On Wednesday Dean Smith will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Barry Jacobs looks at what has made the UNC coach so special.
Dean Smith was, quite simply, the most influential coach in the sport that indelibly shaped the identity of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For decades, especially from the late 1960s through the 1980s, his teams set the standard toward which all others aspired, andagainst which all others were measured.
Smith’s North Carolina program became synonymous with consistent excellence, with seamlessly blending players of superior talent into teams so thoroughly disciplined and prepared that their execution varied little regardless of situation, opponent, or season.
The 36-year head coach employed statistical analysis long before it became popular. He intensely studied and quantified as many facets of player performance as he could, to the point of creating his own way to define an assist. Team managers even charted player stats in campus pickup games during the summer. Everything around his program was meticulously organized, down to the order by which players took drinks during a break at practice.
Add an exquisite memory, a motivational style based not on intimidation but on an ache to please, and an ability to almost instantaneously calculate the probabilities of any particular basketball situation, and you had a coach who retired with more wins to that point than anyone in college basketball history.
Yet when Dean Edwards Smith is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, the honor will reflect more than his 879 career coaching victories, all at the University of North Carolina, or his teams’ two NCAA championships (1982, 1993), 11 Final Four appearances across four decades, 13 ACC Tournament titles, 27 straight years with at least 20 wins, 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (1975-97), numerous consensus All-America players, or the Olympic gold medal he helped secure as coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic squad.
Smith was very much a humanitarian. And, in a profession in which prominence is often converted to financial advantage and little else, he also displayed a willingness to advocate for progressive social change.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” President Barack Obama said in a statement regarding this year’s 16 honorees including Smith, whose health prevents him from accepting the award in person.
Among this year’s other living honorees are former President Bill Clinton, Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, singer Loretta Lynn, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and women’s rights advocate and author Gloria Steinem. The award, established 50 years ago by President John Kennedy, has gone previously to one other men’s basketball coach, UCLA’s John Wooden.
Smith suffers from what his family called “progressive neurocognitive disease” and is only sporadically cogent. Consequently his children, his second wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, and two of his former assistant coaches, Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams, will represent the 82-year-old at the ceremony.
“I’m thrilled to be there,” Williams, currently North Carolina’s head coach, said the other evening. “I’m very thrilled to have worked for Coach Smith. He taught me so much more about people than he taught me about zone defense or man-to-man defense or anything whatsoever. I think he’s truly one of the great mentors that you could possibly have. He was a mentor to me and every player. He cared, truly cared about his players.”
The son of teachers Alfred and Vesta Smith was self-consciously an educator. He routinely lamented that teachers deserved the sort of pay lavished instead on coaches.
More than 96 percent of Dean Smith’s players graduated. Their names, with team managers, were listed at the back of his teams’ media guides along with their year of graduation, degree, and post-collegiate profession. Smith insisted that players leaving school early to play professional ball had built-in contract incentives for finishing their degrees.
“For me, it is the personal relationships,” Smith once said of the allure of coaching. “That’s what I enjoy most, getting involved with your players.”
Former players knew there was a day set aside each week when they could get in touch for advice on everything from jobs to relationships.
Forrest “Phog” Allen, Smith’s Hall of Fame coach at the University of Kansas, “begged” his reserve guard to go to medical school, Smith recalled. A neighbor in Emporia, Kansas, where Smith grew up in a small stucco house, offered to pay the tuition. But the mathematics major already knew what he wanted. From 1952, his junior year in college working with the Jayhawk freshman team, through his surprise retirement in October 1997, he served as a basketball coach.
When the University of North Carolina decided to construct a new, $34 million campus arena to accommodate the demand spawned by his program, Smith balked at the prospect the building would bear his name. He relented when it was explained “you’re representing all the players,” he said.
He never did get used to the nickname “Dean Dome,” however. “It sounds like I don’t have any hair,” he protested easily.
Smith was an old-fashioned gentleman who insisted on proper comportment by his players on and off the court. He assiduously and famously avoided cursing, even on the golf courses to which he eagerly repaired in his spare time. He forbade North Carolina students from such unsportsmanlike but now common acts as waving to distract opposing free throw shooters or chanting expletives to protest officials’ calls.
Tar Heel players were only allowed facial hair for medical reasons. A behind-the-back pass on a fast break or similar ostentation meant instant benching.
Still, Smith was a relentless competitor known to use mind games to get under opponents’ skins. “We’ve got to get that guy!” an exasperated Lefty Driesell, coach at Maryland, once exhorted his colleagues after Smith left the room at a league meeting.
Smith perpetually milked the rules to gain any legal advantage, from strategic end-game fouling that seemingly went on forever to running a maddening four corners delay in the pre-shot clock era, a tactic he’d adopted and refined from earlier work by John McLendon and Babe McCarthy.
Pointing by players to a teammate who provided an assist, a raised fist as a tired signal, foul-line team huddles prior to free throw attempts, were all wrinkles he added to the game. Smith made the secondary break a staple of his offense. He forced tempo with an attacking, trapping defense.
Yet Smith’s receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is presumably about more than basketball, or Middle American values. The award also honors a social conscience rare among his peers – abetted, no doubt, by job security some thought extended to a de facto role running the UNC athletic program.
Smith was willing to repeatedly speak out on the issues of the day. While an assistant coach under Frank McGuire he helped to integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. He participated in a street protest against the war in Vietnam. He spoke for gay rights and against capital punishment. He did TV commercials for a nuclear freeze.
“Politics, to me, should mean human rights,” Smith said in 1975.
Smith often seemed a man whose humility and sense of spiritual purpose were at war with his competitiveness. He could be cuttingly dismissive of others. He was a master of the back-handed compliment delivered with a nasal twang that was widely mimicked, even by players.
He opened a press conference after winning the ’82 championship by taking a shot at a reporter critical of a coaching style that accented subordinating individual expression for the betterment of the team. Call his approach a system - and many did - and Smith would instantly voice an objection, just as he corrected reporters using “who” when “whom” was the proper choice, or “further” when they meant “farther.”
Smith, then 30, was an unknown when he took the North Carolina job at McGuire’s recommendation, having never served as a head coach. The team he inherited was on probation.
Despite early pressures such as twice being hanged in effigy by students during the 1965 season, his fourth at UNC, Smith never ran afoul of NCAA rules. Later his teams’ success, plus his early embrace of black players, made it easier to keep his program stocked with talent. That was especially true within North Carolina.
Smith routinely tried to deflect praise and attention, protesting that “the coach gets too much attention, too much credit, and too much blame.” But, on the occasion of receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, there is no blame, only much-deserved admiration.