From a mural painted on the back of a small gas station in Chapel Hill, the old coach ponders the corner of highway 15-501 and Smith Level road. Nearly two stories tall and painted over a light blue argyle design, he sits silently, watching cars fly by day after day. Always one to defer the spotlight, he never would have wanted a tribute like this, but it’s here nonetheless.
His smile and slightly crinkled eyes serve as a reminder of who he was to thousands: kind, caring and a father figure for the better part of a century. He preached selflessness, community and family, and doing the right thing above all else. For 36 years he coached our team, but his coaching impact on our lives has extended far beyond that tenure, reminding us how to handle a mistake (“recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it”) and that the best people “are happy when something good happens to someone else.”
That’s why this day, February 7, will always be a little bit more grim than most days, especially to Tar Heels young and old. Three years ago today, Dean Smith passed away.
When Smith died at 83 years old, it marked the end of what had been a long, painful battle with dementia. For years leading up to that fateful Saturday night, some had started to refer to the coach in the past tense, a product of the old Dean Smith being all but gone. After all, dementia had sapped Smith of one of his most defining attributes: his memory.
His ability to remember everything — names, faces, games, specific plays from seasons long ago — had been legendary, the type of photographic recall with which only few are blessed. He could play the tapes of games from decades ago and recount what would happen next, predicting exactly when it happened and exactly how it happened.
Once, when Smith found assistant coach Dave Hanners watching film from an NIT game during Smith’s tenure, Smith paused and remarked that the next play would be a beautiful backdoor cut for a basket. Sure enough, the next time the Tar Heels had the ball, they scored off of the exact play Smith had described. When prompted by Hanners when he had last watched the footage, Smith paused and said, “We graded it the day after the game.” The footage was 20 years old.
No detail managed to escape him, so when life began to rob him of his memory, it was painful for those close to him to watch. Eventually, as his dementia worsened, Smith couldn’t remember any of the numbers, or any of the moments: He struggled to recall any of the 879 victories, or the 27 consecutive seasons of 20-plus wins, or even his two championships stemming from 11 trips to the Final Four. Gone was Jordan over Georgetown in ‘82, and Chris Webber calling a timeout he didn’t have to sink the Fab Five, and coming back from down eight against Duke with 17 seconds. Most days he didn't even remember Duke or N.C. State, or his old rival Mike Krzyzewski, for that matter.
Yet Dean Smith was more than just the numbers, more than just the moments he defined and that he lived. He created a community, something that would outlast him: The Carolina Family.
The next time you tune into a college basketball game, specifically a Carolina basketball game, pay close attention to what happens when someone makes a pass that leads to a basket. Don’t watch the celebrating crowd or the opposing team inbound the ball. Watch for the two players who made the connection, and watch for the simple pointing of a finger. Taking it a step further, watch the Carolina bench, and watch every last coach stand up and point — not at an open player or at the scorer, but at the passer. Watch them all point to the guy who made the assist.
This is the Dean Smith way, the correlation on the basketball court to how he lived his life. The selfless way that Smith taught his players to act reflected how he taught them to live, as well. The Carolina Family was built on the foundation of selflessness, honesty and loyalty — three things that Smith valued above all else.
Of course, as with everything Dean Smith, it wasn’t only about basketball. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even mainly about basketball. Even as Smith was teaching a new group of current players to point to the passer and stand up for every substitution, he was providing constant wisdom and guidance to his former players whenever they needed it. From marriages to family losses to NBA contract extensions, Carolina alums could call Smith about anything, and he would always answer.
Phil Ford was a three-time first-team All-American under Smith, an extension of Smith’s coaching arm and mind on the floor as he ran the famed Four Corners offense as a player. But when Ford admitted to being an alcoholic after two DUIs in the 1990s, it was Smith who memorized Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps so that he could help his former player.
“He would always send us letters of encouragement when things were going bad or struggling with certain things,” Ford later said to ESPN. “(He) always let us know that he was here for us.”
