Final salute

November 22, 2013

Dean Smith’s mark for 36 years as the basketball coach at the University of North Carolina speaks clearly and loudly — but is a single chapter in a big book of achievement.

During that time, Smith’s Tar Heel teams won 879 games, lost just 254, reached the NCAA Final Four 11 times, and captured two national championships. When Smith retired on Oct. 9, 1997, bequeathing a national championship-caliber team, he was the winningest coach in collegiate history. He did all this while graduating 96 percent of his players, and without a hint of scandal.

In 1976, the United States’ Olympic team, with Smith as its coach and with four Tar Heels wearing the red, white and blue, recaptured the gold medal during the Montreal Games that had been stolen from this country four years earlier in Munich, Germany.

Smith was one of the great innovators in the game, creating most notably the famed Four Corners offense that sealed UNC victories while frustrating the opponent.

Smith possessed an odd combination: He was intensely competitive, but void of ego. He argued that winning wasn’t the goal, but was a byproduct of preparing well and performing to high standards, pursuits that he demanded.

All this would have been ample to earn Smith the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was handed to Smith’s wife last week by President Obama during a ceremony at the White House.

But there is the rest of the story.

It was little known for a long time — but no longer — that Smith was on the right side of the civil rights movement, promoting desegregation in the early 1960s, a path that was also walked by his father in Kansas a generation before.

Smith switched churches in Chapel Hill, leaving one that was segregated for one that was inclusive. Smith joined a local pastor and a black North Carolina student to integrate a popular Chapel Hill restaurant. He recruited to UNC its first black scholarship athlete.

All of this was done before Smith had achieved iconic status, so there was risk.

Later he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, was engaged in his opposition of the death penalty, supported a nuclear freeze and when it became an issue, favored full rights for gays.

Smith’s wife, Linnea, accepted the award on his behalf because the 82-year-old has been in declining health for years, suffering from dementia that has ravaged his once-remarkable mind, one that famously enabled him to recall the names of people once-met, and was on display at press conferences during which his words badly trailed his thoughts and his sentences were often incomplete.

But in one way, Smith’s absence from the ceremony is fitting, as he was fidgety in the spotlight that his success assured, preferring to deflect the credit, firstly to his players and outward from there.

We hope that enough of that mind remains for Smith to understand last week’s recognition. It’s a selfish wish, because it is doubtful that a fully-aware Smith would care, except that the award also honors those who walked alongside him during his remarkable journey.