The Dean of College Coaches Steps onto a Higher Court

It was with great sadness I learned today of the passing of one of my heroes— Dean Smith. He had been struggling with Alzheimer’s for sometime, and passed away just yesterday. I knew him as many things. In 1967 I was privileged as a junior high basketball player to attend his camp. My special teachers at the camp were Charlie Scott, the first black person to play basketball at any ACC school, and Eddie Fogler, later a great head coach in his own right after working with Dean. Charlie Scott had only recently broken the color barrier at Carolina because Dean Smith was himself a part of the civil rights movement.

Dean Smith integrated the restaurants and shops in Chapel Hill by taking Charlie out to dinner, and to various venues. He took Charlie to church with him as well. Dean was a devout Baptist, and for many years he taught Sunday school class at Binkley Baptist in Chapel Hill. You never heard him say a swear word, and his hundreds of players would tell you over and over again, that he was their second father, and in some cases, their only real father. He told all of his players that they all had come to Carolina to get a college degree, because very few of them would find success or make a living in professional basketball.

Over 98% of all his athletes graduated from Carolina, and it is still a legacy Carolina has striven to uphold. I wish more coaches today had Dean Smith’s priorities about helping their players get a good education first and foremost. One of the measures of the man is that long after being at Carolina people like Michael Jordan or Brad Doherty or James Worthy or hundreds of others would call up Coach Smith and ask his advice about life, about finances, about marriage, about making good choices.

I could go on and on about the many innovations Dean brought to the game, such as the run and jump defense, but I am sure that in heaven this is not primarily what he will be lauded for. The tributes from Coach K and Coach Williams today were moving. Dean Smith was an enormously humble person, he was very uncomfortable with attention, accolades, and he really didn’t like it when they named a basketball arena after him. He was embarrassed because his model was Jesus, and he believed in true humility. In a profession where ego is always on display, Dean chose instead to model the values of the Sermon on the Mount. If you’ve paid any attention to Roy Williams, he has said dozens of times, that he will never be as great a person as Coach Smith, never mind as great a coach.

I will sorely miss this man, as he had a big impact on me growing up. My Dad and I used to listen to his post game press conferences, and he was always praising someone other than himself, always putting forward others to speak to the media, always trying to downplay his own accomplishments. I hardly see any coaches like that any more, and it has something to do with the waning of Christian influence even in the South on sports, and its players.

Coach Smith I want to say thanks again for the letter you once wrote me when I was ill. I always cherished that. Even though I never was good enough to be one of your players, you still cared about what happened to me to write a personal letter in the 80s. I look forward to that unclouded day when we can sit and have a chat in the afterlife and enjoy sharing our faith and our happy Carolina memories together. Until then, I say not goodbye, but I’ll see you on the other side. The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you until then. Amen

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