From star players to team managers, no one was too small for Coach Smith, and nothing was more important than the lives of those he mentored.
In 2010, Dean Smith stood on a basketball court in front of thousands of fans one last time. During the Celebration of the Century for 100 years of Tar Heel basketball, a halftime ceremony was held to honor the only coach many fans had known for the better part of four decades. There was a catch, though: Smith wasn’t told about the event in advance.
There were concerns that if he had known he was to be recognized and honored, he wouldn’t have come. Smith was never one for the spotlight. He famously never wanted the Dean E. Smith Center to be named after him, and he would always give credit to others — to his players, to his coaches and to anyone else who seemed deserving — before himself. It wasn’t in Smith’s nature to seek much attention, or any at all if he could help it. He didn’t believe in living life for fame. Having an entire ceremony reach its climax with him at center court? Not in a million years. He would never allow it.
So when Smith walked out onto the floor with former assistants Roy Williams, Bill Guthridge and Eddie Fogler, only to find himself all alone as the three assistants stepped away, the roar in the Smith Center echoed into the rafters. Former players from decades past welcomed him, hugging him and shaking his hand. The crowd cheered him on, the applause never faltering for every minute that he remained at center court.
Dean Smith spoke not a word, silently waving to the crowd of Carolina fans for what would be the final time. But for once, just for a moment, he let the spotlight linger, and he smiled.
When Roy Williams sits down for the next time with the media, likely Thursday following the game against Duke, he will almost assuredly field questions about Dean Smith. And if you listen to how Williams responds, you’ll hear him address his mentor by one title only: Coach Smith. If anyone has earned the right to address Smith by his first name, it would be Williams, who learned as an assistant coach under Smith for 20 years before taking a job at Kansas, eventually coming back to Carolina and recently surpassing Smith in NCAA championships with his third in 2017.
However, out of respect, Williams won’t refer to his mentor as “Dean Smith” or “Mr. Dean Smith” or even just “Dean.” No, “Coach Smith” is Williams’ preferred form of address, aside from the occasional “Coach.” Williams remembers with gratitude Smith’s words to him when Williams shocked Tar Heel fans to leave for Kansas.
Just be yourself. You don't have to try and be anybody else. You're good enough.
There was no anger or resentment that he was leaving, just kind advice from his coach. That’s the impression Dean Smith left on people, the values of family he instilled within Carolina that will never die away. Out of respect and love for his mentor and friend, Williams won’t ever forget it.
Dean Smith’s impact stretched beyond basketball. When a fan nominated him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor — the University of North Carolina pushed for him to be awarded, and for good reason. Smith sparked change far beyond the basketball court: he actively supported civil rights and spoke out against political actions he disagreed with. He recruited UNC’s first black scholarship athlete, Charles Scott, and 96 percent of his lettermen graduated from Carolina.
“You should never be proud to do the right thing,” he famously said. “You should just do it.”
And that was how he lived his life. He was possibly the greatest college basketball coach to ever live, yet his wins and championships didn’t approach his most important accomplishments. Beyond all of the trophies and medals, all of the wins and the losses and Tar Heel moments, the stories and actions from the people who knew him and loved him paint the clearest picture of what Dean Smith meant to this community.
You can hear it in the way those who knew him best spoke about him during the public memorial service held 15 days after his death. You can see it every time someone points to the passer following a basket, or when Roy Williams held four fingers in the air to pay homage to the Four Corners in the first game after Smith passed away, or in that iconic photograph of Michael Jordan giving his small coach a kiss on the head. No single number will ever communicate his influence.
Dean Smith’s legacy is more than a trophy. It’s the Carolina Family, and it’s a way of life.
So today, of all days, take the time to appreciate all of these small things, things that Dean Smith would have emphasized above all.
Maybe, if you’re able, take the time to drive up to that gas station, up to the mural, right up to that face of Dean Smith, and simply point. Credit the most iconic Tar Heel with an assist, the way he taught us.
Even though he’d never want it, it's the appreciation he deserves.