Updated with statement from President Obama
Dean Smith, the legendary former coach at North Carolina and one of the greatest coaches of all time in college basketball, has died at the age of 83.
The death of Smith, whose health had failed in recent years, was announced by the university Sunday morning. He passed quietly, his family said in a statement, Saturday evening just three weeks shy of his 84th birthday. “Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children,” the family said. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public. Thank you.”
A courtly man who commanded the respect and admiration of his player long after they left Chapel Hill, Smith was a Hall of Famer who, during his 36 seasons as coach of the Tar Heels, won two national championships. His teams advanced to the Final Four 11 times and won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament 13 times. He is the fourth all-time winningest coach with 879 victories, behind Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight.
It wasn’t just the winning that set Smith apart, although that was significant. It was what Larry Brown, a Hall of Fame coach who played for Smith, told ESPN was “grace” and “class.” He noted simply: “He cared about the game and made it better.” Born in Kansas, Smith’s lineage traced a direct line from from the game’s inventor, James Naismith, through Phog Allen in his career at the University of Kansas as a player, where he played on a national title team, and assistant. At Carolina, his “Four Corners” offense led to the creation of the shot clock to counter it.
Smith’s legacy, of course, may be most famously tied to that of Michael Jordan, whose 1982 team also included James Worthy and Sam Perkins. It beat Georgetown in the NCAA championship game, thanks to the exploits of the 19-year-old freshman Jordan. Smith’s team also won the championship in 1993 in a title game in which Michigan’s Chris Webber infamously called a timeout the team did not have. It was Jordan, though, out of all the former players, who was the best at learning the lessons of the man John Wooden once said was the greatest teacher of the game. Their relationship was more than that, though.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
“I learned so much from him,” Brad Daughtery told ESPN, a statement that was echoed by other former players.
Less well-known, cloaked in his civility, was the degree to which Smith burned to win. “Was Michael Jordan competitive on the court?” Dave Hanners told ESPN. “That’s how competitive coach Smith was. People just didn’t see it in the same way.”
Now, with his 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.”
President Obama noted that when he awarded Smith the Medal of Freedom a little over two years ago:
“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 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.”
Last spring, Roy Williams, a former Smith assistant and now the UNC coach, told ESPN: “It’s hard to see him because I want to remember the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. That’s what I want to remember.” Tommy Tomlinson wrote so eloquently last March:
For 36 years as the Tar Heels’ head coach, Dean Smith built a family. He created a shared identity for the legions of UNC fans who still buy the tickets and wear the T-shirts and paint their dens Carolina blue. His teams won 20 or more games for 27 years in a row. But more than that, they won with a selfless style. Dean’s most lasting invention was his simplest: When you make a basket, you point to the player who threw the pass. He taught his team, and those who watched, that everyone is connected.
Inside the big Carolina family, he built a smaller family — the players and coaches and staffers who came to see him as a teacher, a guru, a role model, a surrogate dad. They asked his advice on everything from sneaker contracts to marriages. He called on their birthdays and got tickets for their in-laws. He built lifelong bonds.
But for the past seven years, maybe more, dementia has drawn the curtains closed on Dean Smith’s mind. Now he is 83 and almost no light gets out. He has gone from forgetting names to not recognizing faces to often looking at his friends and loved ones with empty stares.
Here is the special cruelty of it: The connector has become disconnected. The man who held the family together has broken off and drifted away. He is a ghost in clothes, dimmed by a disease that has no cure. Even the people closest to him sometimes slip into the past tense: Coach Smith was. They can’t help it. They honor him with what amounts to an open-ended eulogy. At the same time, they keep looking for a crack in the curtains. They do what people do when faced with the longest goodbye. They do the best they can.
In the fall of 2013, Smith was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but travel was too difficult for him. Williams and former coach Bill Guthridge accompanied Smith’s wife and family members to the White House.
“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.”
“We have lost a man who cannot be replaced,” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “He was one of a kind and the sport of basketball lost one of its true pillars. Dean possessed one of the greatest basketball minds, and was a magnificent teacher and tactician. While building an elite program at North Carolina, he was clearly ahead of his time in dealing with social issues.
“However, his greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself. All of his players benefited greatly from his basketball teachings, but even more from his ability to help mold men of integrity, honor and purpose. Those teachings, specifically, will live forever in those he touched.”
Williams 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.”