When I left the planning meeting for this issue, two thoughts were racing through my head. The first was that I should call my dad. My dad has bled Carolina Blue his whole life, and his dad did before that. He’s the reason my brother and I are Tar Heel fanatics and the reason I go here.
But I didn’t just call him because he’s a Tar Heel fan. I also called him because my older brother, the one we have to call after a Carolina loss to make sure he didn’t punch the TV is named Andrew Dean.
Why did my parents name my brother after Coach Smith? My dad admires Dean Smith the coach. “There wasn’t a better coach in the last two minutes of a game,” my dad says. And Dean Smith the person. “He cared for every player, be it Michael Jordan or Don Eggleston as if they were his own child.”
My dad cherishes the way Smith treated other people. He tells me regularly about when he met Dean Smith in 1988. After an event in Charlotte, my dad and two of his friends were walking back to their cars. In the parking garage, they ran into Smith, and my dad got to talk to him for about five minutes. “I told him I was in New Orleans in ’82,” my dad remembers. “We talked about the game, and he said, ‘If you notice, [Sam] Perkins and [James] Worthy were there for the rebound if Jordan had missed it.’” The best part about the conversation was how Smith behaved. “He didn’t rush us off or anything. He treated us like his best friends.”
My dad venerates the way Smith’s players responded to him. In 1965 just four years into his coaching career at UNC, Smith was hanged in effigy by students after a loss to Wake Forest. Billy Cunningham went and tore it down and yelled at the students. “Dean Smith hadn’t proved anything to anybody. He might’ve been the lousiest coach ever, but his players respected him that much. That tells you something.”
My dad values the emphasis Dean Smith put on academics. More than 95% of his players graduated. “It didn’t matter if you were Michael Jordan or Phil Ford,” my dad says, “you had to hit the books.”
For all these reasons and many more, my parents gave my brother the middle name Dean. A few weeks after he was born in 1987, they received a letter. It was from Dean Smith. My dad’s best friend sent Smith a letter explaining that my parents just had their first child and named him Andrew Dean. Smith congratulated my parents on the birth of their first child.
I know that wasn’t the story I was supposed to write, though, which leads me to the second thought I had leaving the planning meeting. I was worried that Luke, Tricia and I wouldn’t be able to get enough interviews to write the story. We knew that Smith wasn’t giving interviews anymore. I sent Steve Kirschner, the athletic director of communications for men’s basketball, an email asking if he could recommend people who would be willing to give us an interview.
The list I got back was astonishing. A list of Hall of Famers. You might think that would calm my nerves, but it had the opposite effect. I was trembling. The people on this list give interviews to ESPN and other big media companies. ‘Surely, they won’t respond to me, a writer for a student magazine.”
But I should have never underestimated the power of one figure to touch so many lives.
I met with Phil Ford and Dick Baddour, Luke interviewed Charles Scott and Bill Guthridge and Tricia talked to Eric Montross. Roy Williams, Al Wood, James Worthy and John Swofford all expressed interest in being a part of a story about Dean Smith. These titans of Carolina basketball allotted us time amidst their busy schedules to talk to student writers. But it t wasn’t because we were so good at asking. They were just eager for any opportunity to express their love for their friend and their coach.
Many people outside UNC’s basketball community respect Dean Smith. John McCain once wrote that “Dean Smith is not merely a basketball coach of historic accomplishments. He is also a man of uncommon integrity and decency.” On the August 2010 episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel the host ended the show by saying “Just as fishermen are inclined to rue the one who got away, I’m regretting having waited too long to do a story on a Hall of Fame basketball coach who somehow managed to take on important matters in the real world as successfully as he impacted the game he coached.” Profiling the successful coach would be reason enough to do a story, but Gumbel says the real story he wanted to tell was how this coach was a bigger man off the court, a man who fought segregation, worked to ban the death penalty, promoted a nuclear freeze, spoke out against U.S. involvement in Iraq and on behalf of gay rights.”
What’s more inspiring than the respect from observers is the unanimous love he still receives from former players and staff members. Phil Ford stopped me in the middle of a question. “We can talk all day about how Dean Smith was the greatest basketball coach ever,” Ford told me, “but’s he’s just a great man, a good person. I love him.”
You often hear about the “Carolina Family.” My dad experienced it in 1988 in a parking garage, and I stumbled across it while writing a story about the man behind it all.
Bryant Gumbel paid tribute to Dean Smith, a coach with a “proper sense of priorities,” with a monologue at the end of his show. My dad did it by naming his first son after the coach. After the experience of writing this story, I plan to do the same.