Commentary: Dean Smith – Great Coach, Even Greater Person

Dean Smith

Commentary: Dean Smith – Great Coach, Even Greater Person

North Carolina icon kept Tar Heels relevant while opening a pipeline to the NBA.

Published February 9, 2015

The bride’s expectations were that Dean Smith would attend her New Year’s Eve wedding in 1995, but I don’t recollect seeing Smith there, which was a pity. If the bride and groom didn’t miss Smith’s presence, I did.

For I always wanted to meet the man.

I guess that’s one of the few disappointments of my journalism career. I’ve met famous people all along the way, but some of those I didn’t meet stand out as much as those I did meet. Smith is one of the former.

But I will never get to meet him now. Dean Smith, 83, died Saturday night.

Unlike some people who admired him, I never bled Carolina blue. In fact, I often rooted against Smith’s Tar Heels, except when they played Duke. I hated Duke and all the smugness of Coach K more. I also hated Smith’s time-eating “Four Corners” offense, a strategy that turned the late minutes of big games into a big snooze. 

Still, I admired what Smith did with the Tar Heels. He kept the program relevant, which it had been before he took over as coach in 1961. Smith helped Carolina remain a destination for basketball players whose next stop was the NBA.

Smith had a few players whose careers transcended the game itself. Just think Michael Jordan here.

"He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” Jordan said in a statement. “Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life.”

Not all of Smith’s players became a Jordan, not that it matters. The coach sent them into the world, college degrees in hand, as better people after having played for him than they were before they arrived in Chapel Hill.

In that regard, no one should look at Smith as solely a basketball coach, because to do so cheapens the contribution he made to the teenagers he went on to turn into men. They were Tar Heels, but they were more: They were also Dean Smith’s men.

The coach had an army of them, too.

He had his Jordan, his James Worthy, his Sam Perkins. He had his Craig Corson, his Dick Grubar, his Richard Vinroot.

Black or white, Smith might have been the first colorblind coach. He pioneered integration into ACC hoops and into Chapel Hill eateries. He also kept basketball a staple on Tobacco Road.

Smith became his generation’s John Wooden, a principled man who prided himself on teaching life and not just on winning basketball games.

"If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you're going to have problems,” Smith once said. “You'll be dead a lot."

Like Coach Wooden, Coach Smith won, though not nearly as many NCAA titles. He didn’t win as many titles as the volatile Bob Knight did either; he also didn’t leave the basketball landscape littered with ill-will and bitter players.

In death, people often leave out the worst of a man’s life. They choose not to talk about his bad side — whether public or private. No need for people to parse their words when talking about Dean Smith. 

He was a coach as genuine as most others are fake. Titles meant a lot to Smith, though not nearly as much as the men whose lives he shaped. They remain to tell his story, and they won’t have to polish it to fit someone else’s image.

They can just talk about Dean Smith being Dean Smith. And from people who knew him better than I did, he was a man whose image didn’t prove as large as the man himself.   

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Written by Justice B. Hill


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