Happy Birthday Coach Smith!


     Today marks the 81stanniversary of the birth of the greatest basketball coach of all time. I don’t care what is printed in the wins’ column of the record books. There’s an old saying in Chapel Hill that Naismith invented basketball, Dean Smith perfected it. Dean Smith had a phenomenal coaching career but arguably his greatest accomplishments were off the court. It was Smith who was partly responsible for the integration of both Chapel Hill when he dined at a popular restaurant with a local black pastor and ACC basketball with his recruitment of Charlie Scott in the 1960s.  Of all his wins, titles, championships and records, I’m fairly certain the one Smith is most proud of is the 96.6% graduation rate of his players. He is the the patriarch of the Carolina family. He has molded not only great basketball players but great men whom he mentored long after they graduated from UNC. But, you don’t have to take my word for it. In the foreword to Art Chansky’s book The Dean’s List, Michael Jordan said it best, “Maybe I would still be a professional basketball player, but I’m not sure how good I would be or where I would be playing if I had not gone to Carolina and played for Coach Smith.”

     Of course this is not the first time I have wished Coach Smith a happy birthday. In North Carolina, college basketball reigns supreme and influences nearly every aspect of our lives during the season. Teachers know better than to assign homework the night of a Carolina/Duke game. It was not unusual for teachers also to let us turn on the television during the ACC tournament especially if Carolina was playing in one of the early afternoon games. My mother spent most of her career as a secretary at one of the two junior high schools in my county. Almost everyone she worked with was a Tar Heel including the principals. In 1991, she and her co-workers decided to have a little birthday party of their own to honor Coach Smith. They wrote a poem and sent him a card with birthday wishes. Though I was only ten, somehow my name ended up on the card. A couple of months later in April, after the season had ended, she and her co-workers received a letter in the mail from Chapel Hill. It was from Coach Smith saying that he usually didn’t answer birthday greetings, but for them to take the time to send the card and poem was most impressive. For years they displayed the letter on a bulletin board in the office, but eventually I ended up with it. Now, it stays in a memorabilia box where I keep other items like UNC commemorative Sports Illustrateds, a shirt signed by the 1993 National Championship team and Brad Daugherty’s signature among other things.

          Small things like taking the time to answer our letter are what make Coach Smith so special. I’ve heard countless stories of Coach Smith’s generosities from others though never publically because he didn’t do things for attention or for recognition. If Smith had his way, the Tar Heels would not be playing in a place called the Dean Dome today. I vividly recall the morning I heard that Coach Smith was retiring. It was October 1997, and I was a junior in high school, a mere two years away from attending Chapel Hill. It broke my heart that I would not get to see Coach Smith on the sidelines. However, in the early years of his retirement, Smith was still very much involved in the university and Carolina basketball. During summer school after my freshman year, I walked through the parking lot of Granville Towers one afternoon only to see Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge posing with Carolina basketball campers for pictures.

In 2010, it was revealed that Coach Smith was suffering from dementia. The family decided to reveal his affliction so former players would not take it personally if he had trouble remembering details and events. When Roy Williams added a chapter to his book Hard Work in 2010, he stated that Smith still has good days and described a letter Smith had written him with impeccable grammar and punctuation. However, a couple of days after writing it, Smith had difficulty recalling  the letter. It is a shame that a man who has had such a meaningful and influential life now cannot recall every memory. Tar Heel Nation would not be what it is today without Dean Edward Smith. So Happy Birthday Coach Smith! We loved you then. We love you now. We will love you always!