Anomaly is defined as “a deviation from the common rule, type, arrangement or form,” and that certainly describes Dean Smith’s first season as head coach of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team. After finishing with an 8-9 record in his début year, Smith would coach the Tar Heels to 27 straight seasons with at least 20 victories, 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (including 13 consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16) and two national championships. Smith’s Tar Heels won or tied for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) regular season title 17 times and made 11 appearances in the Final Four.
The younger of two children, Dean Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in Emporia, Kan. His parents were both educators, and his father, Alfred, also coached football, basketball and track at Emporia High School. Alfred brought a black player onto his all-white team in 1934, a time when Kansas high school basketball teams were strictly segregated. The family moved to Topeka, Kan., in the summer of 1946, and Smith played quarterback, point guard and catcher at Topeka High. As a senior, Smith earned All-State honors in basketball and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he majored in math. Smith played under legendary coach Phog Allen and was a reserve guard for the Jayhawks, who won the 1952 NCAA title and lost the national championship game the following year. He considered applying to medical school before serving as a graduate assistant coach for Kansas in 1953.
In spring 1954, Smith entered the U.S. Air Force to fulfill his ROTC commitment. Smith met Bob Spear in Germany, and after returning to America in 1955 he began a 3-year stint as Spear’s assistant coach at the newly opened Air Force Academy. He joined North Carolina head coach Frank McGuire’s staff in 1958, and was promoted to head coach after McGuire’s departure 3 years later. Smith took over a program on probation for rules violations, and his early years were difficult. After posting a losing record in the 1961-62 season, the Tar Heels compiled a 27-18 record in Smith’s next two seasons. The Tar Heels returned to campus after a 107-85 loss at Wake Forest University in January 1965 and found an effigy of Smith hanging from a tree. Smith was hung in effigy again a week later after a loss to North Carolina State.
1966-67 was Smith’s breakthrough season, as he led the Tar Heels to a 26-6 record and the first of three consecutive regular-season and ACC tournament titles. The team advanced to the Final Four in all three seasons but only played in one championship game, a 78-55 loss to UCLA in 1958. The Tar Heels won the NIT championship in 1971 and advanced to the Final Four a year later. Chosen as head coach of the 1976 Olympic team, Smith led the United States to the gold medal.
However, a national championship continued to elude Smith upon his return to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels once again advanced to the Final Four in 1977, only to lose to Marquette University in the championship game. Smith’s critics complained that his Four Corners approach was preventing the Tar Heels from realizing their potential. These complaints seemed to gain credence after the Tar Heels lost the 1981 championship game to Indiana University.
Smith finally won a national championship in 1982, thanks to a freshman named Michael Jordan making a jumper with 15 seconds left to give the Tar Heels a one-point victory over Georgetown University. The victory made Smith one of only three coaches to win the NCAA tournament, the NIT and an Olympic gold medal. That same year, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His entry on the Hall of Fame’s Web site describes Smith as a “stunningly consistent winner” and an “innovator. Early in his career, he started tinkering with the game, conceiving the Four Corners offense, and devising the foul-line huddle. His impact on the strategy and tactics of basketball also extended from creating the fatigue signal to implementing the run-and-jump defense. Smith's teams were known for their unselfish play, great teamwork, and a tenacious man-to-man defense.”
On Jan. 18, 1986, the Tar Heels played their first game in the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center, which was entirely funded by private gifts. Fittingly, the first game was against Duke University, North Carolina’s legendary rival. The Tar Heels won 95-92. Costing $33.8 million originally, the Smith Center was renovated in 2001 for $150,000. Currently the United States’ fifth-largest collegiate basketball arena, the Smith Center seats 21,750.
The Tar Heels won a school record 34 games and a national championship in the 1992-93 season. Smith broke former University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp’s record of 876 career victories following the Tar Heels’ win over the University of Colorado in the second round of the 1997 NCAA tournament (Rupp needed 41 years to reach his total, compared to 36 for Smith). With 4 years remaining on his contract, Smith announced his retirement on Oct. 9, 1997. He had recorded 879 career victories and a 77.6 percent overall winning percentage. Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant, replaced him.
But Smith’s influence at North Carolina was felt beyond basketball. Not only did he coach 26 All-Americans and 25 NBA first-round draft picks, 96 percent of Smith’s lettermen graduated. He was also committed to social issues. At a time when restaurants in the South routinely denied service to blacks, Smith helped integrate Chapel Hill by dining at a restaurant with an African-American theological student. Smith helped a black North Carolina graduate student, Howard Lee, buy a home in an all-white Chapel Hill neighborhood in 1965. Lee became Chapel Hill’s mayor 4 years later. In 1966, Smith recruited Charlie Scott, the first African-American scholarship player in North Carolina’s history.
Following his retirement, Smith and his family remained in Chapel Hill, where the former coach was active in church and social issues. He continued attending public events and kept an office at the Smith Center. In early 2008, questions about Smith’s health arose. Author John Feinstein interviewed Smith in August 2009 but wrote on his blog that Smith’s memory seemed to be failing. Smith’s wife, Linnea, said in an exclusive interview with the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., in July 2010 that Smith had received a “complex medical diagnosis. It’s in a category of progressive memory disorders, and we’re staying away from labels.” His family also released a letter that said in part: “Our dad has a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory. So now, he may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years in coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them.”
President Barack Obama named 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – in August 2013, and Smith was one of only two sports figures included (the other was baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks). “"The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours, " Obama said in a statement. "This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude." The awards are to be presented at the White House later in 2013.