Today, President Barack Obama honored 16 individuals with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including former North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith. Due to health reasons, Smith did not attend the ceremony in Washington. He was represented by his wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, his children, long-time coaching assistant Bill Guthridge and current UNC coach Roy Williams.
If anybody would be fine with not being there to receive such an individual honor, it would be Smith. As a basketball coach, he taught his teams to be unselfish on the court. As a private citizen, Smith was legendary for trying to avoid the limelight and always squirmed uncomfortably when others tried to publicly praise him. Selflessness is a core value to the Hall of Fame coach.
Smith is mostly remembered for his great coaching record in 36 seasons at North Carolina. He took the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours, winning two national titles, and when he retired in 1997, he held the men's basketball all-time wins record of 879. In addition, almost all his players graduated and, under Smith's guidance, the North Carolina program was never investigated or sanctioned for NCAA rules violations. All in all, it is arguable that Smith was as successful as any college basketball coach in the history of the game, considering the consistent excellence his teams achieved for such a long period of time and the universally-recognized classy way that he ran his program.
Let's not forget that he also coached the 1976 United States Olympic Team to the gold medal under intense domestic and international pressure after the controversial U.S. loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. In those days, the United States was still sending college players to compete against foreign professionals. All that success over so many years made Dean Smith a popular leader in the sports world for the better part of three decades. But that isn't why he is being honored by President Obama today.
According to the White House, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals "who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." It is the highest civilian honor awarded in the United States. Dean Smith joins John Wooden and Pat Summit as the only college basketball coaches to receive the award.
The 1960s were a turbulent time in the nation's history. This was particularly true in the South as the region dealt with racial tensions and was slowly transitioning, often violently, from a segregated society to an integrated one. Big public universities in states such as North Carolina were slow to integrate their campuses and even slower to do so with their athletic teams. The story of how those schools came to integrate their men's basketball teams was told in great detail by Barry Jacobs in his 2008 book, Across the Line, which has a chapter dedicated to each ACC and SEC school's first African-American player. Chapter five tells the story of North Carolina's Charlie Scott and the young coach that recruited him to Chapel Hill. That story, one of great personal courage in the face of bitterness and hatred, reveals why Dean Smith is worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Years before Scott became the first African-American to play basketball at North Carolina, Smith had already become known as a champion of civil rights. While still just an assistant coach, Smith had helped integrate a popular and previously whites-only local restaurant. After becoming head coach at UNC in 1961 he began pursuing African-American players in the state of North Carolina, at one time nearly landing Greensboro product Lou Hudson, who instead went to Minnesota and eventually enjoyed a long NBA career. When Scott arrived at UNC in the fall of 1966, he became the first African-American scholarship athlete at North Carolina, helping push forward the integration that Smith, taking after his parents' efforts in his home state of Kansas, had long championed. Scott, a three-time All-ACC player, went on to a highly successful pro career but remained close to the program and his old coach, as did so many of Smith's former players.
An anecdote that seems unbelievable today crystallizes the relationship between Smith and Scott. When Scott was passed over as ACC Player of the Year as a junior despite leading the Tar Heels to the ACC championship while averaging 22.3 PPG that season (a white player, South Carolina's John Roche, won the award), Smith exposed the likely underlying racial aspect of the vote, as five voters failed to list Scott on their 10-player ballot. In Across the Line, Jacobs summed up the feelings of both player and coach.
"You know, sometimes you're just lucky," Scott says, looking back on his decision. "I think I made a great, lucky choice." A key reason was that no Southern coach more consciously sought an African-American player than Dean Smith.
"For me, integrating basketball was an obvious thing to do," Smith wrote in his autobiography, A Coach's Life. ... "It was the right and fair move to make."
That also describes President Obama's decision to honor Dean Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom today. It was the obvious thing to do.
More from Rush the Court: