By Jordarn Rinard, Senior Staff Writer
The sports world lost a giant last weekend with the passing of former North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith Saturday. In his 36 years at the helm for the Tar Heels, he amassed the then-most wins by a coach with 879, had the ninth highest winning percentage at 77.6 percent, made it to 11 Final Fours, won two national championships and had a plethora of players go on to have NBA careers.
But, more important than his accolades is the work that he did off the court for the betterment of everyone around him.
UNC basketball had a graduation rate of 97 percent under Smith’s watch and was respected so much by the University that he was bestowed the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1998. During Michael Jordan’s and James Worthy’s junior year at UNC, the coach told them to go pro, despite the benefits that he would have gained if they both stayed. He was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. With all the recent turmoil regarding UNC’s academics and college sports as a whole, Smith stands out from many coaches due to his commitment to his kids both on and off the court.
Another way that Smith was unique figure in coaching was his awareness of social issues. As a player at Topeka High School (Kansas) in 1949, he came to the principal’s office to ask that the segregated teams of the high school merge and refused to be denied. Years later at North Carolina, he helped integrate the local businesses of Chapel Hill, and later ACC Basketball via the recruitment of Charlie Scott, the first African-American scholarship athlete at North Carolina, in 1966.
Smith also took stances on controversial issues during and after his coaching career, such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars, nuclear weapons proliferation, gay rights and the death penalty. In regards to capital punishment, he took some of his Tar Heel players to North Carolina’s death row and Louisiana’s Angola Prison to meet the prisoners.
“Dean Smith taught courage, fairness and leadership,” UNC professor Altha Cavey told thenation.com. “As I learn more about the way he lived his life — confronting white supremacy, opposing imperialist war — understand more what we have lost. It is ironic to note that the university’s so-called leaders — the ones celebrating his life today — have been engaged in five years of stonewalling, whitewashing and cover-up about misdeeds in UNC’s basketball program, the very program in which Dean Smith demonstrated that doing the right thing is always more important than winning or looking good.”
It is disappointing that more coaches don’t follow Smith’s lead and show their players that they aren’t one dimensional. Something is lost when players see them as not men or women with meaningful thoughts and insights of their own, but instead as just coaches.
The shame of it is that coaches who do take stances such as this are often vilified in the media for the stances they take as it is outside of what they do as coaches and they are seen as using their platform for their own agendas. But what truly matters is not where coaches stand: It’s that they stand and give an example of standing up for something you believe in to their players and others.