Elizabeth Cook: Dean Smith and the Carolina way

Published 12:10 am Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dean Smith was not only a great basketball coach and humanitarian; he was a very gracious man.

I found that out firsthand in 2000. Then president of the N.C. Press Association, I asked Smith if he would allow the organization to honor him as North Carolinian of the Year.

He had retired a few years earlier as head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, an icon in his profession and in his adopted state.

But Smith was uncomfortable with accolades and had turned down earlier overtures from the Press Association to come to our annual meeting and accept this honor.

So, instead of flattering him, I asked him to do it as a favor to me, an alumna he had never met — an alumna whose world was forever changed by going to UNC and falling in love with Carolina basketball. The letter I sent started like this:

Dear Coach Smith,

Picture a middle-aged, female Carolina fan, down on her knees. Only this time she’s not praying for a game-winning basket at the buzzer. Or even a chance to see Michael Jordan play again. Instead, she’s hoping to get the opportunity to honor Coach Dean Smith.

Five more paragraphs followed, but I don’t think they made much difference to Smith. When he called me on the telephone — imagine getting that call — and later followed up with a letter, he mentioned that first paragraph. “Very clever,” he said.

Geography may have had more to do with Smith’s acceptance. He was staying at Figure 8 Island that week, and the NCPA convention was to be held in nearby Wilmington. But I was determined to make it happen, and I put everything I had into writing a “lede” — the first paragraph, in newspaper parlance —  that would get his attention.

The words were absolutely true. It was the journalism school that attracted me to Chapel Hill; I had no other knowledge of this legendary “Southern Part of Heaven” or its storied basketball program.

But by sophomore year, I had the fever — waiting hours to get tickets to a basketball game, cheering with the rabid throng in overheated Carmichael Gym, gaping at the sight of players walking across campus — people like Phil Ford and Mitch Kupchak.   

The fever’s intensity only grew after graduation, thanks in large part to marrying a fellow Carolina grad. We settled down, started a family and followed Carolina basketball. The night Michael Jordan sank the shot that won the NCAA Championship in 1982, we jumped and cheered in somewhat subdued fashion as our first baby girl slept nearby.

Players came and went. Even football coaches came and went. Dean Smith was the constant in our relationship with the university. And he made us proud.

People credit Smith with courageously breaking the racial barrier in college sports by recruiting the first black player. He said he didn’t deserve any credit.

“Looking back on it, if I had truly been courageous, I would have gone to every black high school gym in the state looking for players,” Smith said in his autobiography, “A Coach’s Life.”

This was another side of Smith’s life — one I was oblivious to as a student.

Smith says in the book that he struggled with Christians who took a punitive attitude on social issues. He mentions responding to a questionnaire from the Christian Coalition. “Do  you consider yourself conservative, liberal, moderate, or other?”

“I checked the square next to ‘other’ and then wrote in ‘Christian,’ ” Smith says. He continues, “… for if we say Jesus loves you and me, then why aren’t we more tolerant? Why aren’t we more loving of our enemies? Why aren’t we concerned about the growing gap between the rich and the poor?

“… Basically, I believe we need to accept others as God accepts us without condemning everyone who has a different way of looking at things (this includes me!).”

People called Smith’s coaching style “the Carolina way.” But there’s a greater Carolina way — one embodied not just by Smith but also by Bill Friday, longtime president of the university system. They shared a commitment to building a better North Carolina on a foundation of education and opportunity. And they led by example.

I learned several important things when I first moved from Virginia to Chapel Hill to enroll at UNC.

“Beach music” and “Beach Boys” are not synonymous.

Okra is a real vegetable that is especially tasty when fried.

And basketball is not just a game. It’s a lesson in life.

When the N.C. Press Association got the opportunity to honor Smith as the North Carolinian of the Year, I thought it might upset ABC fans — Anyone But Carolina. But no one contested the fact that Dean Smith holds a unique place in North Carolina history.

They wondered how I talked him into it, but they didn’t question the honor.

Dean Smith was a fierce competitor. Yet, in a business that invites self-promotion and situational ethics, he emerged as a quiet man of principle — a reluctant icon.

That, to me, is the Carolina way.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.