Dean Smith’s record on the court speaks for itself.
Three quick thoughts on his record off it:
1) Over the past two days, many folks have paid tribute to his willingness to stand up for his convictions, which has been nice to hear. Famously, he helped integrate Chapel Hill public spaces in the early 1960s and, of course, helped integrate the ACC with the recruitment of Charlie Scott in 1966. He also took clear public stands in favor of the nuclear freeze movement, against the death penalty and in opposition to the Vietnam war. It would be hard to overstate what an outlier he was among the coaching profession in such regards.
While the tributes to his activism and his moral courage have been welcome and refreshing, they only highlight how clipped are the politics of today’s major sporting figures. The typical big time coach, if he makes a public pronouncement about public affairs, is most likely to be doing so to show his support for the troops. Whatever else one can say about such expressions, there’s little moral degree-of-difficulty in that. It’s a layup, if you will, so that what passes for political commentary among legendary coaches nowadays involves ingratiating themselves to military groups. Dean is a standout on such matters, a byproduct of his genuine human decency.
2) As Chip Alexander’s front page obituary in today’s News and Observer acknowledged, the paper class system detailed by the Wainstein report began while Dean was head coach. It was more limited in scope than it later became. But it undoubtedly helped some of his key players preserve eligibility. This wouldn’t make his program unique among big-time programs, of course. Far from it. But that’s the point. The 96% graduation rate so many have pointed to deserves praise, especially as it predated the NCAA’s PR-driven Graduation Success Rate (GSR) metric. But Dean also wanted to win. He was a man – a truly admirable one in many respects – not a saint.
3) Many people I know had personal encounters with him in Chapel Hill over the years. They were uniformly warm and positive. I had my own. Or, more accurately, my then two-year old daughter did. It was sweet and genuine. A fond and enduring memory.