Coach Dean Smith, Zeus himself

Story highlights

  • Lauder: Dean Smith was a winner whose social conscience helped reshape college sports
  • Students regarded him rightly as an Olympian, she says

Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of "The Back Page: The Personal Face of History." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The Four Corners was just a restaurant in Chapel Hill to me for years after I moved here. I thought the data programmers -- who left calculus back where I left fractions -- were out of their analyst minds when, the morning after a game, they'd huddle in the office hallways to relive a lay-up or exclaim about a buzzer-beater basket.

Val Lauder
I was in my second semester teaching feature writing in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina. Among the assignments I gave my students was an interview piece. As I'd done the first semester, I brought in a person of prominence for the students to interview. In this case, coach Dean Smith.
He arrived on time, was directed to my classroom, and, as I heard later, word of his being there spread through the halls. When word reached the library that Dean Smith was in the building, I was later told, the librarian -- who one has to think didn't follow basketball -- asked: "What's he dean of?
The students knew.
And learned from the coach that, "I have a job I enjoy. If you enjoy going to work, then you're one of the lucky people in the world ..."
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That he'd "like to study great Jewish and Christian theologians. With that background anyone could go out and help society in any job. I think we're all ministers, whether good or bad ..."
One student's piece captured that side of the man, who was the first coach to give a full athletic scholarship to a black man, integrating men's college basketball. In the article, the student wrote:
"Like his credentials, which only manage to scar the surface of the man's personality, there's something more.
"Perhaps it has to do with that one word which kept clicking through Dean Smith's conversation like a scratched record: society.
'I'm still listening to society a little ...'
'Society is saying win -- lose ...'
'... most State alumni, who reflect society ...'
'.. if only we could teach society ...' "
That spring of 1981, he still had not won "the big one," still had the "monkey on his back." He took care of that the following year, when Carolina won the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, with a little help from Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Then won again in 1993.
When he retired in October 1997, Dean Smith had 879 victories, an NCAA Division I record. The man who in his first year, as a young coach, with a losing record, returned from an away game to find he'd been hanged in effigy. It came up in class that day, and I remember that however matter of fact, yes-that's-what-happened his reply, it didn't quite hide the hurt.
During his visit, I also remember him telling the story of the time at practice one of his players -- who liked to shoot the ball, not pass it -- had to take the ball out of bounds after a basket. When he did, coach Smith pulled the other players off the court. The player stood there on the sideline, looking to his left for someone to throw it to, then to his right, then straight ahead, as his fellow players watched on the opposite sideline, smiling.
He got the message.
Speaking of practice, coach Smith reportedly never allowed anyone to watch practice. It mattered not if you'd given a million dollars for a building -- or might give a hundred million.
But, then, when I was at The Carolina Inn with School of Journalism Dean Richard Cole for a business lunch with an associate, coach Smith came in, passed our table and moved on to his table. As he did so, Dean Cole told us how coach Smith had sent word to the parents of a little girl who had been murdered on her way to school two days before, and the media was still camped out on her street. So her brother would not have to come home to that, coach Smith invited him to watch practice.
There are uncounted examples of his kindness and thoughtfulness.
Woody Durham, "The Voice of the Tar Heels" for more than 25 years, also came to class to be interviewed. I'd frequently ask him to talk about the time Michael Jordan did his dipsy-doodle, whirly-gig, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't dunk at the end of a game against Maryland.
It was so hard to believe that the video of the play was run over, and over, even the following night on the late sportscast. But, Woody said that as he was preparing his weekly radio program with coach Smith, he received a call from the coach's long-time secretary, Linda Woods.
I forget if she relayed coach Smith's wish or he came on the line, but there's no question about what he wanted: He wanted Woody to make no mention of the play, lest it embarrass the Maryland coach and players.
I met coach Smith a number of times in the years following his visit to my class. We "did not do lunch," as I like to say, but he was always friendly and would nod.
The last time I saw him was at a local restaurant eight years ago.
The spring of 2007.
That year, in meeting the student assignment for a color feature on a basketball afternoon or evening in Chapel Hill, my student Megan Etling wrote about the Dean E. Smith Center, better known as the Dean Dome -- a term, I understand, he hated. She titled her feature "Olympus" because the Dean Dome was where "thousands make the semi-weekly pilgrimage to worship at the altar of greatness."
A bit later, "We risk a long fall to look up and be humbled by the testaments to glory-day heroes hanging in the rafters. Only the great ones live there in the rafters, as if hung in the stars like gods.
"On Saturday, legends filed into Olympus to be praised by tens of thousands of revelers living the glory vicariously through these men. Before the crowds stood the 1957 and 1982 National Championship winning basketball teams and Dean Smith, Zeus himself.
"Sam Perkins. Jimmy Black. Lennie Rosenbluth.
"James Worthy. Michael Jordan. Dean Smith."
A couple of weeks later, as I was seated at a local restaurant, I glanced around and there, two tables to my left, with a friend, was Dean Smith.
I almost had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from blurting out:
"And Zeus himself."
Up there with the gods.