Posted On: February 22, 2015
NOTE: This column originally appeared in the February 10 issue of CAROLINA, the official magazine of Tar Heel athletics.
I wish I could find one of those photos that I took with Coach Smith. Every year that I attended Carolina Basketball School, one afternoon each session was spent waiting in a parking lot for a photo with Coach Smith. One by one, hundreds of campers got their moment with a very patient Dean Smith. It couldn't have been more than 30 seconds, but in meeting him, every boy in line got to feel like a winner.
The only time I interacted with Coach Smith outside of those grip-and-grin opportunities was in a gym in Kinston in 1990 or 1991. I was nine years old, and my cousin Amy told me about a sophomore on her high school's basketball team. Dean Smith had been to see him play, she said. Coach K had been to see him. And so on one evening my parents and I trekked the 25 miles from Goldsboro to take in a game.
Through the sheer force of will of a nine year-old, I ended up sitting next to Bill Guthridge that night. To his right was Coach Smith, intently watching Jerry Stackhouse and the Vikings take on Eastern Wayne. Across the gym was Mike Krzyzewski.
Coach Smith was doing important work that night, scouting a future All-American and NBA All-Star. I was a nine year-old seeking an autograph from his hero. And so I passed a slip of paper to my right. Coach Guthridge asked for my name, and I told him. He printed 'To Turner' on the paper and passed it to Coach Smith, who wrote it himself, in cursive. Perhaps he got distracted, or maybe he wasn't satisfied with his first attempt, because he didn't finish signing just then. He wrote the salutation again and signed his name. Moments later, I asked a 15 year-old Jerry Stackhouse to sign it from the bench (during the game).
I still have that piece of paper. Today, it's framed inside a reproduction of Coach Smith's Sportsman of the Year Sports Illustrated cover. What had been my aunt's grocery list became a treasure.
Twenty-five years later, on Sunday morning, I packed my guitar into its case after an early church service and picked up my phone to see what I'd missed. An email from associate athletic director Steve Kirschner popped up on the lock screen. The subject: “URGENT: Carolina Coach Dean Smith passes away at age 83.” I was crestfallen. Heartbroken. In a state of shock, right there in the cafetorium of Brier Creek Elementary School.
A short time later, my fellow parishioners came strolling in, many of them with Carolina ties, many with sad faces and heads hung. One of my best friends is a native of Scotland. Ed is married to a Carolina graduate and a basketball season ticket holder, and though he's lived in North Carolina for nearly eight years, he needed some help understanding the degree of shock and sadness that followed Coach Smith's passing. His wife tried to relate it on his terms, bringing up Princess Diana or the Queen Mother in the U.K., larger-than-life personalities that captivated millions.
And maybe that's what it's like. Because of the way he lived his life, millions of people felt they had a personal relationship with Dean Smith. He was the man who built Carolina basketball into the consistent national power that it is today, the man who won 879 games, but you felt like you knew him. Coach Smith was –is– a North Carolina institution. It's almost as if Dean Smith was everybody's grandfather: he stood for the right things, brought out the best in you, and you hoped he'd be proud of you.
If Coach Smith thought The Pines and other Chapel Hill establishments should be integrated, then by God, they ought to be integrated. If Coach Smith thought student-athletes, regardless of race, should represent Carolina, then by God, it ought to be. If Coach Smith thought there ought not be a death penalty, or that the proliferation of nuclear weapons might not be a good thing, or that we shouldn't forget our imprisoned citizens, then then by God, maybe we ought to consider those things.
Dean Smith was a great basketball coach. His 879 wins, his national titles, his gold medal, his Coach of the Year awards and Hall of Fame inductions speak for themselves. But more than a basketball coach, Dean Smith was a leader. He used his platform to advocate for the greater good. He may have been on the sidelines of the court, but he was on the front lines of change. His stances took courage; even before he was the Dean Smith, before he'd earned his stripes as an all-time great, he was fighting for equality.
Then again, Coach Smith was simply being Coach Smith. He wasn't setting out to make a statement; he was setting out to do what's right. As he told John Feinstein in 1981, “You should never be proud of doing what's right. You should just do what's right.”
When I spoke to Charles Scott a year ago for the Tar Heel Trailblazers series, he remembered Smith similarly. Scott was in town for a recruiting visit over a weekend, and as Smith was going to church on Sunday morning, he invited Scott along, never placing the invitation in a greater social justice context. “He never did anything to make a statement on my part,” Scott said. “It was just him being his normal self, and I think that is more the beauty of Coach Smith than anything else. He didn't do anything to make a social statement to me; it was him being his normal self, his normal character and personality that he wanted you to understand.”
In The Carolina Way, his 2004 book on leadership, Dean Smith wrote about his philosophy: Play hard; play smart; play together. “We believed that if we kept our focus on those tenets, success would follow. Our North Carolina players seldom heard me or my assistants talk about winning. Winning would be the by-product of the process. There could be no shortcuts.”
Even in that Granville Towers parking lot, Coach Smith took no shortcuts. He could have taken group photos, with 10 or 20 campers at a time. But no, every individual camper got their moment. That was important to him.
By following his process, by not making winning the goal, whether on or off the court, Dean Smith won. Over and over again.