Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame innovator who won two national championships at North Carolina along with an Olympic gold medal while coaching some of the game’s biggest names like Michael Jordan, has died. He was 83.
The retired coach died “peacefully” at his Chapel Hill home Saturday evening, the school said in a statement Sunday from Smith’s family. He was with his wife and five children.
Smith had health issues in recent years, with the family saying in 2010 he had a condition that was causing him to lose memory. He had kept a lower profile during that time. His wife, Linnea, accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his behalf from President Barack Obama in November 2013.
Roy Williams, the current North Carolina coach who spent 10 years as Smith’s assistant, said Smith “was the greatest there ever was on the court but far, far better off the court with people.”
“I’d like to say on behalf of all our players and coaches, past and present, that Dean Smith was the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been,” Williams said in a statement. “We love him and we will miss him.”
In a statement, Jordan said Smith was “more than a coach — he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”
In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Smith influenced the game and how it is played in ways that are unrivaled.
His “Four Corners” time-melting offense led to the creation of the shot clock to counter it. He was the first coach at North Carolina, and among the first in the segregated South, to offer a scholarship to a Black athlete. The now-common “point to the passer,” in which a scorer acknowledges a teammate’s assist, started in Chapel Hill and became a hallmark of Smith’s always humble “Carolina Way.”
He was a direct coaching descendent of basketball’s father, James Naismith, playing and later coaching at Kansas for the inventor of the game’s most famous student, Jayhawks coach Phog Allen.
Smith would pass along lessons learned in Kansas at North Carolina, adding more than a few of his own. He tutored perhaps the game’s greatest player in Jordan — who burst onto the national stage as a freshman on Smith’s 1982 national title team alongside stars James Worthy and Sam Perkins — and two of basketball’s most successful coaches, fellow Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Williams.
The numerical record of his accomplishments is staggering. His only losing season came in his first, and he left the game having surpassed Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp as the winningest men’s basketball coach in Division I history.
“We have lost a man who cannot be replaced,” said Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached against Smith at rival Duke and ultimately surpassed his career wins record. “He was one of a kind and the sport of basketball lost one of its true pillars.”
Smith led the Tar Heels to 13 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships, appearances in 11 Final Fours, five national title games, and NCAA championships in 1982 and 1993. North Carolina won at least 20 games in each of his final 27 seasons, and made 23 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament.
Along the way, more than 95 percent of Smith’s lettermen graduated from one of the nation’s premier public universities.
His devotion to a humble, team-first philosophy — the famed “Carolina Way” — bred a fierce loyalty among the Tar Heels. Williams was an enormous success at Kansas, able to resist returning to his alma mater in 2000. He could not do so three years later when Smith called, and Williams tearfully left the Jayhawks behind after 15 seasons and returned to Chapel Hill.
When North Carolina held a reunion for school’s 1957 and 1982 championship teams in 2007, Smith drew the largest applause from the crowd, even as he stood alongside Jordan and fellow Tar Heel greats Worthy and Phil Ford. During the ceremony, Jordan put his arm around Smith and kissed him on the head.
Smith remained in the background after his retirement, keeping an office at the Dean E. Smith Center — the arena that opened while he was still coaching in 1986. He often consulted North Carolina players as they considered whether to leave school early for the NBA, and would occasionally watch Williams direct practice and take notes. He was hesitant to give them to his former assistant, fearful of suggesting something that might not work.
Though he never ran for office, Smith also helped shape political and social views in North Carolina as coach of the state’s beloved Tar Heels. At the urging of his pastor, he 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.
He was active in politics, often supporting Democrats and liberal candidates. He donated money to the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and Bill Bradley, and supported former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — a North Carolina alumnus — in his two presidential bids before later endorsing Obama.
Smith’s church served as a base for his advocacy. He joined the Baptist congregation soon after arriving in Chapel Hill, helping build it from a 60-person gathering on campus to a full church with 600 parishioners. It was booted from the Southern Baptist Convention and the North Carolina Baptist State Convention in 1992 for licensing a gay man to minister.
“He was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church — being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation,” said Robert Seymour, the former pastor at Binkley Baptist Church. “He was one who has been willing to speak out on issues that many might hesitate to take a stand on.”