UNC legend dies

First Posted: 2/9/2015

CHAPEL HILL — Dean Smith was more than simply a basketball coach.

Yes, the retired Hall of Famer left North Carolina as the winningest coach in men’s history after capturing two national titles along with the 1976 Olympic gold medal and coaching some of the sport’s biggest names, Michael Jordan among them.

But he also was an innovator who left a lasting influence on the sport, as well as someone known for his stand on civil rights driven by the belief that it was the right thing to do.

Smith died “peacefully” Saturday at age 83 at his Chapel Hill home, his family said in a statement released by the school Sunday. He was with his wife and five children.

UNC announced on Monday that it will hold a public memorial service for Smith on Feb. 22 at the arena bearing his name.

The family has scheduled a private church service for Thursday for family, close friends, former players, coaches and team managers — who are asked to RSVP if they want to attend.

In a statement released by the school Monday, Smith’s family said it is “comforted by the countless gestures and words” from well-wishers. The family also asked people to donate to the Chapel Hill-based Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, the Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund or a charity of their choice in lieu of flowers.

Roy Williams, the current Tar Heels coach and Smith’s assistant for 10 years, said his mentor was the “greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people.”

“I’d like to say on behalf of all our players and coaches, past and present, that Dean Smith was the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been,” Williams said in a statement. “We love him and we will miss him.”

On the court, his “Four Corners” time-melting offense led to the adoption of the shot clock to counter it. The now-common “point to the passer,” in which a scorer acknowledges a teammate’s assist, became a hallmark of Smith’s always humble “Carolina Way.”

“You can track the tactical innovations that he installed in the game and they proliferate the game today,” said Woody Coley, who grew up in Lumberton and was a member of the Tar Heel team that lost to Marquette in the national title game in 1977. “There were so many things he created that became the norm.”

Statewide radio sports talk show host David Glenn kept his cool Monday when President Barack Obama called to offer his comments on Smith. Some around him weren’t so composed.

Glenn took the call from The White House after talking to current Tar Heel coach Roy Williams. Obama spoke for about 10 minutes, echoing many of the comments he made in a statement he issued on Sunday, hours after Smith died at his home.

As Glenn conducted the interview from his studio, he said salespeople, passers-by and company officials were clamoring nearby to hear what Obama had to say. He joked that he had to stay calm for the president because people were “jumping up and down” and “sweating.”

“I just tried to focus and the focus came through for me,” Glenn said. “It was a special day for the show.”

Smith was a direct coaching descendent of basketball’s father, James Naismith, playing and later coaching at Kansas for the inventor of the game’s most famous student, Jayhawks coach Phog Allen.

Smith kept a lower profile amid health issues in recent years, with his family saying in 2010 he had a condition that was causing him to lose memory. He was unable to travel in November 2013 to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor presented to Smith as much for his work off the court as on it.

At the urging of his pastor, he recruited black athletes, and in 1967 made Charlie Scott the school’s first black scholarship athlete and one of the first in the segregated South.

In a statement Sunday, Obama said Smith “pushed forward” the civil rights movement with Scott’s recruitment as well as helping integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill.

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,” Obama said.

At UNC, he tutored perhaps the game’s greatest player in Jordan — who burst onto the national stage as a freshman by hitting the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA final — and two of basketball’s most successful coaches, fellow Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Williams.

When UNC held a reunion for its 1957 and 1982 championship teams in 2007, Smith drew the largest applause from the crowd in the arena bearing his name, even as he stood alongside Jordan and fellow Tar Heel great James Worthy. During the ceremony, Jordan put his arm around Smith and kissed him on the head.

In a statement Sunday, Jordan said Smith was “more than a coach — he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”

Smith’s only losing season was his first, and he left the game in October 1997 having surpassed Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp as the winningest coach in Division I men’s history with 879 wins in 36 seasons — a record now held by Duke Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“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.”

Smith led the Tar Heels to 13 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships and 11 Final Fours, winning NCAA titles in 1982 and 1993. Along the way, more than 95 percent of Smith’s lettermen graduated while more than 50 of his players went on to play in the NBA or ABA — including Phil Ford, Brad Daugherty, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison.

Smith seemed uncomfortable with the attention that came with breaking Rupp’s record. When former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight was on the verge of breaking it in 2007, Smith noted with a sarcastic smile, “I’m going to cry about that.”

“But still, it’s something that, we do it for the team,” Smith said. “When they’re excited, that’s why we’re in this field. I’m sure it’s that way with Bob Knight. It’s never one of his goals and certainly was never one of mine.”