In the college basketball world, there is no doubt that both the Kansas Jayhawks and the North Carolina Tar Heels have produced some legendary programs, players and coaches over the past 70 years. They are two of the few universities that have remained relevant in academics and all sports nationally during the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X’ers and Generation Y’ers.
And one name among the many that stands out is that of Dean Smith. Born in Topeka, Smith was a multi-sport athlete at Kansas where he played on the team that won the 1952 National Championship. He turned his talent for the game into one of the greatest coaching careers in any sport by guiding North Carolina from 1961-1997.
Over his 36 years, Smith had only one losing season (his first at 8-9 in 1961) and went on to win a pair of National Titles as coach, along with 879 wins.
But when it was announced this week that Smith would be one of the 16 selected to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it had nothing to with the success the coach and player had on the hardwood.
You see, coach Smith understood that the game of basketball was just that: a game. Life was always more important. Family was always more important, and that any man with a vision or a purpose could and would change the world.
In 1967, Smith was the first coach in the long and storied history of the Tar Heels to recruit and sign an African-American to attend school and play basketball in Chapel Hill. Six years after he arrived to lead North Carolina and three years after the Civil Rights Act, Smith was able to show everyone wearing Carolina Blue what the definition of equality truly meant as Charlie Scott joined the Tar Heels.
By that time, standing up for what is right was just a daily activity for Smith.
In 1964, Smith showed up at The Pines restaurant just like he did on most days. The Pines was an upscale dining joint in Chapel Hill that typically fed the Tar Heels and most of the notables in the community, but it was also a place that was not willing to let go of its policy of not allowing blacks to dine in the restaurant.
That is, until Smith came calling one day with a group of African-American friends from church. The Pines could not turn coach Smith and his party away, opening the door to all restaurants to serve equally to all in the area.
A year later, Smith had helped Howard Lee, an African-American graduate student at UNC at the time, purchase a house in an all-white neighborhood near campus. Four years later, Lee became the first black mayor of any prominent southern town when he won the lead position for the city of Chapel Hill.
Smith always had his players’ back. Even the ridicule that Scott took early on was no match for the fatherly love of the coach. Smith would dine with Scott and other players, and was quick to call out anyone who wasn’t doing right by his fellow man.
So when you think of coach Smith, think beyond his playing ability at Kansas or his winning at North Carolina. Remember the man who helped turn the tide of bigotry in a southern town. A man who understood what it meant to be free, and the price that needed to be paid to assure everyone of equal rights.
Congrats on the medal, coach Smith. It is well deserved for a job well done.