I love DEAN SMITH. Or Coach Smith, as I have always called him. I think in college I may have been confused as to whether Dean was his name or his title. I now know both fit! He always will be The Dean of College Basketball.
There are other great coaches, but none that impacted my life as Coach Smith. I think I qualified for a minor in UNC basketball during my college years. My first three years I didn’t miss a home game. I only missed a couple during my senior year (because the Pizza Hut where I waitressed thought they needed to stay open during ball games and didn’t appreciate my outstanding fan record.) I didn’t just go to games. I would hang out at practices and pick-up games. Carmichael was on my way home – what’s a girl to do? The away games were watched in my dorm lounge with equally rabid fans.
Getting tickets to home games was not a guarantee, so it took a certain amount of discipline and planning with your friends. Especially if you wanted good tickets. I think my only college classes skipped were spent waiting for tickets…you did what you had to do (until the university decided classes should trump ticket distribution and worked to come up with rules more conducive to getting an education and also getting prime tickets)! When I hear students today get tickets by computer, I pity them. I think they were robbed of the true experience of proving they were really a fan worthy of being the sixth man on the court. How can you show that if you are not able to camp out overnight on concrete on the coldest day of the year? Today’s students are wimps, I tell you! (Love you guys anyway, but you should sleep on that pavement once or twice just for the experience! And pass the swim test…but that’s another story.)
I went to college prior to the Dean Dome….when games were still played in that magical place called Carmichael Auditorium. It was electric. I have never since been to a place where I felt like I was a piece of something so special. The whole building would rock as the game was in full swing, and you would rock right along with it. I had so many good times in that place. A game there was one of the top experiences on the planet. The Dean Dome is nice, but still a bit of a let down.
There always was a dignity to things, though, and I think that was because of the gentleman in Coach Smith. Surprising to think of dignity when it comes to college students, but Coach Smith required a certain level of etiquette during games. The equivalent of a parent’s “Don’t make me come down there”, and following through with it, was Coach Smith taking the microphone down on the court. Most often it was when Carolina fans were booing the other team. That was not allowed in Carmichael. It didn’t happen often, because having Coach Smith tell you he was disappointed in you and that your behavior was not worthy of being a Tar Heel…. was even worse than lectures from your parents! I have never heard of another coach doing this…and students changing who they were as a result. It changed me, at least. I still always try to respect the other team.
I met Coach Smith my junior year at Carolina. I was a broadcast journalism major and for a local cable news show we did for a class, we did a season’s preview. I was the reporter. Jimmy Black, who was a starting guard for Carolina, was also a Radio, TV and Motion Pictures major and he was the first person I interviewed. Knowing him from around the halls of Swain Hall (the building where our major was based), our interview was fun and relaxed. Jimmy also set up an interview with James Worthy for me, and I was to meet him outside Coach Smith’s office. Jimmy had a class, so couldn’t wait to introduce us….so so my cameraman and I went to find James. Coach Smith happened by as we were getting to know each other, and James introduced me as if we were old friends. Coach Smith shook my hand warmly and talked with us a few minutes about what we were doing.
After that encounter, every time I would see him around campus, he would make it a point to smile, nod or say hello to me, twinkle in his eye. The crazy basketball fan I was, it was always a thrill. For this adult woman, it warms my heart that he would remember a college kid he met once. (And yes, while I have no illusions that he remembered my name, since I had crossed paths with him many times before unnoticed, I do believe he really recognized me after this. Or maybe he was just a bit more confident I wasn’t a stalker, so felt comfortable acknowledging me. Or maybe he thought I was a stalker and decided he better be friendly!)
Coach Smith was a smoker, but he would not allow anyone to photograph him with a cigarette in his hands. He felt it set a bad example for “the kids”. He also cared that the players presented themselves well. When I commented to Jimmy how amazed I was that all of the players were such great interviews he said “Boot camp pays off!” Coach Smith made them all spend time working with Woody Durham (the “voice of the Tarheels”) to make sure they were competent on camera. His guys needed to make the university proud. He felt as though it was their responsibility.
For four years I sat in the edge of my seat, as they won game after game. Yes, they lost a few, too….but I don’t remember those much! Even after losses there was a pride and belief in the ability of our team. Carolina won the national championship for me during my senior year. (Yes, it was for me. Try to talk me out of that belief!) I am happy that Coach Smith got to share that with me.
Coach Smith was more than just basketball. He seemed mild mannered, but lived his beliefs. He cared that his players graduate and most did. He cared about them as people….wanted them to be men of character. He was a civil rights advocate when many others were afraid to fight openly for it. He was for racial equality and nuclear disarmament, but against the death penalty. He spoke carefully and thoughtfully, but never was polish over substance. He wore his faith well.
I decided to go to Carolina my senior year in high school and one of the most difficult things about that decision was to put years of being an NC State fan away (though David Thompson is still my all-time favorite college player) and move my loyalty to UNC. It ended up being quite an easy thing to do, and Coach Smith was much of the reason why. It was easy to support a team led by a coach you respected above all others. (And Carolina blue is so much prettier than red!)
Coach, we’ll miss you. You will be remembered well and are an important part in the story of our university. You were more than a coach for a basketball team….you were both mentor and teacher to those of us who looked up to you. I appreciate the man you were and the example you set to kids like me. It’s a shame that there are no four corners in heaven….or are there? We’ll talk in eternity!
I love you, oh coach of coaches, Dean Smith.