Remembering Dean Smith, innovative coach who inspired deep loyalty

Dean Smith, former head coach of men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina, has died at age 83. He led his team to two national championships and earned a place in the Hall of Fame, but is best remembered for his mentorship to players, including Michael Jordan. Judy Woodruff speaks with sportswriter John Feinstein about how Smith strived to do the right thing on and off the court.

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    Some thoughts now about the many legacies of Dean Smith on and off the court with sportswriter John Feinstein, who long covered Smith him and knew him well. He wrote about him today in The Washington Post and is working on a book about Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Valvano.

    It's great to see you again, John.

  • JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sportswriter/Author:

    Thanks, Judy.


    First, tell us about Dean Smith the basketball coach. Why was he so successful?


    Probably because he was the smartest guy in any room he walked into. You start with that.

    He was an innovator. Coaches will tell you that they were always copying Dean. One of the things he always said was, I hope I'm a better coach than he was — than I was a year ago. I hope I will be a better coach a year from now than I am now.

    And he worked at that every summer, tried to come up with new ways to beat the opposition. But the other thing was his ability to make his players understand why he did things. He didn't just say, do this. He would tell them why he wanted them to do it and why he built the program the way he did, why the freshmen, whether it was Michael Jordan or anybody else, carried the bags for the seniors, even if the seniors were walk-ons.

    And he had a system. He believed in it totally. And he kept working at making it better year in and year out.


    And he inspired a lot of loyalty.


    Oh, my God, yes.

    A lot of players are loyal to their former coaches, but it's at a completely different level with Carolina players. And I asked Larry Brown, who played for him and then coached under him once, why? Why is the loyalty so incredibly intense?

    And I thought Larry's answer was great. He said, he's the single most decent man I have ever met.

    And I think that's a wonderful way to be remembered and a perfect description of Dean Smith.


    Well, talk about that, because in all the tributes I have been reading today, so much of it is about Dean Smith the man, as well as a successful basketball coach.

    You talked to him a lot. You have spent time with him. What was it about him?


    Well, he was never afraid to take on an issue, even if he thought it might make him unpopular.

    He was very much against the death penalty in North Carolina, a state where most people are for the death penalty. When he got to North Carolina in 1958, being the son of the first high school coach in Kansas to coach an integrated basketball team in the state playoffs, he was shocked to learn that the restaurants there were still segregated.

    And he spoke to his minister, the Reverend Robert Seymour, about it, and the two of them agreed that he and a black member of their church would walk into a segregated restaurant and dare management not to serve them.

    Now, remember, he wasn't Dean Smith at that point. He was an assistant coach. He could have been fired. He could have been arrested. He had no idea what would happen, but he didn't hesitate to do it. And the management did serve them. And that was the beginning really of desegregation in restaurants in Chapel Hill.


    And the pushback on that didn't get to him?


    Not at all.

    I don't think Dean ever worried about what outsiders thought. And the best coaches need to do that, because — especially today, but even back then. If you did, you would lose your mind. In 1965, his fourth year at North Carolina, he was hung in effigy by students after a bad loss at Wake Forest.

    Billy Cunningham, who was on the team then, pulled the effigy down. Dean read — as I said, he was a deeply spiritual guy. And he read a lot of Catherine Marshall. And he said he took a lot of strength from an essay she wrote called "The Powerful of Helplessness." Don't concern yourself with that which you cannot control.

    And he always did that, whether he won and lost basketball games. He saw that there was more to life than that.


    You described, in the piece you wrote today in The Washington Post, in an interview you did with him, the decision he made to integrate, to work on desegregating the restaurant.




    And you had spoken with his minister.




    And in that conversation, you talked about how he was judged. And how — tell us about that..


    Well, what happened was, I was doing a profile on him. This is in 1981 for The Washington Post.

    And Reverend Seymour — by the way, Dean didn't want me to do the profile. He always wanted you to write about somebody other than him. But I had spoken to Reverend Seymour, who had told me the story about the restaurant.

    And I went back to Dean and I said: "Can you fill in some of these details? What was it like that night? Were you nervous?"

    He said, "Who told you the story?"

    And I said, "Reverend Seymour."

    And he said, "I wish he hadn't told you that."

    And I said: "Why, Dean? You should be proud of doing something that like."

    And he looked at me and he said, "John, you never should be proud of doing the right thing. You just should do the right thing."

    And, really, that's the way he lived his life. He never wanted or needed a pat on the back. But he wanted to do what was right for all the people in his life.


    John Feinstein talking about the great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.

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