Legendary University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith died Saturday evening at the age of 83, according to the University of North Carolina’s official athletics website.
He had battled dementia for years.
“Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children,” the Smith family said in a statement to UNC. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public. Thank you.”
UNC coach Roy Williams called him “the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been.” The 64-year-old, who played for UNC’s junior varsity squad in the 1960s and attended Smith’s practices and volunteered as a statistician during college, further said everything he does in administering the school’s basketball program “is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud.”
“He set the standard for loyalty and concern for every one of his players, not just the games won or lost,” Williams said in his statement. “He was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people. His concern for people will be the legacy I will remember most.”
Smith coached the Tar Heels from 1961 to 1997, tallying a record of 879-254 in those 36 seasons. The school named its basketball arena for Smith in 1986, and it’s still popularly referred to as “the Dean Dome.”
He also won two national championships, in 1982 and 1993, and many of his young charges went on to become some of the greatest players in pro basketball history, including Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Vince Carter.
He is often mentioned in the same breath as former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and longtime rival Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, all of whom are considered among the greatest men’s college basketball coaches of all time.
Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year in 1997, and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. He was also one of the founding members in the inaugural class inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
“He designed Carolina’s ‘Four Corners’ offense, devised the foul-line huddle, created the ‘fatigue signal’ and implemented the ‘run-and-jump’ defense,” according to his Hall of Fame biography.
Smith was also a hoopster in his own right and, with his 1952 championship as a Kansas Jayhawk, is one of only two men to win college basketball championships as a coach and player. Knight is the other.
The four-time National Coach of the Year is also one of only three coaches to win the National Invitation Tournament, the NCAA Tournament and Olympic Gold. He led the U.S. men’s team to victory in the 1976 Montreal games.
In 2013, Smith joined former President Bill Clinton and entertainer Oprah Winfrey as Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients. The White House cited his success as a coach but also noted, “96 percent of his players graduated from college. Mr. Smith has also remained a dedicated civil rights advocate throughout his career.”
President Obama said during the ceremony, “While Coach Smith couldn’t join us today due to an illness that he’s facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country — he recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That’s the kind of character that he represented on and off the court.”
Smith broke UNC’s color barrier for scholarship athletes in 1967 with his recruitment of Charles Scott, a would-be two-time All-American who would help skipper the Tar Heels to consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances in 1968 and 1969.
The coach left such an indelible mark on Scott’s life that when Scott spoke at an awards ceremony for Smith many years later, he said, “When they introduce Coach Smith’s family, why don’t they mention my name? My father died when I was 12 years old, and Dean Smith is the only father I ever had.”
Smith’s wife, Linnea, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of her husband, who had been fighting dementia for years.
Sportswriter John Feinstein, who reportedly abandoned a biography on Smith because of his memory lapses, wrote a column for Smith’s 83rd birthday last year, outlining how Smith refused to engage in self-pity because he’d led such a great life and knew there were people suffering more than he was.
Dementia was a particularly cruel fate to befall a man who “remembered every name, every game, every play in every game. He also remembered every call that went against him and anything written or said about one of his players or friends that he thought was a slight — real or perceived. He never asked me how my kids were. He asked how Danny and Brigid were,” wrote Feinstein, who says he first noticed Smith’s flagging memory in 2005.
Even Krzyzewski, his longtime rival — and some might say archrival, given the fierce history of competition between UNC and Duke — concurred.
“You’re talking about the person who had the sharpest mind and the most remarkable memory of anyone I’ve ever met. It’s just not fair,” Feinstein quoted Krzyzewski as saying.