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Posted: 3/8/2015
A Coach's Legacy is More than Basketball
Dean Smith: More than a Coach
Dean Smith

Several online resources, along with my own recollections, were used in preparing this Reflection. Many of those are listed in the Resources section at the bottom.

If the name Dean Smith is one you recognize, most likely it's in the context of college basketball. The legendary coach of the North Carolina University Tar Heels (1961 - 1997) died a few weeks ago (February 7, 2015) at the age of 83.

Some might even be familiar with the numbers: 879 wins (fourth all-time when he retired in 1997; 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances; 65 NCAA Tournament victories; 11 Final Four appearances; 2 NCAA National championships. And the list can go on: His only losing season was his first season at UNC ...

Most of his career, I was not a Dean Smith fan. I remember seeing him in person at an NCAA Tournament round in Salt Lake City. His smile always seemed a bit too smug. Maybe I wasn't enamored because he won so much. Maybe it was the way his Tar Heels Coach Dean Smith would go into a boring stall in latter stages of a game to preserve a victory. I wasn't the only one who didn't like that slow-down tactic. Smith's patented stall — "Four Corners Offense" — stimulated the introduction of the shot clock to the college game.

Then I read about Dean Smith (maybe it was an article by him, I forget which) in an American Baptist magazine. (For 39 years of my adult life, I was active in churches of the American Baptist denomination.) Finding out we shared a denominational tie, softened my negative image a bit. The more I learned about the coach, the more I realized that he was a devout Christian who actively lived out his understanding of his faith ... and just happened to coach basketball. If you are like me and often feel a disconnect between our faith and the life we lead, Dean Smith was a man any of us might want to emulate.

"If you make every game a life and death proposition, you're going to have problems. For one thing, you'll be dead a lot."
Dean Smith
Although a devout person, Smith was not one to flash his faith. You wouldn't see him holding a "John 3:16" sign. He could very well articulate his faith in God. (Smith served as director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes from 1965 to 1970 and often spoke at their functions.) During much of his coaching tenure he required his players to go to the church of their choice every Sunday and return with a brochure to prove they had gone.

While Coach Smith nurtured his Christian players in growing in their faith, he also expressed his discomfort with athletes who appear to believe that God cares who wins a basketball game. I think it was his comments on this latter topic that made me say, "I like this guy!" (While I can appreciate athletes giving God and Jesus thanks for their abilities and drives, like Smith, it just seems wrong-headed and poor theology to praise God for intervening to help block a shot or catch a pass.) I remember Smith writing that he disliked it when a player in a post-game interview would say something like, "I felt God smiling at me, reaching down and pulling my hand higher to be able to block that last shot!" I recall Smith saying something like, "I wonder if he realizes that he's saying that God must have been frowning on the poor guy whose shot he blocked."

What seemed impressive about Smith was that his faith was not just something to have and profess; it was a faith that required his action. His faith led him to speak out and act on issues that could be controversial, especially in his early days in North Carolina. Emphazing that faith spurred him to be active in both words and action, many players and friends have remembered Smith often saying, "There is a point in every contest when sitting on the sidelines is not an option."

At the urging of his pastor (at the time the Rev. Robert Seymour), Smith recruited blacks to his team, and in 1967 made Charlie Scott the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina and one of the first in the South. Taking black players to restaurants in Chapel Hill, he hastened the integration of many of the town's establishments. Smith's faith also spurred him to take stands publically on issues such as speaking out against the Vietnam war, working to abolish the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, and protesting nuclear proliferation, to name a few.

Dean Smith's wheelchair

As busy as coaching kept Smith, he was a regular presence in his church and an active member. He considered Sunday to be one of his favorite days of the week. First attending in 1959, and until his death, the Tar Heels coach was a fixture at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. (Binkley's website.) He had a favorite pew seat in the back at Binkley, which in later years was replaced with his wheelchair (he also suffered from advanced dementia). After announcement of his death, his "spot" was kept fittingly recognized.

When Smith first arrived at Binkley, the church was a "Dually Aligned" one, affiliated with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Convention. But, in the early 90's, due mainly to some of the church's more progressive stands (many that Smith had advocated for), the Southern Baptist Convention severed ties with Binkley. During Smith's time, Binkley grew from a 60-person gathering on campus to a full church with 600 parishioners. Smith's membership there and his leadership was no small factor in the church's growth.

Dean Smith

There is so much more I could say about Dean Smith. I haven't even mentioned his relationship with his players. As a sample: Upon his coach's death, Michael Jordan said, "He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father." Or his high standards as a coach: He ran a clean program and still had a high graduation rate, with 96.6% of his athletes receiving their degrees. (Below, in the Resources section, I list some of the articles used in writing this reflection. I'd encourage readers to check out a few to get a sense of the man who was coach.)

After knowing more about Dean Smith, I no longer view his smile as smug, but probably a sincere one from a guy uncomfortable in the limelight. I realize that he didn't need my support, but in his latter seasons, I cheered that he'd win all games. (But, I'm still glad the NCAA adopted the shot clock: Smith's painful Four-Corners stall just had to go!)

I am no longer a part of the American Baptist Churches denomination, but I treasure my ABC roots. Much of my faith grew and was shaped in those congregations. Many pastors made faith come alive, proclaiming it as more than words and lists of beliefs. I recall some of that denomination's heroes: Rodger Williams who started it all in Rhode Island, Adoniram Judson in the missionary fields, Walter Rauschenbusch known as the father of the Social Concern movement in America as pastor in New York City's "Hell's Kitchen", and Martin Luther King Jr. of the civil rights movement.

I will vote to add another name to this illustrative list … Coach Dean Smith.

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