Remembering Dean Smith

I’m sad to say that I don’t have a Dean Smith story — unlike many that I’ve been reading in the papers and listening to on sports talk radio since the University of North Carolina basketball coaching icon died on Saturday evening,

I  came close back in the summer of 1978 when I was covering a basketball coaches’ clinic at Myrtle Beach for The Sun News. Smith was scheduled for what we would now call a “media availability” after one of the sessions but for some reason that escapes me now, it fell through. And we had to settle for Hubie Brown. Funny, but no legend.

So my memories of Dean Smith are from a basketball fan’s perspective. More specifically from the perspective of a fan who graduated from an Atlantic Coast Conference school not located in North Carolina. So let’s just say that over the years, I’ve evolved.

At first, I didn’t care much for the man. His teams always beat your team, and it didn’t just happen to Clemson. It happened in 77.6 percent of the games in which he was a head coach.  In my era, there was that dreaded and dreadful “Four Corners” stall offense. It was a sign that the Tar Heels were in command and your chances to win were essentially over — and that was even before Phil Ford came along in the late Seventies to make it an art form. If you like the fact that there’s a shot clock in college basketball, you can in part thank Dean Smith.

And then there was the way he worked the officials, even when UNC had the game well in hand. I remember being at one particularly one-sided game at Clemson when he complained about a call that didn’t go his way in the last minutes. A disgusted Tiger fan in my section stood up and yelled, “That’s right, Dean! Fifty more calls like that and we’re back in the game.”

But that was what made him great. He prodded the game and tested its limits, looking for anything in the rules that he could turn to his team’s advantage.

It has been interesting to hear the tributes to him in sports media these last couple of days. On the way to a family funeral yesterday in South Carolina, I tuned in a couple of satellite radio sports talk shows and people could talk about nothing else. And it was the same today.

Many of the accolades that have come his way focused on his sense of social justice and fairness for all, especially in the area of race relations in the turbulent Sixties. He signed New York City standout Charlie Scott to the first athletic scholarship given to an African American at UNC.

Scott, who played on Final Four teams in 1968 and 1969 and went on to a long NBA career, said on a talk radio show today that Smith “recruited me not as a black athlete, but as an athlete. He treated me the same way he treated any other player on the team.” In the South in the mid-Sixties, people like that weren’t always easy to find.

Smith belonged to an integrated church and the story has been recounted several times this weekend of how he took a black member of his church out to dinner, forcing a local restaurant either to serve them both, have them arrested or ask them to leave. This was, as someone said, before he had become a nationally-known figure, But the restaurant served both men. 

The sportswriter and author John Feinstein was interviewed on another show. He had tried unsuccessfully to convince Smith, never one to court publicity and attention, to cooperate with him on a biography. When the coach talked about this story Feinstein asked him if it felt good to do the right thing.

His answer? “You shouldn’t do the right thing because it makes you feel good to do it. You should do it because it’s the right thing.”

And that’s Smith’s legacy. You can look up a lot of the rest — the national championships in 1982 and 1993, and 11 total Final Four appearances. Thirteen ACC championships. Retiring in 1997 as the winningest Division I coach at the time with 879 victories.

And one more accomplishment that I think has been underrated among his many great achievements, coaching the U.S. team to the 1976 Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball.

Unless you were around and paying attention to basketball in 1972, you don’t realize what a big deal the Americans’ controversial loss to the Russians in Munich in the Olympic  gold medal game was.

You can read more about it here, but the infamous  “double do-over” loss was a blow to the American sporting psyche. The U.S, players have literally never accepted their silver medals. (And at Clemson it led to a couple of hallmates of ours trashing their own room after the game was over.)

Long-time U.S. coach Hank Iba got much criticism for his antiquated slowdown approach to the game and for his inability to relate to that current generation of players – especially African American ones.

Dean righted the ship four years later in America’s bicentennial year, so it was more than appropriate that his country recognized him in 2013 for service to the U.S. with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as he bravely dealt with the disease that claimed his life.

A great coach, a great American and a great man. May he rest in peace.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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