On February 7, 2015, the game of basketball lost a pioneer in the passing of Dean Smith, the longtime head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Always compassionate for others, the 83 year old’s final moments were surrounded by his family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the town where he provided and engineered one of the most dominant college men’s programs in collegiate sports history. Never absent in the conversation of the greatest men’s basketball coach in college basketball history, Smith’s feats on the court rank among the highest in college basketball. From 1961 to his final year in 1997, Smith’s final tallies include: 879 wins, the most Division I 20 win seasons, 11 Final Four appearances, 17 regular season ACC championships, two national championships and a streak of 23 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. The deeds of Smith while at Chapel Hill from 1961 to 1997 are simply athletic adventures of folklore.
With endless respect to the outstanding achievements which are goals even the most pipe-dreaming coach could not image fathoming, Smith’s off the court legacy is even more prominent than the seemingly countless wins which earned him four Coach of the Year awards and outshines the stars he prominently shaped while at Carmichael Arena and the Dean Dome (which include the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Vince Carter). In his construction of raw and talented men fresh from high school, Smith will be remembered for not only the social changing methods which he brought to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but emphasizing the importance of a college education to his players.
Amid the heightening tensions of the Civil Rights Movement in 1961, Smith, formerly an assistant coach at Kansas and the Air Force, bought and preserved a climate of tolerance for black athletes in the racially historic state of North Carolina. At a time where the country was hesitant to change, and, especially in college athletic conferences such as the SEC and Smith’s conference, the ACC, Dean Smith openly sought to desegregate the university he was coaching. Recruiting the school’s first black basketball player in 1963, Charlie Scott, Smith, akin to 1960s coaching contemporaries of Red Auerbach and Chuck Noll allowed opportunities for African Americans which ordinarily would not had been shown to them in the rest of America. Seen as an innovator for simply giving a fair chance to blacks at the time, Smith would later acknowledge that, “I was just trying to do what I think is right.”
Even with the painstakingly, time-consuming battles which go into leading a major college basketball program, Smith still emphasized to his players that there was a life more than basketball. For every superstar alay Michael Jordan or even a role player such as Rick Fox who made it to the NBA, many of Smith’s players who donned the baby blue and white jerseys of Tar Heels basketball, did not make it to the professional level. Yet, they were able to convert the lessons they learned at Chapel Hill to the real world outside of basketball due impart to Smith who emphasized the importance of a college education. With a graduation rate of 96.6 percent while head coach of the basketball program, Smith made sure his student athletes remembered basketball was secondary to achieving their degrees. Always mentoring his coaches along with his players, in a WXII News 12 interview, UNC-Greensboro basketball coach, Wes Miller, who formely spent time under Smith at Chapel Hill reflected that ““For me personally, being a part of the Carolina basketball family, so many of my values and foundations as a coach was built in my time there [at UNC-Chapel Hill] and so much of the things I learned there originated with Coach Smith so he had a profound effect on me.”
In discussing the most important college basketball programs in the nation, within the past thirty years, Chapel Hill is always near the top of this debate. Yet, when he arrived in 1961, amid a point-shaving and recruiting scandal which easily could had been the final nail in a struggling basketball program, Dean Smith reestablished and led North Carolina at Chapel Hill to become a mainstay in the collegiate athletic world. Changing the game forever by instituting an atmosphere of scholarship and acceptance, Dean Smith’s legacy it will be felt forever by all collegiate and professional athletics everywhere.