Dean Smith’s lasting impact on college basketball

Dean Smith 1931-2015

Will Clark, Staff Writer

There’s a cliché that’s said when a sports figure passes. “He was an even better man” is repeated over and over when a late coach or player’s sporting accomplishments are brought up. While this may always ring true, as no championship or statistic can have a greater influence than that of a man, this repeated phrase carries little weight, except when applied to Dean Smith.

Dean Smith was absolutely a better man than he was a coach, which some would think is impossible due to his success as a coach. Two NCAA National Championships, four National Coach of the Year awards, and an Olympic gold medal are just a few of the most notable accolades Smith received over his lifetime. Throughout his career, Smith remained humble and preached fair play, sportsmanship, and integrity.

Smith became the coach of the Carolina Tar Heels in 1961. He came into a program clouded by recruiting and point shaving scandals. The UNC basketball program needed saving. Not many men would have been able to get the program back on it’s feet again, and only Dean Smith could make the program respected again.

Smith demanded respect from everybody. His players didn’t taunt opponents, and if they did, they got benched. Former players said he even demanded respect from UNC fans when the Tar Heels were playing at home.

At one historic game, the UNC student section was waving their arms to distract the other team’s free throw shooter. Smith went out onto the court and told the students to stop and let the other team take a fair free throw. In an instant, hundreds of students were silent. No other coach has ever done this, and this goes on at every arena across the country. This solidifies the fact that nobody respected the game more than Smith.

Smith preached that it is the fans’ responsibility to have a good time while not taking anything away from the game. Name calling, distractions, and obscene gestures are all needless activities from fans. Tar Heels fans got the message and Wolverines fans have to, too. One distinct difference between today’s league and the NCAA during Smith’s coaching tenure, is racism.

Smith recruited Charles Scott, the first black player to ever play for the UNC basketball team, in 1966. Scott’s recruitment was a groundbreaking feat in a heavily segregated South and ACC conference. What Scott loved about coach Smith is that he treated him like every other player on the team.

“That was the most important thing he did. Any individual who is in a racist society wants to be treated like everyone else. Coach Smith did it on a normal, regular basis. He made me feel and understand that I was just like everyone else,” said Scott.

After a win against South Carolina, a fan yelled a racial remark at Scott, sending the coach to rage. Smith had to be held back by his assistant coaches from going after the fan, a fatherly act to protect one of his players.

Smith was just that, a father figure to his players. Michael Jordan knows this better than anyone.  “He was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” said Jordan.   Jordan is Smith’s most successful player, and undisputedly the best player in NBA history. Former players said that Smith taught them valuable life lessons through basketball. It’s something that you really don’t see in today’s game. With so many talented players just playing one college season in today’s NCAA, coaches can’t make the connection with their players like Smith did.

A problem with today’s one and done system for NCAA basketball players is a lack of a full college education. It was rare if one of Smith’s players didn’t graduate, with 96.6% of them having received college degrees. Even Michael Jordan played and studied at UNC for three years before heading to the draft. Not only is it rare for a player of Jordan’s caliber to stay in the NCAA for three years, it is rare to see a professional player, let alone the best player in the NBA, return to his college to finish his degree as Jordan did in 1986. This can only be chalked up to Smith and his fatherly advice.

It is amazing how a man can have so much influence over a game. Revolutionary tactics and plays highlighted Smith’s on court presence, but his presence off the court is truly remarkable. From eliminating segregation by making Charles Scott comfortable at UNC, to influencing a multi millionaire, Michael Jordan, to get his degree, Smith’s impact on the world of basketball is unmatched.

A comment after Smith’s passing from on court rival and off court friend, Mike Krzyzewski, puts Dean Smith’s life in perspective: “We have lost a man who cannot be replaced. He was one of a kind and the sport of basketball lost one of its true pillars.”