Throwback Thursday: A coach who set an example for us all

UNC and Duke are in the final hours today before another installment of the most intense rivalry in college basketball is renewed again. Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the Tar Heels, was right in the thick of it for decades. Smith passed away three years ago on Feb. 7. This is the editorial I wrote for the Burlington Times-News at the time. We could use more Dean Smiths today.

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Dean Edwards Smith
Feb. 28, 1931-Feb. 7, 2015

Dean E. Smith was neither a Tar Heel born, nor a Tar Heel bred. But North Carolinians can take pride in the fact that for more than 50 years he embodied the best our state could and should be and did so on the unlikeliest of stages — college basketball.

Smith, who arrived from Kansas on the campus of the University of North Carolina in 1958 as a 27-year-old assistant to head coach Frank McGuire, took over a basketball program embroiled in scandal in 1961, then went on to mold one of the most successful college teams in history, died Saturday night in Chapel Hill. He passed away peacefully after an emotionally painful struggle with an unspecified condition that robbed his memory. He was 83 and still among a handful of North Carolina’s most respected figures even though he retired from coaching in 1997 with more wins than any coach before him.

The victories Smith achieved as a coach — he would always humbly credit his players first in that regard — truly tell only a portion of his towering influence. Indeed his once-held title as winningest coach in NCAA history could serve as a metaphor. His total of 879 collegiate wins (balanced against just 254 losses) has since been eclipsed three times. But his achievements outside athletics will stand the test of time.

He was both an innovator on the basketball court and an agent for significant social change off of it at a time when great and fearless men were called upon to stand tall. His dedication to fairness, equality, decency and education were unquestioned. And perhaps more than any other quality missing in big-time athletics today, he not only understood the difference between right and wrong, he adhered to the principles of right.

A pre-World War II child born to school teachers in 1931, Smith was raised by his mother and father — the latter also a coach — to believe in racial tolerance. His father integrated his own high school team when laws in Kansas forbid it. Smith played basketball for his father in Topeka, Kan., then for coaching legend Phog Allen at the University of Kansas. Allen, a protégé of basketball inventor James Naismith, links Smith to the very roots of the game.

After McGuire departed for professional basketball and with UNC on probation, Smith became head coach at age 30 and recorded the only losing season of his career. He encountered a couple of bumpy early seasons, one featuring a famous incident after a loss when the team returned to campus and found the image of Smith hung in effigy. From that point, a remarkable record unfolded.

While Smith’s first of 11 Final Four appearances occurred in 1967, his most significant achievement that year was making Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. It was a landmark not only for North Carolina but for public universities in the largely segregated South. The battle to ensure it, was part of a longtime pattern for Smith, who also as an assistant coach integrated a restaurant in Chapel Hill where the then all-white basketball team ate.

The moral code instilled in Smith was a hallmark of his life. He battled for equality, encouraged tolerance and was an opponent of the death penalty. His attitudes and beliefs — as carefully presented as his famously detailed practices and game strategies — also shaped the attitudes of people in North Carolina.

Importantly, in leading UNC to 13 ACC tournament championships, five national title games, and NCAA championships in 1982 and 1993 he invented what came to be known as “The Carolina Way,” a title understood to mean without cutting corners, cheating or depriving players of the education inherent with a scholarship to play sports. Smith graduated a remarkable 96 percent of his players, who were both students and athletes. Under his watch there was never a hint of NCAA scandal.

Smith’s Hall of Fame career also included myriad national coaching honors, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and an Olympic gold medal. Smith would probably say the larger reward was in the achievements of his former players, many of whom became professional athletes, coaches, teachers, physicians, attorneys and business leaders.

Yes, Smith was neither a Tar Heel born nor bred. But in passing he is remembered as truly one of us forever. A Tar Heel dead? Indeed, and among the most admirable ever.

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