Dean Smith: a College Basketball Icon

deansmithBefore I share my thoughts on the passing of Dean Smith, let me first start by disclosing the following.

I am an alumnus of North Carolina State University (Class of 1997). Growing up in Winston-Salem, NC (ok, actually Kernersville), I was a big fan of Wake Forest basketball. And finally, I thought that only Satan smiled up the University of North Carolina basketball program.

So as you all can plainly see, I hate all things UNC – and it intensified with Smith.

I always crowed about how much preferential treatment his Tar Heel teams in the 80s and 90s received from the officials (in my mind, of course). I also thought that Smith made a pact with the devil so his teams could beat up on my Deacons and other ACC schools (another reference to Satan).

But even from my biased anti-UNC eyes, I knew what Smith meant to UNC and college basketball as a whole.

To understand Smith’s legacy, one has to realize that his legacy was bigger than what he did on the court.

That is not to say that his career was devoid of any achievements during his 36-year career at UNC. Let us count the ways…

  • He had 879 wins, which is good for 4th all-time (he was the winningest coach when he retired)
  • He had 30 20-plus win seasons, which is 2nd all-time
  • He had 23 consecutive NCAA appearances – the most all-time
  • He had 27 straight 20-plus win seasons – the most all-time
  • He had 65 NCAA tournament wins, which is 2nd all-time
  • He had 11 Final Four appearances, which is tied for 2nd all-time
  • He won 13 ACC tournament championships
  • He won 2 national championships
  • He won the Olympic gold medal in 1976

On the court, Smith’s UNC teams exhibited the importance of unselfish play. Dean’s most lasting invention: when a basket was made, the scorer pointed to the player who threw the pass. His teams were the first to huddle at the free throw line before a foul shot was attempted. Bench players on Smith’s teams would stand up and applaud players coming to the bench. Smith taught his team, and fans alike, that everyone is connected.

Another Smith invention was the infamous Four Corners offense, the delay game that iced Carolina wins. It was only after opposing coaches – and probably bored TV executives – that led the way to the shot clock in college ball.

As great as Smith’s on-court achievements are, I’d argue that his biggest achievements came OFF the court.

There was a reason why Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor. Ninety-six percent of his lettermen graduated. Dean was active in politics. He fought for a nuclear freeze and against the death penalty. Smith also was a supporter of LGBT rights.

As honorable as those things were, Smith’s biggest impact was when it came to race.

Smith, after meeting with his pastor, recruited Charlie Scott – the first scholarship black player at UNC (and second one in the Atlantic Coast Conference) – in 1966. He became the ACC’s first black star. There was story where the angriest anybody remembers seeing Smith was a night at South Carolina when a fan called Scott a “black baboon.” Smith headed into the stands to confront the fan before a coach pulled him back.

There are some who call Smith one of the biggest underachievers in college sports (two championships in 11 Final Fours).  There are others who think that Smith was an overrated coach because of the talent he had accumulated over his coaching career.

Calling both of those opinions ignorant is a HUGE understatement.

Nevertheless, Smith will go down not only as a great basketball coach – but as a greater person.  RIP, Dean Smith.


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