Thad: Learning from Coach Smith

How many people do you know who are really, really good at the big, big things . . . and also really, really good at the small, simple things?

Surely there aren’t many. In the flood of memories and emotions, tears of grief and tears of gratitude that have consumed the hearts and heads of the far-flung yet intensely bonded Tar Heel Family, I find my thoughts constantly bouncing back and forth between the big things and the little things Dean Smith taught me and taught so many others.

Very few of those thoughts center around an orange, round ball tossed towards a basket placed ten feet above the ground. Instead, I find myself reflecting on:
  • How Smith managed to cultivate an organizational culture based on excellence, loyalty, and respect for not only everyone “in the family,” but everyone the organization touched. Assistant coaches, office staff, players, and managers all testify to this day they were and are part of something special. •
  • How by his mid-30s Smith had developed enough internal spiritual strength to figure out how to navigate the competitive waters of college basketball without letting the pressure and competition consume him. •
  • How Smith maintained a moral center on social and economic issues quite independent of what was popular at a given moment or which way the prevailing winds were blowing. Smith’s advocacy for civil rights in Chapel Hill and his move to racially integrate UNC basketball will get a lot of attention this week, and rightly so, but how many know that Smith also actively supported and endorsed the work of Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based evangelical organization dedicated to far-reaching social reform on behalf of the poor and marginalized? •
  • Smith’s core humility when dealing with others. The man’s famous memory for names and faces was, perhaps, a freak of nature. But the fact that he invariably asked you how your parents were doing and wished them well? That came from force of habit, deliberately honed and constantly practiced.

As part of that lucky generation of Chapel Hill kids who grew up during the glory days of ACC basketball -- the 1970s and 1980s, a time when Smith was firmly entrenched yet still in his prime -- I, like so many of my friends and classmates, saw Dean Smith as part of the firmament, a certainty as reliable (and just as important!) as the Carolina blue sky, a fixed point in life. Fall would turn into winter, Smith would field a very good and often great basketball team, and the town’s emotions would rise and fall together with its fortunes. The disappointments (and of course there were a few) were far outweighed by our constant faith in Dean, his judgment, and his way of doing things. Whatever happened on the court, with Coach Smith at the helm we felt we were always the good guys.

A little bit later, after some time away from Chapel Hill, I had the opportunity to cover the team as a journalist during Smith’s final two seasons. Seeing Smith from this vantage point shed new light on the man and his profession—and deepened my respect for what he accomplished. Like many other journalists, I had the experience of Smith answering my press conference questions by rejecting their premise, though I am still a bit proud that I once asked a question that led Smith to point out that a billion people in China didn’t care about the Tar Heels. But peeking behind the curtain allowed me to better understand the competitive pressure involved at this level of college basketball, as well as the narrow line between failure and success. What Smith accomplished with his last team, in 1997, was nothing short of incredible—rallying from a 3-5 conference start to win 16 straight games, the ACC Tournament and reach a Final Four—and it would not have been possible without his ability to simultaneously engage the pressure and detach himself from it. That team and season were in real jeopardy at a certain point, but Smith never, ever made it about him as he engaged his players and helped that team become successful.

A little bit later, after Smith’s retirement, I had a chance to spend some more time with him, most notably when I interviewed him for my book More Than a Game. I sent him an interview request by mail and in response I received a Fed-Exed, signed copy of his book A Coach’s Life and instructions to call him. I called, we set up a time to meet, and he told me he would contact me if his plans changed and said “you do the same.”

The day we met at the Smith Center, he had a packed schedule that included visits from schoolchildren, a meeting with a former player, and filming a commercial in which he spoke out against an educational lottery in North Carolina. A couple of my interview questions focused on his interactions with fans. He pointed out that while sometimes people acted as if talking to him was a big deal, to him it was just two equal human beings talking with one another. After all my questions were done, Smith began asking me about my academic work in graduate school and I tried to summarize my political science dissertation prospectus (on suburban sprawl and social justice) for him. Then, as ever, he asked about my parents and how they were doing. Once again, moving from the big things to the “little things” seamlessly.

For as long as I can remember I have admired Smith’s moral courage and wisdom on the “big things,” the stances and leadership on social issues that made him nearly unique among college coaches. A bit older now, it’s his successful, consistent attention to the “little things” I find even more astonishing. To treat every single person with respect and dignity and as if they were really important, and to do so not out of a desire to look good, but out of a sincere conviction that everyone really is important—that is an accomplishment of far greater significance than any of the records that will be printed in Smith’s obituaries.

No one outside the immediate family can fully appreciate how difficult Smith’s final years were or the depth of the loss for Dr. Linnea Smith and for Coach Smith’s children.

As a member of the larger Tar Heel family, however, I am taking comfort in the fact we have each other and so many memories to share. Many of my social media friends commented on the glorious Carolina blue sky Sunday afternoon after such sad morning news. Others pointed out the fact that Carolina got a good road “W” on Smith’s last day on the Earth. Others shared their personal memories. Many others simply expressed gratitude.

I take comfort in all that. But even more so, I take comfort in the fact that the things I learned from Coach Smith, like the imprint he made on his players and so many others, are going to stay with me, even after the tears have faded and we have learned to adjust. The lessons he taught are of permanent, lasting value, for his and for any other generation.

Not long after that 2001 interview with Smith, in the closing chapter of More Than a Game, I wrote these words about what Coach Smith’s life meant to all of us. I can’t do any better in this time of grief than to repeat them here:

“The fact is, it is possible for human beings to live life with moral meaning. Dean Smith is but one example of what is possible when a human being’s habits of dealing with other people are formed in a certain way, when an individual has strong, lifelong moral convictions that guide behavior, and when an individual happens to find an absolutely perfect fit between his or her own talents, capacities, and interests and an occupation, a fit that permits full human flourishing. The reason so many people have been touched by interactions with Smith is that thoughtful actions are so habituated in the man that, to him, such responses are simply second nature. To deny that this is possible is to put too low a ceiling on what human nature can accomplish, and indeed to let ourselves off the hook in taking responsibility for what kind of people we are and the kind of life we lead. There will probably never quite be another ‘Dean Smith’ as a basketball coach, at North Carolina or anywhere else. But there could be many, many more Dean Smiths in countless other walks of life—and there need to be.”

Thad Williamson, who grew up in Chapel Hill and operated the flip scoreboard in Carmichael Auditorium and the Smith Center for six seasons, first wrote for Inside Carolina in 1995 and has contributed hundreds of pieces since. He is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many, published in 2001. Currently on leave from his faculty position in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, he is directing the City of Richmond’s poverty reduction initiatives.

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