On Sunday, Dean Smith was remembered as a teacher, mentor, adviser and coach — and that was probably just the way he’d have preferred it.
“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” Jordan said. “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. My heart goes out to [Smith’s wife] Linnea and their kids. We’ve lost a great man who had an incredible impact on his players, his staff and the entire UNC family.”
[Related: Dean Smith dies | Jordan on Smith | A Smith appreciation]
Now, with Smith’s death, his contributions to social progress are remembered, too. He was the first UNC coach to offer a scholarship to a black athlete and Jay Bilas recalled Smith signing Charlie Scott and accompanying him into restaurants at a time in the ’60s when he might not have been welcome. “That did not deter Dean Smith at a difficult time in America and certainly in the South,” Bilas, whose teams played against Smith’s, told ESPN. “He knew what was right.”
Smith was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, a ceremony that he was too ill to attend.
“Last night, America lost not just a coaching legend but a gentleman and a citizen,” President Obama said in a statement. “When he retired, Dean Smith had won more games than any other college basketball coach in history. He went to 11 Final Fours, won two national titles, and reared a generation of players who went on to even better things elsewhere, including a young man named Michael Jordan – and all of us from Chicago are thankful for that.
“But more importantly, Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court – that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jumpshot alone ever could. He graduated more than 96 percent of his players and taught his teams to point to the teammate who passed them the ball after a basket. He pushed forward the Civil Rights movement, recruiting the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helping to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. And in his final years, Coach Smith showed us how to fight an illness with courage and dignity. For all of that, I couldn’t have been prouder to honor Coach Smith with Medal of Freedom in 2013.
“Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to his wife Linnea, to his family, and to his fans all across North Carolina and the country.”
Smith stepped down in 1997 and, by 2010, was fading. His family wrote in a letter that year that he was slipping away, suffering from a “progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.” He also had had a knee replaced and underwent surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The family noted poignantly that, “he may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years of coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them.”
From the moment he recruited them until he became ill, he was in their lives. One former player recalled Smith helping him balance his checking account. Smith remembered players’ names and those of their wives and children, often firing off quick notes to them long after he had left Chapel Hill. He was a constant presence, but a demanding one, once telling Jordan as a freshman that if he couldn’t pass he couldn’t play, as Bill Nack recalled to ESPN.
“He served as an example that you could do it the right way and compete for a national championship and do all those things,” Mike Krzyzewski, his rival coach at Duke, told ESPN, “while still maintaining your integrity and high standards of academic excellence.”
Roy Williams, his former assistant and now the UNC coach, stressed in a statement that Smith’s “Carolina Way” goes on. “His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most,” Williams said. “He was a mentor to so many people; he was my mentor. He gave me a chance but, more importantly, he shared with me his knowledge, which is the greatest gift you can give someone.
“I’m 64 years old and everything I do with our basketball program and the way I deal with the University is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud. When I came back to Carolina, the driving force was to make him proud and I still think that today.”
George Karl played for him and still seeks to emulate him. “We look at him as a better person, as a better teacher of men than probably as a great coach,” Karl told ESPN. “He was unbelievable how he stayed in our lives and held our hand in tough times and always remembered our children. … He was a giant of a human being.”
Karl recalled that Smith started every practice with a quote. “Most of those quotes were on life. They weren’t on basketball. Every once in a while they were on basketball, but 90 percent of the time they were on civil rights. They were on education. They were on religion. They were on the spirituality of life and on making the right decisions and going the right way.”
Smith was one of only two Division I coaches (along with Bob Knight) to play for and coach a national championship team. Smith, who won the national championship as a player at Kansas, ended up with an Olympic gold medal as a coach, too. But more than winning set Smith apart. It was what Larry Brown, a Hall of Fame coach who played for Smith, told ESPN was a gift of “grace” and “class.” He noted simply: “He cared about the game and made it better.”
Dean Smith was the most innovative and player-loved coach of his time.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) February 8, 2015
The only person who could keep— Jawad Williams (@WORLDWAD) February 8, 2015
Michael Jordan under 20 and bring young men from all over together, to be a Family.
RIP Coach Smith!
Sean May wrote on Instagram: “Thoughts and Prayers go out to the Smith family….. As well as the #CarolinaFamily we lost on of the great basketball minds and one of the most influential people I have ever met. Coach Smith was a Huge reason why I ended up at North Carolina, because of his relationship with my father after he played for him in the Olympics. Coach Smith promised my father he would look after my while I was at UNC, my entire career at UNC Coach Smith would always go out his way to check on me from time to time and make sure I was ok….. Even when I knew he had much more important things to do….. Extremely Blessed and fortunate to have met and been around such a great person. #wewillmissyouCoachSmith”
Profoundly sad to learn of the passing of Dean Smith: http://t.co/R15smQgpeB One of the finest coaches and people in the history of sport.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) February 8, 2015
Kobe Bryant mentioned that word “teacher” again.
#RIP to one of the greatest teachers our beautiful game of basketball has ever seen #DeanSmith— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) February 8, 2015
Dean Smith an educator and great coach will not be forgotten. He taught player more than just bball skills RIP— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) February 8, 2015
Bill Self, the present coach at Kansas, tweeted: ‘We lost a great man in passing of Coach Smith last night. No one has impacted our game more and with total class. Great coach but better man.”
And it wasn’t just the stars who got Smith’s attention.
“He was the godfather of 300 lettermen. So many of us would call him and ask him for advice in career and personal issues, and if possible he would immediately take your call,” David Chadwick, who played for Smith from 1967-71, told Yahoo’s Pat Forde. “He had an unyielding loyalty to us. That’s why we had that fierce commitment to him, because he had that commitment to us.”
James Worthy, who played with Jordan on Smith’s national-championship team, put it succinctly.
“There are so many things I could say about Coach Dean Smith,” he tweeted, “but simply put, he is the greatest man I’ve ever known.”