Of Man and Myth

Of Man and Myth


A stage and a pair of microphones. Behind one is a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. Seated across from the car is Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina men’s basketball coach.

“I hear your 2007 GTI was named one of the 25 best cars of all time,” Smith says. “Congratulations.”

“And to you, sir! You are the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history,” the Beetle replies. “I mean, you were, until Bobby Knight passed you.”

A pause. Smith stands and picks up his chair, tossing it across the stage before walking off.

“Volkswagen. Das Auto,” the off-screen narrator says. “It’s what the people want.”

That commercial never happened, of course. But in February 2008, Volkswagen approached Smith about it. After his longtime secretary Linda Woods printed the email from the German auto company’s talent relations department, he wrote his response by hand. ‘Clever!’ Smith wrote, with an arrow pointing to the ‘THROWS HIS CHAIR AND WALKS OFF STAGE’ stage direction. ‘No thank you, however.’

Volkswagen commercial pitch made to Smith in 2008.

Volkswagen commercial pitch made to Smith in 2008.

The story of Volkswagen’s ill-fated pitch to Smith is just one of thousands that have emerged -and will continue to come forward— thanks to the unveiling of the Carolina legend’s personal records at Wilson Library on the UNC campus. Smith’s family donated nearly 12,000 items to the university, now available for research as part of the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.

“The library had approached Smith more than 20 years ago about thinking about donating personal papers, and he had written back saying, ‘I don’t think I have anything of value,’ which speaks to his humility,” said Nicholas Graham, university archivist. “A lot of this is just the kinds of files, letters, programs, publications that many of us would keep. But because it was Dean Smith, now we’re all very interested in learning more.”

While we know much about Smith’s time as the head coach of the Carolina men’s basketball team, the personal collection adds greater context by documenting the before and after, from his childhood in Kansas to his retirement years. The personal records help complete the portrait of the man we knew in Chapel Hill.

“This is a deeper look at Smith’s personal life. both his childhood in Kansas and then the work he did in his retirement . . . the bookends of his coaching career,” said Graham.

There is ‘Facts, Figures and Pictures of Emporia, Kansas,’ a report on Smith’s hometown that he wrote by hand in 1946 at the age of 15. At the bottom it reads, ‘Published by The Smith Publishing Company, Emporia, Kansas.’ Smith got an A.

A report on Smith's hometown that he wrote at 15.

A report on Smith's hometown that he wrote at 15.

There are the scrapbooks Smith’s parents kept for his coaching career. Even as Smith was in his 50s and a well-established college basketball coach, his parents kept tabs, saving every clipping they could find.

There are letters from his coaching colleagues congratulating Smith on his 877th win, breaking Adolph Rupp’s record. “You see the coaches competing on the court, you see them getting in arguments or disagreements with each other,” said Jason Tomberlin, head of research and instructional services at Wilson Library. “But then you see those same coaches writing back and forth to each other.”

That includes Rick Barnes, the former Clemson coach who famously tangled with Smith, and Eddie Sutton, the former Oklahoma State coach. The copies of Smith’s replies to those coaches give insight into just how much the man cared about his competitors. “Eddie, once again you did a great job, considering your rebuilding situation, at Oklahoma State,” Smith wrote Sutton. “I know you are happy to be out of the Kentucky situation and back home.”

There’s the back and forth between Smith, former chancellor William Aycock, Hugh Morton and attorney Wade Smith. The coach had been approached about potentially running for United States Senate in 1990, in an attempt to defeat incumbent Jesse Helms. Smith was given a comprehensive list of pros and cons. “Plus: Your candidacy would be without any skeletons in the closet & you would have statewide recognition,” it reads. “Minus: You would have to take a major financial cut . . . Senators do earn $98,500 plus have large honorarium contributions possible . . . ”

We know that Smith declined. While he appreciated the counsel, he wrote that in order to run, he’d have to really want to be a senator, not just unseat Helms. Further, the timing was not good; he wanted “to finish the season without fanfare.”

Weighing the pros and cons of a Senate campaign in 1990.

Weighing the pros and cons of a Senate campaign in 1990.

Eleven years later, Smith accepted the Kansan of the Year Award. This was shortly after he’d tried —unsuccessfully— to lure Roy Williams back to Carolina upon the retirement of Bill Guthridge. The notes from his speech refer to that pursuit. “The job was his if he wanted it,” Smith wrote of Williams. Later, he laments the outsized importance of college athletics. “A winning football or BB (coach) shouldn’t give us affirmation as a person. Collegiate athletics is the front porch of a beautiful house with many rooms.”

Dean Smith is, rightly, a legend. His record speaks for itself. But the personal papers at Wilson Library give us insight into the man behind the myth, beyond the box scores and banners. We learn that he was the same man, with the same values, both in and out of the limelight.

“Usually when a collection of personal papers like this comes, in kind of a behind-the-scenes look, sometimes it reveals aspects of a public figure that you might not have been aware of, or may have been hidden,” Graham said. “There just doesn’t seem to be anything like that here. This really speaks to his humility. He often seemed embarrassed by how big college athletics got, and he did a lot of work to try and deflect attention away from himself to other coaches and especially to the teams,” Graham said. “To me —and I haven’t read every single page— but it’s been a confirmation of that.”

It took some convincing for Smith to recognize the significance of his personal papers, to decide to make this gift to Wilson Library. The result is a veritable treasure trove, a collection that will help researchers continue to uncover more about the man. One could assume that Dean Smith would turn down a car commercial; now we know that he did, and why.

Though the collection is the product of his own meticulous record-keeping, the humble Smith himself would probably downplay its significance and turn down an invitation to peruse it. “Clever!” he might say. “No thank you, however.”