Dean Smith is known by most people as the former coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels Basketball Team. That's who he was by vocation, and he excelled at it more than just about any coach in the history of sports.
We can cite his then record-breaking 879 coaching victories, 17 ACC Titles, 11 Final Fours, 2 National Championships, and Gold Medal in the 1976 Olympics. We can cite his monstrous streaks, and the number of players he helped get to the NBA. But these incredible accomplishments pale in comparison to what he achieved on a human level. Because coaching to him was a means to an end, an avenue to teach life lessons to not only his players, but to the legions of fans who were part of the Carolina family, as well being an example to society in general.
Chances are, you may have never heard of Coach Smith's civil rights victories, as he was too humble to speak about himself, let alone feel like he even deserved any credit. To him, it simply was just the decent thing to do, the right thing to do, even against the currents of society at the time.
I created the picture montage above to try to encapsulate his legacy as a "Coach," not just on the court, but in life. In the first image on the left, there is a young Dean Smith as a member of the Topeka High Trojans basketball team. Behind him was a member of the Ramblers, who was also a student at Topeka high, but who because of the color of his skin, was not allowed to play on the Trojans. Dean went directly to his coach to convince him to integrate the teams, but was ultimately rebuffed. However, with some persistence, the team eventually integrated over the next couple of years. What is notable is that Dean pushed for this several years before the seminal decision of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, when the Supreme Court shut down the practice of "Separate But Equal" and formally ended segregation in public schools.
Behind the young Topeka High students, there is an image of The Pines Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. Long-since closed, it was one of the more elegant restaurants in the heart of Chapel Hill that was also proud to serve the basketball team its meals. The makeup of those teams at the time, and the patrons in general, were all white. On a day in 1962, Coach Smith and Reverend Robert Seymour decided that they would go to The Pines for dinner with a black theology student, James Forbes, waiting patiently at the door for admittance. When the manager finally opened the door to seat the three of them, the restaurant officially served its first black patron, thus integrating the restaurant for all patrons of any color from then on.
In front of the image of the restaurant, there is an image of Howard Lee at his swearing in ceremony as the Mayor of Chapel Hill. Several years prior, Lee was just a graduate student at UNC, and Dean helped him to become the first black resident to purchase a home in an all white neighborhood. This action was another step in breaking down the racial divide and propelling the city past its segregated mindset, and when Lee was elected, he was not only the first black mayor of Chapel Hill, but of any city in the South.
The next image is that of Coach Smith hugging John Thompson, the head coach of Georgetown University. What makes it remarkable is that this is the moment right after Coach Smith won his very first national championship. But rather than jumping and celebrating with his team, he was more concerned with the well-being of his close friend, and wanted to make sure he was okay after a devastating loss. Perhaps nothing else proves the humanity of a person more than reaching the pinnacle of your career, and choosing to comfort another person rather than celebrate your own accomplishments.
In the center of the picture is an image of Phil Ford holding up four fingers, signaling the play call for "Four Corners," and in effect, closing out the game for another Carolina victory. The image is symbolic in two senses. For one, it shows one of the greatest college basketball players in Carolina history and the strategic play that helped them dominate the competition. But it also is an enduring symbol of the impetus to change the rules of college basketball, instituting the shot clock and eliminating the era of the clock-killing Four Corners. And even in that time of great change in the game, Coach Smith proved himself to be able to adapt to the times. He continued his coaching dominance on the court with a faster pace that was completely opposite of the way he previously coached, and served as a microcosm to his ability to stay ahead of trends in society as well.
Kneeling down next to Phil Ford is a young Coach Smith and his new prized recruit, Charlie Scott. Scott was the first black player ever signed by UNC, and was among the first black players ever in an ACC that had previously headlined only white players. By helping break down the color barrier through Scott's scholarship signing, and featuring him as the star of 2 Final Four teams, Coach Smith showed that greatness can be achieved by any type of person, continuing to push the notions of courage, equality, and human decency, and encouraging acceptance by not only every team in the league, but by all the fans of those teams as well.
In the foreground next to Charlie Scott is an image of Antawn Jamison pointing down the court to a teammate. While this symbolic gesture is now ubiquitous across all sports leagues, pro and recreational, it was an innovation cultivated from Smith's principles and beliefs. The basic explanation is that when one of his players scored a basket, Coach Smith required them to point to the player who passed the ball to him. Simple an acknowledgment it may be, Coach Smith's deeper point was realizing your own success is often the product of someone else assisting you along the way, and showing your appreciation to them in a direct, understated manner.
Behind Jamison is a touching embrace from the greatest basketball player of all time showing his affection for the man he calls his second father, who he credits for teaching him about life. Michael Jordan is as big and towering a figure as there is - an ultra competitive, cutthroat player who never exposed his inner feelings for fear of showing weakness. To disarm such an intimidating figure into showing a public moment of tenderness may actually reveal more about the kind of person Coach Smith was, his enormous effect on people and his sheer strength of spirit.
Last in the row of images is a plaque dedicated to Coach Smith in honor of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. The award is the highest civilian honor given to those who serve the country for the better, and is a fitting tribute to a man that strove to help his fellow man over himself. Judging by his selfless actions and the countless handwritten notes he sent to his players, managers, and even fans alike, it is safe to say that while the people he served off the basketball court may not have their jerseys in the rafters like his great players, they truly mean every bit as much to him on a personal level. And that is the true legacy of the great man known as Dean Edwards Smith.