Sunday, February 8, 2015
DEAN SMITH AND THE DEATH OF A LEGEND
In this social media driven and ESPN-overhyped world that we live in, the term "legend" is
thrown around far too often and much too easily. A coach wins a national championship and
the "is he one of the best ever?" conversation starts. Every talking head and analyst wants
to weigh in are quick to award "legendary" status without the person ever really earning it.
Dean Smith earned his status and was the definition of it.
The former UNC basketball coach died on Saturday at the age of 83, but his presence in
Chapel Hill and throughout the college basketball world will be felt forever. For those who
attended UNC in the 70's, 80's, and early 90's, Smith is, was, and always will be the face
of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Yes, he was that influential, powerful, and most of all, respected. Smith was a pillar of
strength, class, character, and integrity and he made all of us proud to be Tar Heels. John
Swofford may have been the athletic director at the time, but it was Smith who ran the
show, nearly every single part of it.
The basketball teams coached by Smith were an extension of himself, playing with class,
dignity and respect. There was no chest-bumping, baggy shorts, jersey's untucked, or players
saying, "Hey, ESPN, look at me, aren't I great?" When a player made a great pass, everyone
on the team pointed at him, giving him props in a very subtle way. They didn't yell, scream,
or panic under pressure, mirroring the man who was always so under control on the sidelines.
I'll never forget the picture of Michael Jordan, a freshman at the time, taking the
game-winning shot in the 1982 National Championship game. Smith and his coaching
staff sat on the bench, stoic and unemotional, as if it were a pre-season exhibition game,
instead of one that would decide a national title. That was Dean Smith.
During my freshman year, several baseball players had the privilege of being ushers
for home basketball games. We didn't really usher anybody because people never really
had trouble finding their seats. We just sat courtside and watched Smith and his team
do their thing.. It was truly, truly, a special time for all of us who had the opportunity
to watch Smith orchestrate and lead his talented team that included Jordan, Sam Perkins,
and Kenny Smith.
Our university, one of the most prestigious in the country, had a sterling reputation both
academically and athletically and that was due in large part to its unquestioned leader,
After he left in the 90's, the high standards he set for everyone at the university were
knocked down a notch. There were scandals, both academically and athletically, that's
stained the reputation of the school and there are some who feel Smith may have known
what was going on in the Af-Am "paper" classes scandal that went as far back as his
last few seasons on the sidelines.
I don't have all the facts so I'm not going to pull Smith into the net of the scandal. That's
for the experts to decide.
I do know that Dean Smith was loyal to his players and always had their best interests
at heart. Carolina wasn't a typical basketball factory that brought in great players
and just spit them out.
In today's college basketball world, just about every school makes "Midnight Madness" a
show of glitz and glamour. That never would've happened under Smith at UNC. He made
"Senior Night" the most special night of the year. Every senior, whether they played a minute
during the season or not, started the game.
It was Smith's way of saying 'thank you' for all their hard work and perseverance. Smith
often helped them find jobs in the real world and always made them feel part of the program
after they left.
I don't care how many wins or national titles Smith won or didn't win. It's irrelevant.
He built a model program and did it the right way. And when the school constructed a
a new basketball arena, they put his name on it while he was still coaching.
That is respect.
We cherished and respected Dean Smith when he was alive, today, we honor and
thank him for all he did for the Tar Heels.